Perhaps the most important—and the most neglected—aspect of James Anderson’s The Constitutions of the Free-Masons, Containing the History, Charges, Regulations, &c. of that most Ancient and Right Worshipful Fraternity is the fifty-page story of the origins and progress of Masonry. This was the Grand Lodge’s updated version of the so-called Traditional History of Freemasonry, which had been carefully passed down for centuries in manuscript form.
Masonic symbolism and lore is deeply connected to the Traditional History - a special account of human progress. Many important Masonic rituals dramatically depict mythical events from the past, effectively expressing elements of the Traditional History. This foundational myth appears in various early Masonic texts like the Old Charges and later printed books of rules and customs. In them, stories and figures from sacred history intertwine with ideas and advancements from classical times. “Masonry” becomes linked to the upward progress of civilization, seen in improving architecture and aesthetics. Historians have often dismissed these accounts as fabricated histories meant to impress potential new members. However, the Traditional History represents more—it is Masonry’s “mythistory,” framing its role in preserving ancient mysteries while cultivating arts and sciences.
Understanding early Grand Lodge Freemasonry requires grasping this mythological counter-narrative. In its grand sweep, it encompasses the story of humanity from the first people up to the time of the writer. Like the manuscript Old Charges, Anderson’s 1723 update of the origin story traces the roots of Masonry back to Biblical times. The Craft is born when God inscribes the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences, ”especially Geometry,“ upon the heart of Adam. This accounts for the original preparation of every Mason’s heart: the potential for understanding Geometry and the other arts and sciences is present within each person. Because Adam was created with a special knowledge of geometry implanted within himself, this gift passes into the hearts of his progeny, and across all the centuries of human development:
ADAM, our first Parent, created after the Image of God, the great Architect of the Universe, must have had the Liberal Sciences, particularly Geometry, written on his Heart; for even since the Fall, we find the Principles of it in the Hearts of his Offspring, and which, in process of time, have been drawn forth into a convenient Method of Propositions, by observing the Laws of Proportion taken from Mechanism: So that as the Mechanical Arts gave Occasion to the Learned to reduce the Elements of Geometry into Method, this noble Science thus reduc’d, is the Foundation of all those Arts, (particularly of Masonry and Architecture) and the Rule by which they are conducted and perform’d.
Anderson’s Traditional History follows the Bible’s story of the settlement of the world by humanity. Along the way, it emphasizes any elements wherein architecture (broadly defined in a manner that would include what we would call structural engineering) takes a role. For example, the creation of two pillars—one of stone and the other of brick—is noted, and Noah’s Ark is described as a work of architecture since Geometry had to be used in its construction. After the incident at Babel where a lofty tower was built, the languages of humanity are confounded, with the Masons alone still able to communicate across cultures owing to their special means of signing.
The creation of the holy tent used as a portable Temple by the Israelites is a major point of the Constitutions:
And while marching to Canaan thro’ Arabia, under Moses, God was pleased to inspire BEZALEEL, of the Tribe of Judah, and AHOLIAB, of the Tribe of Dan, with Wisdom of Heart for erecting that most glorious Tent, or Tabernacle, wherein the SHECHINAH resided; which, tho’ not of Stone or Brick, was framed, by Geometry, a most beautiful Piece of Architecture, (and prov’d afterwards the Model of Solomon’s Temple) according to the Pattern that God had shewn to MOSES in the Mount; who therefore became the GENERAL MASTER-MASON, as well as King of Jessurun, being well skill’d in all the Egyptian Learning, and divinely inspir’d with more sublime Knowledge in Masonry, So that the Israelites, at their leaving Egypt, were a whole Kingdom of Masons, well instructed, under the Conduct of their GRAND MASTER MOSES, who often mar shall’d them into a regular and general Lodge, while in the Wilderness, and gave them wise Charges, Orders, &c. had they been well observ’d! But no more of the Premises must be mention’d.
It is interesting that in a number of places, as here, Anderson breaks off a description when to continue would have gone too far into topics Freemasons considered to be esoteric or private.
Building upon the accomplishment of the Tabernacle, the Traditional History describes the Temple of Solomon in hallowed language:
[T]he ETERNAL God’s Temple at Jerusalem [was] begun and finish’d, to the Amazement of all the World, in the short space of seven Years and six Months, by that wisest Man and most glorious King of Israel, the Prince of Peace and Architecture, SOLOMON (the Son of David, who was refused that Honour for being a Man of Blood) by divine Direction, without the Noise of Work-mens Tools....
[W]e must conclude its Prospect to transcend our Imagination; and that it was justly esteem’d by far the finest Piece of Masonry upon Earth before or since, and the chief Wonder of the World ; and was dedicated, or consecrated, in the most solemn manner, by King SOLOMON.
But leaving what must not, and indeed cannot, be communicated by Writing, we may warrantably affirm that however ambitious the Heathen were in cultivating of the Royal Art, it was never perfected, until God condescended to instruct his peculiar People in rearing the above-mention’d stately Tent, and in building at length this gorgeous House, fit for the special Refulgence of his Glory, where he dwelt between the Cherubims on the Mercy-Seat, and from thence gave them frequent oraculous Responses.
This most sumptuous, splendid, beautiful and glorious Edifice, attracted soon the inquisitive Artists of all Nations to spend some time at Jerusalem, and survey its peculiar Excellencies, as much as was allow’d to the Gentiles ; whereby they soon discover’d, that all the World, with their joint Skill, came far short of the Israelites, in the Wisdom and Dexterity of Architecture, when the wise King SOLOMON was GRAND MASTER of the Lodge at Jerusalem, and the learned King HIRAM was GRAND MASTER of the Lodge at Tyre, and the inspired HIRAM ABIF was Master of Work, and Masonry was under the immediate Care and Direction of Heaven, when the Noble and the Wise thought it their Honour to be assisting to the ingenious Masters and Craftsmen, and when the Temple of the TRUE GOD became the Wonder of all Travellers, by which, as by the most perfect Pattern, they corrected the Architecture of their own Country upon their Return.
Thus, according to the Masonic legend, architects and stonemasons around the world, inspired by the unsurpassable majesty of Solomon’s Temple, cultivated their arts and transmitted wisdom from the Biblical era up to early modern times.
The Traditional History expounds a generally optimistic story of improvement that culminates in the architectural triumphs of Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren, the growth of Freemasonry in the British Isles, and ultimately the creation of the Grand Lodge of England.
This symbolic history connects the inherent nobility of stonemasons’ work with Masonic virtues. Anderson’s updated chronicle of the Traditional History imparts profound origins and continuity for the wisdom that Masons seek. While the account is, like all myths, only partially historical, we can admire the epic story even as we understand that a complete account of the Craft’s true origins lies outside of its legendary scope.