While some people date Masonry back to the building of King Solomon's Temple, Freemasonry as we know it today began in 17th Century England.
A Freemons initiation in Paris 1745.
The most famous Freemasons in early America were George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
A Brief History of Freemasonry
Freemasons traditions can be traced directly to the associations of operative masons. Some would even date Masonry back to the building of King Solomon's Temple as represented in the Bible.
Masons were skilled craftsmen who built the cathedrals, abbeys, and castles of the Middle Ages. With the decline of cathedral building in the 17th Century, many guilds of stonemasons, called "Operative" Masons, started to accept into their membership those who were not members of the masons' craft and called them "Speculative" or "Accepted" masons.
It was in these groups, called lodges, comprised mainly of "Accepted" Masons that Freemasonry, as we know it today, had its beginning. In 1717, four such lodges, which had been meeting regularly in London, united to form the first Grand Lodge of England under the direction of a Grand Master.
In 1720, English Freemasonry spread to France. At first as lodges of English expatriates, and then as distinctively French lodges. From France and England, Freemasonry spread to most of Continental Europe during the course of the 18th century. Briefly eclipsed during the French Revolution, French Freemasonry continued to grow in the next century.
Freemasonry in North America
The earliest known American lodges were in Pennsylvania. The Collector for the port of Pennsylvania, John Moore, wrote of attending lodges there in 1715, two years before the formation of the first Grand Lodge in London. The Premier Grand Lodge of England appointed a Provincial Grand Master for North America in 1731, based in Pennsylvania. Other lodges in the colony obtained authorisations from the later Antient Grand Lodge of England, the Grand Lodge of Scotland, and the Grand Lodge of Ireland, which was particularly well represented in the travelling lodges of the British Army. Many lodges came into existence with no warrant from any Grand Lodge, applying and paying for their authorisation only after they were confident of their own survival.
After the American Revolution, independent U.S. Grand Lodges formed themselves within each state. Some thought was briefly given to organising an overarching "Grand Lodge of the United States," with George Washington (who was a member of a Virginian lodge) as the first Grand Master, but the idea was short-lived. The various state Grand Lodges did not wish to diminish their own authority by agreeing to such a body.
The Basis of Modern Freemasonry
During the 1700's in England, Masonry was defined as a system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols. Many of the legends and myths of the old stone cutters and masons were woven into an interesting and effective way to portray moral truths.
In Masonry, the old tools and ways of the craftsmen are still used to help dramatically portray those moral truths. For example, the 24 inch gauge and the common gavel. Just as the ruler is used to measure distance, the modern Mason uses it as a reminder to manage one of his most precious resources: time. And, as the gavel is used to shape stones, so it is also the symbol for the necessity of all of us to work to perfect ourselves.
One modern definition of Freemasonry is an organized society of men, symbolically applying the principle of Operative Masonry and architecture to the science and art of character building. In other words, Masonry uses ageless methods and lessons to make each of us a better person.
Learn more about the History of Freemasonry here.