Freemasonry is a worldwide fraternal organisation. Its
members are reportedly joined together by shared ideals of both a moral and metaphysical
nature, and, in most of its branches, by a common belief in a Supreme Being.
Freemasonry is a secret or esoteric society, in that certain aspects of its
internal work are not generally disclosed to the public. Masons give numerous reasons for this, one of which is that Freemasonry
uses an initiatory system of degrees to explore ethical and philosophical issues, and that the system is less effective if
the observer knows beforehand what will happen. It often calls itself "a beautiful system of morality veiled in allegory and
illustrated by symbols."
There are many different jurisdictions of governance of Freemasonry, each sovereign and independent of the others,
and usually defined according to a geographic territory. Thus there is no central Masonic authority, although each jurisdiction
maintains a list of other jurisdictions that it formally recognizes. If the other jurisdiction reciprocates the recognition,
the two jurisdictions are said to be in amity, which permits the members of the one jurisdiction to attend closed meetings
of the other jurisdiction's Lodges, and vice-versa. Generally speaking, to be recognized by another jurisdiction, one must
(at least) meet that jurisdiction's requirements for regularity. This generally means that one must have in place,
at least, the ancient landmarks of Freemasonry—the essential characteristics considered to be universal to Freemasonry
in any culture. In keeping with the decentralized and non-dogmatic nature of Freemasonry, however, there is no universally
accepted list of landmarks, and even jurisdictions in amity with each other often have completely different ideas as to what
those landmarks are. Many jurisdictions take no official position at all as to what the landmarks are.
Freemasonry is often said to consist of two different branches: the Anglo and the Continental traditions. In reality,
there is no tidy way to split jurisdictions into distinct camps like this. For instance, jurisdiction A might recognize B,
which recognizes C, which does not recognize A. In addition, the geographical territory of one jurisdiction may overlap with
another's, which may affect their relations, for purely territorial reasons. In other cases, one jurisdiction may overlook
irregularities in another due simply to a desire to maintain friendly relations. Also, a jurisdiction may be formally affiliated
with one tradition, while maintaining informal ties with the other. For all these reasons, labels like "Anglo" and "Continental"
must be taken only as rough indicators, not as any kind of clear designation.
The Freemasons' Hall in Great Queen Street, London, England
The ruling authority of a Masonic jurisdiction is usually called a , or sometimes a Grand Orient.
These normally correspond to a single country, although their territory can be broader or narrower than that. (In North America,
each state and province has its own Grand Lodge.) The oldest jurisdiction in the Anglo branch of Freemasonry is the Grand Lodge of England (GLE) (the Moderns), founded in 1717. This later became the >United
Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) when it joined with another English Grand Lodge (the Antients)
in 1813. It is today the largest jurisdiction in England, and generally considered to be the oldest in the world. Its headquarters
are at Freemasons Hall, Great Queen Street, London. The oldest in the Continental branch, and the largest jurisdiction in
France, is the Grand Orient de France (GOdF), founded in 1728.
At one time, the Anglo and Continental branches recognized each other, but most jurisdictions cut off formal relations with
the GOdF around the time it started unreservedly admitting atheists, in 1877.
In most Latin countries, and in Belgium, the French style of Freemasonry
predominates. The rest of the world, accounting for the bulk of Freemasonry, tends to follow the English lead.
Freemasonry accepts members from almost any religion, including ChristianityJudaism,
and so forth. While atheists and agnostics are unreservedly accepted in Lodges working in the Continental tradition, most
Masonic Lodges have required, since the early 19th century, that
a candidate must profess a belief in a Supreme Being. But even there, one finds a high degree of non-dogmatism, and the phrase
Supreme Being is often given a very broad interpretation, usually allowing Deism
and often even allowing naturalistic views of "God/Nature" in the tradition of Spinoza
and Goethe (himself a Freemason), or views of The
Ultimate or Cosmic Oneness, such as found in some Eastern religions and in Western (or
for that matter, in modern cosmology). This leads some to suggest
that even Anglo Freemasonry will, in practice, end up accepting certain kinds of atheists—those willing to adopt a certain
brand of spiritual language. Such claims are difficult to evaluate, since many Anglo jurisdictions consider any further enquiry
into a prospective member's religion, beyond the "Supreme Being" question, to be off limits. However, in some Anglo jurisdictions
(mostly English-speaking), Freemasonry is actually less tolerant of naturalism than it was in the 18th century, and specific
religious requirements with more theistic and orthodox overtones
have been added since the early 19th century, including (mostly in
North America) belief in the immortality of the soul. The Freemasonry that predominates in Scandinavia,
known as the Swedish Rite, accepts only Christians.
