There is some evidence that the Masons got their start as a result of the persecution of the Knights Templar by King Philip IV "the Fair" of France and his diabolical Friday the 13th arrest of the Knights. Surviving members of that Crusader fraternity sought refuge with members of the stone mason guild. They supposedly created fake lodges of stone masonry to veil their underground political activity. They took on the trappings of the mason's guild such as leather aprons and guild initiation levels (apprentice, journeyman, and master). Those who contest this version of their origin have pointed to the founding of the Royal Arch lodge as its true moment of conception, but this merely added an additional type of political organization to a network of existing lodges.
Idries Shah makes a case that both operative craft guilds and speculative secret societies, such as the Knights Templar, had their origins in the Sufi tradition. The Sufis maintained libraries of classical literature that rivaled those of better endowed Orthodox monasteries. A case could be made that at least some of the Knights Templar studied with the Sufis during their sojourn in Jerusalem.
The fortunes of the Freemasons have waxed and waned throughout American history. They were very active early on during the Revolution and during the crafting of the Constitution. Thaddeus Stevens is famous for persecuting the Masons in the 1830s. Their recovery from this period of eclipse may have been a byproduct of Albert Pike's post-bellum reforms. They may have also received a boost by some of the incidents that transpired during the war when northern Masons came to the aid of southern brethren and their family members.
More recently the Masons have received attention thanks to Dan Brown's work. The feminist movement had taken some wind out of their male-only sails to place them in a fringe category at the turn of the current century. One of our students probed a local lodge to see what is now required for entry. In the past they required belief in a deity. The words he encountered were "higher power" which could be interpreted in a non-theistic manner. He did not pursue initiation in order to resolve this ambiguity.
What will become of the Masons? Will they return to mainstream status or will they be further marginalized? Will a less sexist, less monotheistic organization replace them in the long run? Or will they hold their own as a bastion of liberal conservatism?
Links: Albert Pike on the degrees of Scottish Rite Freemasonry. Idries Shah on Sufi/Freemason connection. Frank Gerrity on Thaddeus Stevens' antimasonic witch hunt. Dan Browns novel based on Masonry.