The origins of Freemasonry are largely lost in the fog of history. Written records of modern Masonry's precursors date back at least to the 14th century, while other aspects of Masonry date back thousands of years. The earliest known use of the Square and Compasses symbol is its carving in an altar from 3800 B.C. There is evidence that an elementary type of craft association existed as early as the time of King Solomon's Temple (about 1012 B.C.). That structure was the architectural masterpiece of its day; and because of the relationship between those early masons and the building of that spiritual edifice, Masonic tradition is rich in references to its construction. :)
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans taught higher education in schools resembling lodges, and protected their learning, and at times their existence when their teachings were proscribed, with secret signs and symbols. Guilds of stonemasons were operative at this time, building the great architectural works of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra's Needle also has symbols used by modern Masons in its base. How these associations and secret societies of the ancient world led to modern Freemasonry is uncertain.
Modern Masonry dates itself from 1717 when four existing Lodges in London met together to form a Grand Lodge. Their success in regularizing Masonry led to its rapid growth throughout Britain, Europe and in the American Colonies. Masonry was established in France sometime between 1718 and 1725. The first Lodge in Spain was established in 1728. A Lodge was established in Prague in 1729, in Calcutta in 1728 and in Naples in 1731. Masonry reached Poland in 1734 and arrived in Sweden in 1735. The first Mason came to America in 1682 and by the 1720's Lodges are known to have existed throughout the colonies. The first chartered Lodge on record is St. John's Lodge in Boston which was founded in 1733.
The growth of Freemasonry and its ideals and beliefs came not without opposition. Masons are taught that all men are equal and for that reason we meet on the level. Individual freedom of thought and action, democratic governance of our lodges, as well as morality and ethics, are the concepts and ideals upon which our Order is founded. Wherever there is freedom, Freemasonry flourishes, wherever there is autocracy it is condemned and suppressed.
Adolf Hitler, for example, murdered more than 200,000 Freemasons. Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco imprisoned or murdered Freemasons as well, Franco going so far as to pen a book condemning our Order. Both Stalin and Mao prohibited it's practice and executed Masons. Since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe there has been a restoration and a resurgence of Freemasonry throughout those once oppressed nations.
Freemasonry has always attracted the best in society. Statesmen, philanthropists, educators, jurists, men of science and ministers of all faiths have been active and enthusiastic Masons. The writers Voltaire, Rudyard Kipling, Walter Scott, Tolstoi, Jonathan Swift, and the poet Robert Burns were Masons as were philosophers Krause, Fichte and John Locke. Mozart, Franz Haydn, Jean Sibelius were all Freemasons while both Louis Armstrong and George Gershwin claimed to be Masons. The inventor James Watt and engineer Alexandre Eiffel were Masons as were explorers Robert Scott, and Ernest Shackleton. Edward "Buzz" Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, is a Freemason and took with him a Masonic flag. The list of royalty from one country after another who have belonged to and/or were and are patrons of Masonry is too long to list.
Many of those associated with the independence movement of the American Colonies and the establishment of the United States were Masons. These include Paul Revere, Patrick Henry, Joseph Warren, Nathan Hale, John Hancock, John Paul Jones, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, along with most of his generals, to list only a few. Giuseppe Garibaldi, Lord Wellington, Simón Bolivar, Sam Houston, LaFayette, Douglas MacArthur, both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Gerald Ford [along with 11 other Presidents] were Freemasons, as was Sir Winston Churchill.
In Hollywood, Freemasons have included men such as Walt Disney, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, John Wayne and Clark Gable, to name but a few. Harry Houdini, Al Jolson and Red Skelton were also Masons.
It is common for Freemasons to form a significant portion of every American community's political and civic leaders. Police officers, fire fighters and those in our Armed Forces are often drawn to Masonry.
During the Gold Rush of 1849, thousands of settlers came to California in search of fortune. Those who were Masons brought their rich traditions with them, soon establishing some of California's first Masonic lodges in the mining towns of the Gold Country. In 1850 — the same year that California became a state — the Grand Lodge of California was established in Sacramento.
Today, the Grand Lodge of California boasts more than 65,000 members and 340 lodges located throughout the state, making it one of the largest Grand Lodges in the world.