Generally, to be a Freemason, one must:
- be a man who comes of his own free will
- believe in a Supreme Being, or, in some jurisdictions, a Creative Principle (unless joining a jurisdiction
with no religious requirement, as in the Continental tradition),
- be at least the minimum age (18–25 years depending on the jurisdiction, but commonly 21),
- be of sound mind, body and of good morals, and
- be free (or "born free", i.e. not born a slave
The "free born" requirement is moot in modern Lodges; it remains for purely historical reasons. The "sound body"
requirement, originally perhaps meant to ensure that operative masons would be able to meet the demands of their profession,
is today generally taken to mean "physically capable of taking part in Lodge rituals", and most Lodges today are quite flexible
when it comes to accommodating disabled candidates.
Principles and activities
Freemasonry upholds the principles of "Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth" (or in France: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity").
It teaches moral lessons through rituals. Members working through the rituals are taught by "degrees". Freemasonry is also
widely involved in charity and community service, as well as providing a social outlet for their members. There is considerable
variance in the emphasis on these different aspects of Masonry around the world. In Continental Europe, the philosophical
side of Freemasonry is more emphasized, while in Britain, North America, and the English-speaking parts of the world, the
charity, service and social club aspects are more emphasized.
While Freemasonry as an organisation does not directly involve itself in politics, its members have tended over
the years to support certain kinds of political causes with which they have become associated: the separation
of Church and State, the replacement of religiously-affiliated schools with secular public schools, and democratic revolutions
(such as the United States and France,
as well as revolutions in Mexico, Brazil, Greece, Poland and repeatedly in Italy). In some places, especially Continental
Europe and Mexico, Freemasonry has at times taken on an anti-Catholic and anti-clerical overtone.
Many organisations with various religious and political purposes have been inspired by Freemasonry, and are sometimes
confused with it, such as the Protestant Loyal Orange Association
and the 19th century Italian Carbonari,
which pursued Liberalism and Italian Unity.
Many other purely fraternal organisations, too numerous to mention,
have also been inspired by Masonry to a greater or lesser extent.
Freemasonry is often called a secret society, and in fact is considered by many to be the very prototype for such societies. Many Masons say
that it is more accurately described as a "society with secrets". The degree of secrecy varies widely around the world. In
English-speaking countries, most Masons are completely public with their affiliation, Masonic buildings are usually clearly
marked, and meeting times are generally a matter of public record. In countries where Freemasonry has been more recently (or
even currently) suppressed by the government, secrecy may be practised more earnestly. Even in the English-speaking world,
the precise details of the rituals are not made public, and Freemasons have a system of secret modes of recognition, such
as the Masonic secret grip (by which Masons can recognize each other "in the dark as well as in the light"); however, Masons
acknowledge that these "secrets" have been widely available in printed exposÚs and anti-Masonic literature for, literally,
Ritual and symbols
The Freemasons rely heavily on the architectural symbolism
of the medieval operative Masons who actually worked in stone.
One of their principal symbols is the square and , tools of the trade, so arranged as to form a quadrilateral.
The square is sometimes said to represent matter, and the compasses spirit or mind. Alternatively, the square
might be said to represent the world of the concrete, or the measure of objective reality, while the compasses represent abstraction,
or subjective judgment, and so forth (Freemasonry being non-dogmatic, there is no written-in-stone interpretation for any
of these symbols). Often the compasses straddle the square, representing the interdependence between the two. In the space
between the two, there is optionally placed a symbol of metaphysical significance. Sometimes, this is a blazing star or other
symbol of Light, representing Truth or knowledge. Alternatively, there is often a letter G placed there, usually
said to represent God and/or Geometry.
Sometimes, more frequent in older images, the G will be entwined outside the Square and Compasses.
The square and compasses are displayed at all Masonic meetings, along with the open Volume of the Sacred Law
(or Lore) (VSL). In English-speaking countries, this is usually a <>Holy Bible,
but it can be whatever book(s) of inspiration or scripture that the members of a particular Lodge or jurisdiction feel they
draw on—whether the Bible, the Qur'an, or other Volumes. A candidate
for a degree will normally be given his choice of VSL, regardless of the Lodge's usual VSL. In many French Lodges, the Masonic
Constitutions are used. In a few cases, a blank book has been used, where the religious makeup of a Lodge was too diverse
to permit an easy choice of VSL. In addition to its role as a symbol of written wisdom, inspiration, and spiritual revelation,
the VSL is what Masonic obligations are taken upon.
Much of Masonic symbolism is mathematical in nature, and in particular geometrical, which is probably a reason
Freemasonry has attracted so many rationalists (such as Voltaire, Fichte,
Goethe, George Washington,
Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain
and many others). No particular metaphysical theory is advanced by Freemasonry, however, although there seems to be some influence
from the Pythagoreans, from Neo-Platonism,
and from early modern Rationalism.
In keeping with the geometrical and architectural theme of Freemasonry, the Supreme Being (or God, or Creative
Principle) is sometimes also referred to in Masonic ritual as the Grand Geometer, or the Great Architect of the
Universe (GAOTU). Freemasons use a variety of labels for this concept in order to avoid the idea that they are talking
about any one religion's particular God or God-like concept.
