In Masonic tradition a Freemason is one who has been initiated into the mysteries of the
Fraternity of Freemasonry, and were so called to distinguish them from the Operative or
Stonemasons – those who work with stone. The word, free-mason, was used, perhaps for the first
time, in a statute passed in 1350 where the wages of a master free-mason are fixed at 4 pence,
and of other masons at 3 pence. The word free-mason, as used in this statute signifies a freestone
mason – one who works in free-stone, as distinguished from the rough mason or one who
built walls of rough stone. The view most generally held in the middle ages is that free-masons
(free-stone masons) were those who claimed exemption from the control of the local guild of the
town in which they temporarily settled. During these times it was common practice to
emancipate skilled artisans in order that they might be able to travel and render their services
whenever any great building was in process of construction. In Scotland, rough masons were
referred to as cowans, whom free-masons were forbidden to work with. In our modern ritual the
word cowan is used to refer to a pretender – one who pretends to be a properly admitted mason to
gain entry into a lodge of Freemasons.
Early in the 17th century the societies of free-masons began to admit honorary members into
their fraternity. Although these honorary members were not connected with the building trades,
they were, however, eminent for their architectural or antiquarian skills. These members were
called accepted masons and were admitted to a knowledge of secret signs and instructed in the
legendary history of the craft. As time progressed the distinction of being an accepted mason
became a fashionable object of ambition among royalty and the wealthy. As such, Freemason
lodges began to form in England, Scotland and Ireland, each with its own ritual and rules for
conducting business. Seeing a need for uniformity four lodges in London met on June 24,1717 at
the Goose and Gridiron Ale House in St. Paul’s Churchyard, formed themselves into a Grand
Lodge, and elected a Grand Master (Anthony Sayer) and Grand Wardens. For the first few years
the Grand Lodge was simply an annual feast at which the Grand Master and Wardens were
elected, but in 1721 other meetings began to be held and the Grand Lodge began to be a
regulatory body. By 1730 it had more than one hundred lodges under its control (including one in
Spain and one in India), had published a Book of Constitutions, began to operate a central charity
fund, and had attracted a wide spectrum of society into its lodges.
The formation of the premier Grand Lodge in 1717 had been followed in 1725 by the Grand
Lodge of Ireland and, in 1736, by the Grand Lodge of Scotland. These three Grand Lodges did
much to spread Freemasonry throughout the world, to the extent that all regular Grand Lodges
throughout the world, whatever the immediate means of their formation, ultimately trace their
origins back to one, or a combination of the Grand Lodges within the British Isles.
As time progressed so did Freemasonry progress in its admittance of accepted members. In the
old lectures of the late 18th Century, a Freemason was described as being a free man, born of a
free woman, brother to a king, fellow to a prince, or companion to a beggar, and by this was
meant to indicate that Freemasonry accepted all men of good character into their fraternity
regardless of their station in life. And so it has been carried to modern times that no brother will
be judged by his title, wealth, race, religion, or political belief, but by his upstanding character
and his willingness to improve himself and others in the fraternity of Freemasonry.
In 1850, the same year that California became a state, the Grand Lodge of California was
established in Sacramento. Within 10 years, the number of Masonic lodges in the new state had
grown from 11 to 130, while membership soared from 258 to more than 5,000. Over the years,
the Masons have played a key role in shaping the history of California. To date, 19 California
governors have been Masons, and at least four California Masons have been elected to the U.S.
Senate. Today there are more than 60,000 members and about 340 lodges, making the GrandLodge of California one of the largest in the world.