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Updated on January 10, 2017

The origins of freemasonry lie with the masons' guilds associated with the building of churches and cathedrals from mediaeval times until the end of the seventeenth century. Since stonecutters (masons) had to move from place to place to practise their craft, they formed guilds in various towns to protect their business interests and provide company and mutual support. In these early guilds, there grew codes of conduct and regulations which dealt with the legendary origins of the craft and defined certain moral principles to be kept by adherents. It is because of these origins that masons today speak of God as the 'Great Architect' and use in their rituals symbols of working tools such as the plumb, square, level and compass. For a time members of the masons' guilds were exclusively stone-workers but as the great activity of church and cathedral building declined, the meetings of the masons took on a more social and less business-orientated character.

The great period of expansion for masonry was in the early 1700s and coincides with the growth of the Enlightenment. Masonry from that time more clearly espoused 'the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all mankind', which was the simple formula that the Enlightenment had drawn from the more complex dogma of the church. There was also in these times a spirit among the 'enlightened' men of (some) equality. Hence masonic groups would include both aristocrats and common men on an equal basis within the fraternity however much position and status were retained outside the meetings.

The first Grand Lodge was founded in England in 1717 and by the early 1720s masonry had spread rapidly throughout Europe. One of its most celebrated adherents was Mozart, who incorporated some masonic symbolism in his opera The Magic Flute. The church at that time regarded masonry as heretical and subversive of its authority and strongly opposed it. But for many men, high and low, it provided a place for fellowship, escape from doctrinaire theological argument and an emphasis on the moral ideals of their religion.

For most of its history, masonry has involved secret rites (which masons are not to divulge on pain of death) and often secret handshakes and code words by which members may identify one another. Many opponents of masonry consider that these secret practices enable members to remain a self-recognising elite which favours fellow members in business and in society. In recent times masonry, which has lodges in practically every country in the non-communist world, has begun to explain more fully its aims to provide social welfare and set a moral example to the community.

George Washington is represented here as the master mason of his lodge.
George Washington is represented here as the master mason of his lodge.

Known Inner Workings of the Freemasons

Freemasonry is the doctrines and practices of the international fraternal organization known as the Free and Accepted Masons or as the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. The purpose of Freemasonry is to promote the spiritual, moral, and social development of the community through the influence, example, and contributions of its members. Oaths of secrecy cover Masonic rites, but not teachings. The secrets are confined to special signs, grips, rituals, and passwords, which each Mason learns as he progresses through the different degrees.

The three basic degrees of Masonry are included in the Lodge, sometimes called the Blue Lodge. The degrees are Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. After taking these degrees in the Lodge, a Mason may go on to other degrees, such as Royal Arch Mason and Knight Templar. A series of related degrees is called a rite. There is the York Rite, for example, which has 12 degrees, and the Scottish Rite, with up to 33 degrees.

Freemasonry is organized in local lodges having from several dozen to several hundred members. Groups of local lodges are organized under grand lodges. The grand lodges of the organization are independent of one another in the conduct of their affairs but recognize one another as members of one Masonic fraternity sharing the same basic traditions.

Freemasonry will accept men of any creed, nationality, or political viewpoint. Among the qualifications for membership are a belief in a Supreme Being and a good moral character. Women are not eligible for membership in the fraternity, but there are related organizations for them, such as the Order of the Eastern Star. Similarly, there are organizations for the teen-aged sons and daughters of Masons, notably the Order of DeMolay and Job's Daughters, respectively. For Masons who are in college, there is a special fraternity, known as Acacia. There are also many Masonic organizations beyond the Lodge. One, whose members are known as Shriners, has become well known for its charitable work for crippled children.

Modern Freemasonry grew out of the stonemasons' organizations of the Middle Ages. The traveling masons were sometimes called freemasons. Gradually, men who did not work with stone were also accepted for membership. Such people were called Accepted, or Speculative, Masons. Although membership today has nothing to do with occupation, many rituals and customs of the medieval stonemasons are still retained.

Historically, Freemasonry has been regarded by some people with suspicion and hostility. The Masons were condemned by Roman Catholics and some Protestants, but in the later 1960's cooperation with the Knights of Columbus in civic and charitable affairs began to develop. Some European governments have suppressed Masonic societies. In the United States there was an Anti-Masonic Party active in politics from 1826 to 1836. The list of famous American Masons includes George Washington, Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock.


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