Q: Is there a difference between the terms Mason and Freemason?

A mason is defined in the Oxford Shorter Dictionary as “a builder and worker in stone; a worker who dresses and lays stone in building.”  This definition shows that as far back as the 13th century a mason was associated with building, with buildings and with stone.  Etymologically, the word mason comes from machun, which was in use before 1200, a worker who builds in stone and brick.  This is derived from Old French masson, which is probably related to the Old High German steinmezzo, stonemason, related to mahhon, meaning ‘to make.’
Prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066, most building in Britain was in wood except for a small number of churches and abbeys, although there is a longstanding tradition of a Grand Lodge of masons in York going back to the 10th century.  Following the conquest, and for the next few hundred years, there was an explosion in the building of stone churches, cathedrals and castles requiring a body of skilled workers in stone.  Many of these projects lasted for many years and groups of these workers formed themselves into what they called lodges.  It is not very clear as to how this incentive came to them but apparently they customarily moved from place to place to work on any great building project and possessed a system of secret signs and passwords through which to recognise each other.

From the 14th century they began to call themselves ‘free masons’ or ‘free-masons.’  There are many theories as to why they apparently did this, none of which are conclusive or particularly convincing or helpful.  These include:

They were called free because they were ‘free’ of the mason’s guild;

They were ‘free’ because they claimed exemption from the control of the local guilds of the towns in which they temporarily settled;

They called themselves ‘free stone masons’ to distinguish themselves from ‘rough masons’ who merely built walls of rough un-hewn stone.  This latter sort of workmen were known as ‘cowans’ in Scotland and freemasons were forbidden to work with them.

All the above are of the so-called ‘operative’ mason types.

From Medieval times non-operative ‘gentlemen’ began to join the Lodges as ‘speculative’ masons.  Obviously, there had to have been something much deeper in the symbolic rituals and secrets as practiced by the operative masons (other than merely protecting their building secrets or recognition of each other as ‘operative builders’) to attract the learned gentlemen into their Lodges, and likewise if the rituals and secrets were only meant to cause the operatives to be “known to each other” then they would not have admitted non-operative, speculative gentlemen.  Therefore, the history surrounding these overlapping mergers is somewhat vague and it would appear that no-one really knows for sure how this merging happened.

In AUM we propose another thought for consideration, however, and that is that it is quite possible that the ceremonies and secrets were actually introduced to the building trade by speculative masons, i.e., members of the real secret Fraternity, the Initiates of the Brotherhood of Light and guardians of the Ancient Mysteries, for safe-keeping.  The uninspired and academic theories pertaining to speculative Masonry (as it is related to the Ancient Mysteries) as having arisen from the building trade alone have never been particularly convincing.  There is no convincing or logical explanation as to how groups of operative Masons somehow came up with a system of relatively complex and meaningful ceremonies and secrets from nowhere, and cast in a dramatic form with Jewish rhetoric building Christian churches!  Nevertheless, with the theme of the Builders­­—introduced to the evolutionary and revelatory nature of the Ancient Mysteries by the Jewish Seers of old—then within the work of the builders of the Middle Ages it is quite possible that it appeared to the true speculative Masons as a good place to ‘hide’ this

[Mystery] teaching for safety and with foresight toward the ‘heretical’ purging by the Inquisition that was to come, and therefore right under the noses of the actual inquisitors and perhaps in the place where they would least likely expect to look for or find ‘heretics,’ because they needed masons to build their churches anyway.

After the Reformation, speculative Masons slowly began to emerge from their hidden crypts into the light of day, and considered that they could, with safety, begin to meet openly in their Masonic Lodges.

According to conventional Masonic history, the numbers of ‘speculative’ masons increased over the centuries and during the 17th century operative masonry declined.  There was apparently a gradual parting of the ways between the operatives and speculatives until in 1655 the ‘Worshipful Company of Freemasons of the City of London’ dropped the prefix ‘free’ from their title, thereby leaving ‘freemason’ to those non-operative Lodges who coalesced eventually into the Grand Lodge of England in 1717.  Various Grand Lodges in Scotland, York and Ireland, etc., also openly established themselves around the same time.

Conventional Masonry still preserves the words “Freemasonry” in its official titles.  Masons tend to use “Masonry” for short in their references to the institution.  In AUM we simply use the term, “Mason” and “Masonry”—to refer to the work of the builder, the inner builder who works through the outer “stone” expression (personality), appropriated and assembled through the ‘clay’ of the earth; this stone is esoterically marble, and it is this stone that is shaped and polished by the cooperative work between the inner (soul) and outer (personality) builders so that it may eventually become fit to be placed into the Temple’s Plan with right exactitude.

“ . . . The sculptor works, patterning true to that which lies revealed unto the inner sight.  He patterns true and beauty comes to life.”

Oxford Shorter

Old Northern French machun or (later) Old French masson (later maçon) from Proto Romance, probably from Germanic (whence also Old High German (stein) mezzo, German Steinmetz, stonemason.

A builder and worker in stone; a worker who dresses and lays stone in building.  ME.

A skilled worker in stone, a mason; esp. a member of a class of such workers who customarily moved from place to place to work on any great building project and who possessed a system of secret signs and passwords for recognition among themselves.

Chambers Dictionary of Etymology

Probably before 1200; machun worker who builds with stone or brick, in Layamon’s Chronicle of Britain; later masoun (probably before 1300, in Arthur and Merlin); borrowed from Old French masson, maçon, machon, from Frankish (compare Old High German steinmezzo, stone mason; modern German Steinmetz, mason, related to mahhon, to make . . .

The form fre mason, freemason, is first recorded in Wycliffe’s writings, probably in 1383 (so far as it is currently understood).  Originally, a ‘freemason’ was a member of a class of skilled stone masons in the 1300s and later, who traveled from place to place and formed a society using secret signs and passwords; in modern times this became a “secret society for the purposes of mutual aid and fellowship.”

The latter sentence is the usual conventional view of those who remain ignorant of the affinity of Masonry with the Ancient Mysteries.