There are three initial degrees of Freemasonry:
- Entered Apprentice
- Fellow Craft
- Master Mason
As one works through the degrees, one studies the lessons and interprets them for oneself. There are as many ways
to interpret the rituals as there are Masons, and no Mason may dictate to any other Mason how he is to interpret them. No
particular truths are espoused, but a common structure—speaking symbolically to universal human archetypes—provides
for each Mason a means to come to his own answers to life's important questions. Especially in Europe, Freemasons working
through the degrees are asked to prepare papers on related philosophical topics, and present these papers in an open Lodge,
where others may judge the suitability of the candidates' ascension through the higher degrees.
History of Freemasonry
Freemasonry has been said to be an institutional outgrowth of the medieval
guilds of stonemasons , a direct descendant of the "Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem" (the Knights
Templar), an offshoot of the ancient Mystery schools,
an administrative arm of the Priory of Sion, the Roman Collegia
, the Comacine masters , intellectual descendants of Noah, and many other various and
sundry origins. Others claim that it dates back only to the late 17th century
in England, and has no real connections at all to earlier organisations. These theories are noted in numerous different texts,
and the following are but examples pulled from a sea of books:
Much of the content of these books is highly speculative, and the precise origins of Freemasonry may very well
be lost in either an unwritten or a created history. It is thought by many that Freemasonry cannot be a straightforward outgrowth
of medieval guilds of stonemasons.
Amongst the reasons given for this conclusion, well documented in Born in Blood, are the fact that stonemasons' guilds
do not appear to predate reasonable estimates for the time of Freemasonry's origin, that stonemasons lived near their worksite
and thus had no need for secret signs to identify themselves, and that the "Ancient Charges" of Freemasonry are nonsensical
when thought of as being rules for a stonemasons' guild.
Freemasonry is said by some, especially amongst Masons practising the York Rite,
to have existed at the time of King Athelstan of England, in the 10th
century C.E. Athelstan is said by some to have been converted to Christianity in York,
and to have issued the first Charter to the Masonic Lodges there. This story is not currently substantiated (the dynasty had
already been Christian for centuries).
A more historically reliable (although still not unassailable) source asserting the antiquity of Freemasonry is
the Halliwell Manuscript, or Regius Poem, which is believed to date from ca.
1390, and which makes reference to several concepts and phrases similar to
those found in Freemasonry. The manuscript itself refers to an earlier document, of which it seems to be an elaboration.
There is also the Cooke Manuscript, which is said to be dated 1430 and contained the Constitution of German stonemasons, but the first appearance of the word 'Freemason' occurs in the Statutes of the Realm enacted in 1495 by Henry
VII, however, most other documentary evidence prior to the 1500s appears to relate entirely to operative Masons rather than
1583 is the date of the Grand Lodge manuscript, and more frequent mention of lodges is made in documents from this time onwards. The Schaw Statues of 1598-9(4)
are the source used to declare the precedence of Kilwinning Lodge in Kilwinning,
Ayrshire, Scotland over St.
Mary's (or Principal) Lodge. As a side note, Kilwinning is called Kilwinning #0 because of this very conundrum. Quite soon
thereafter, a charter was granted to Sir William St. Clair (later Sinclair) of Roslin (Rosslyn), allowing him to purchase
jurisdiction over a number of lodges in Edinburgh and environs, which is the basis of the Templar myth surrounding Rosslyn Chapel.
Another key figure in Masonic history was Elias Ashmole (1617-1692),
who was made a Mason in 1646, although Speculative Masons were being admitteed into Lodges as early as 1634. There appears
to be a general spread of the Craft during this time, but the next key date is 1717.
In 1717, four Lodges which met, respectively, at the "Apple-Tree
Tavern, the Crown Ale-House near Drury Lane, the Goose and Gridiron in St. Paul's Churchyard, and the Rummer and Grapes Tavern
in Westminster" in London, England joined together and formed the first Grand Lodge, the Grand Lodge of England (GLE). The years following saw
new Grand Lodges open throughout England and Europe, as the new Freemasonry spread rapidly. How much of this was the spreading
of Freemasonry itself, and how much was the public organisation of pre-existing secret Lodges, is not possible to say with
certainty. The GLE in the beginning did not have the current three degrees, but only the first two. The third degree appeared,
so far as we know, around 1725.
- ^ The Masonic Manual by Macoy, accessed November 11, 2005.
- ^ A History of
Freemasonry by H.L. Haywood and James E. Craig, pub. ca 1927
- ^ "Masonic Chronology"
A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry v. 2, by Waite, Arthur Edward, pp 40-89. Wings Books, 1996. Reprint of 1970 University
Books Edition, two volumes in one.
- ^ A Pragmatic Masonic History, by Leo Zanelli, accessed November 14, 2005.