The History of Freemasonry

Our history is usually separated into two parts; before and after the formation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717. Our history before the Grand Lodge is not absolutely known and is sometimes explained using myths or legends.
After 1717, our history is well documented and we can see how our fraternity spreads throughout the world to its highly regarded place within modern society.

From Origin to 18th Century

The Beginnings

Freemasons, or masons, originated as operative stonemasons working on the castles, cathedrals and churches throughout the British Isles. These craftsmen could call themselves ‘Free’ as they were not tied to their land of birth.

As they travelled and worked, masons were ‘lodged’ in accommodation near the building they were working on. Like minded communities arose as they ate, slept and lived together, receiving work assignments from the master of the work.

Their freedom and community was based on the collective bond of their skills, ensuring masons attached moral values to their craft and the tools of the trade. Although there is evidence of ceremony and ritual within these communities, they were simple, without religious or philosophical aspects.

A stonemason’s work was dangerous and death and injury was commonplace. Many stonemasons formed local organizations to protect sick and injured members and their families from destitution.

From Operational to Fraternal

Freemasonry’s transition from an operational guild into a fraternal community began in the 1600s, with the first record dating from 8 June of that year when the Right Honorable Lord Alexander was admitted as a Fellowcraft into the Lodge of Edinburgh.

Throughout the following decades, records of Freemasons are found in personal journals and diaries, and minutes of meetings across the British Isles.

1717 saw the coming together of four separate London lodges to form the first Grand Lodge and the birth of modern Freemasonry. By 1723 James Anderson created the Constitutions of the Free-Masons, clarifying the rules and regulations by which the fraternity was to be governed. As early as 1734, this book was being reprinted in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin, Grand Master of the Masons of Pennsylvania.

Within two decades, English Freemasonry spread through Europe and across the Atlantic through the American colonies. The first American lodge was established in Philadelphia around 1730. By 1733 a Provincial Grand Lodge was organized in Boston. As Freemasonry spread through the fledgling states, it was embraced by the great and good, 13 of 39 signatories of the US Constitution were Freemasons including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock.

Freemasons in Canada

The earliest recorded mention of North American Freemasonry centers around the apocryphal discovery of the Masonic Stone of 1606 near Port Royal, Nova Scotia, in 1827. A geological survey undertaken by Francis Alger and Charles T Jackson unearthed a stone table with Masonic markings and a date stamp of 1606. The stone is reputed to have been placed within the fabric of the Canadian Institute of Toronto, although there is no evidence to support this claim.

More reliable sources record 1634 as the first date of Freemansonry in Canada. Lord Alexander, Viscount Canada, founded a Scottish colony and lodge on the banks of the St Lawrence River.

The first Canadian Masonic Lodge was constituted at Annapolis, Nova Scotia by Erasmus James Philipps in 1738. A soldier administrator, Philipps presided over the lodges for 12 years as they spread throughout the province.

1755 saw the creation of a lodge on the Niagra frontier by British soldiers garrisoned at Fort Niagra. They were quick to initiate civilians who in turn set up their own lodge in 1782.

In 1791 the Constitutional Act separated Canada politically and masonically into Upper and Lower Canada. Prince Edward was named Grand Master for Lower Canada and William Jarvis, a Freemason and British Captain became substitute Grand Master for Upper Canada.

For the following decades, frustration mounted within Canadian Freemasons with their dependency on the British Mother Lodge. In 1855 a resolution, calling for a Grand Lodge of Canada was officially rejected, however the momentum and will of the colonials was too strong and within a month a Canadian Grand Lodge was created.

Establishing a BC Stronghold

July 1858 an advert in a Victoria newspaper called for all interested Freemasons to attend a meeting where the formation of a Masonic Lodge in Victoria was to be discussed. The author, Amor de Cosmos, an influential and prominent Freemason would later become the second premier of BC.

20 August 1860 saw the formation of the constitution of the Victoria Lodge, No. 1085 in Victoria, Vancouver’s Island. Soon after, Union Lodge No. 1201 E.C. New Westminster, in the Colony of British Columbia, was organized, Henry Holbrook being nominated first Worshipful Master.

About the time Union Lodge was being organized, a number of American residents in Victoria, being unfamiliar with the English work, decided to petition the Grand Lodge of Washington for permission to form a lodge under that grand jurisdiction. Although their petition was heard, it was ultimately rejected.

Shortly afterwards, Victoria Lodge recommended a petition to form a lodge under Scottish grand jurisdiction. This request was granted and the warrant from the Grand Lodge of Scotland came along in due course. On 20 October, 1862, Vancouver Lodge, No. 421 S.C. was duly constituted, William Jeffery being its first Worshipful Master.

Over the next few years, lodges flourished throughout B.C. until in 1868 a District Grand Lodge was organized under the Grand Lodge of England, with Robert Burnaby, for whom Burnaby, B.C. is named, as District Grand Master.

The success and development of B.C. lodges inevitably led to a movement to organize an independent Grand Lodge. The matter was brought up by Vancouver Lodge and on 2 January, 1869 the idea was agreed to by the lodge and the passed resolutions communicated to the other lodges. All but one of the Scottish lodges fell in line, however, the obstinate English lodges refused to come on board.

Vancouver Lodge continued to submit their proposal to several American and Canadian Grand Lodges receiving overwhelming support. A convention was called at Victoria on 18 March 1871 to resolve the matter but resulted in igniting a bitter dispute between the English and Scottish Lodges over the legality of Vancouver Lodge’s calls for independence. It wasn’t until six months later at a convention in Victoria it was agreed;

“That in order to establish perfect fraternal harmony and concord, to promote the lasting welfare of the Masonic fraternity in British Columbia, it is expedient to form a Grand Lodge in and for the Province of British Columbia.”

British Columbia finally had a true Canadian Grand Lodge.