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Freemasonry, teachings and practices of the secret fraternal order officially known as the Free and Accepted Masons, or Ancient Free and Accepted Masons.

Organizational Structure

There are approximately 5 million members worldwide, mostly in the United States and other English-speaking countries. With adherents in almost every nation where Freemasonry is not officially banned, it forms the largest secret society in the world. There is no central Masonic authority; jurisdiction is divided among autonomous national authorities, called grand lodges, and many concordant organizations of higher-degree Masons. In the United States and Canada the highest authority rests with state and provincial grand lodges. Custom is the supreme authority of the order, and there are elaborate symbolic rites and ceremonies, most of which utilize the instruments of the stonemason—the plumb, the square, the level, and compasses—and apocryphal events concerning the building of King Solomon's Temple for allegorical purposes.

The principles of Freemasonry have traditionally been liberal and democratic. Anderson's Constitutions (1723), the bylaws of the Grand Lodge of England, which is Freemasonry's oldest extant lodge, cites religious toleration, loyalty to local government, and political compromise as basic to the Masonic ideal. Masons are expected to believe in a Supreme Being, use a holy book appropriate to the religion of the lodge's members, and maintain a vow of secrecy concerning the order's ceremonies.

The basic unit of Freemasonry is the local Blue lodge, generally housed in a Masonic temple. The lodge consists of three Craft, Symbolic, or Blue Degrees: Entered Apprentice (First Degree), Fellow Craft (Second Degree), and Master Mason (Third Degree). These gradations are meant to correspond to the three levels—apprentice, journeyman, and master—of the medieval stonemasons' guilds. The average Mason does not rise above Master Mason.

If he does, however, he has the choice of advancing through about 100 different rites, encompassing some 1,000 higher degrees, throughout the world. In the United States, the two most popular rites are the Scottish and the York. The Scottish Rite awards 30 higher degrees, from Secret Master (Fourth Degree) to Sovereign Grand Inspector General (Thirty-third Degree). The York Rite awards ten degrees, from Mark Master to Order of Knights Templar, the latter being similar to a Thirty-third Degree Scottish Rite Mason.

Other important Masonic groups are the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, to which many African-American Masons belong; the Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm (the “fraternal fun order for Blue Lodge Masons”); and the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (Thirty-second degree Masons who, as the Shriners, are noted for their colorful parades and support of children's hospitals; they were established as a Masonic social organization in 1872). There are also many subsidiary Masonic groups, including the Order of the Eastern Star, limited to Master Masons and their female relatives; De Molay, an organization for boys; and Job's Daughters and Rainbow, two organizations for girls. Many of the orders maintain homes for aged members.

Development of the Order

The order is thought to have arisen from the English and Scottish fraternities of practicing stonemasons and cathedral builders in the early Middle Ages; traces of the society have been found as early as the 14th cent. Because, however, some documents of the order trace the sciences of masonry and geometry from Egypt, Babylon, and Palestine to England and France, some historians of Masonry claim that the order has roots in antiquity.

The formation of the English Grand Lodge in London (1717) was the beginning of the widespread dissemination of speculative Freemasonry, the present-day fraternal order, whose membership is not limited to working stonemasons. The six lodges in England in 1700 grew to about 30 by 1723. There was a parallel development in Scotland and Ireland, although some lodges remained unaffiliated and open only to practicing masons. By the end of the 18th cent. there were Masonic lodges in all European countries and in many other parts of the world as well.

The first lodge in the United States was founded in Philadelphia (1730); Benjamin Franklin was a member. Many of the leaders of the American Revolution, including John Hancock and Paul Revere, were members of St. Andrew's Lodge in Boston. George Washington became a Mason in 1752. At the time of the Revolution most of the American lodges broke away from their English and Scottish antecedents. Freemasonry has continued to be important in politics; 13 Presidents have been Masons, and at any given time quite a large number of the members of Congress have belonged to Masonic lodges. Notable European Masons included Voltaire, Giuseppe Mazzini, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Franz Joseph Haydn, Johann von Goethe, Johann von Schiller, and many leaders of Russia's Decembrist revolt (1825).

Opposition to Freemasonry

Because of its identification with 19th-century bourgeois liberalism, there has been much opposition to Freemasonry. The most violent in the United States was that of the Anti-Masonic party. Freemasonry's anticlerical attitude has also led to strong opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, which first expressed its anti-Masonic attitude in a bull of Pope Clement XII (1738). The Catholic Church still discourages its members from joining the order. Totalitarian states have always suppressed Freemasonry; the lodges in Italy, Austria, and Germany were forcibly eradicated under fascism and Nazism, and there are now no lodges in China.


See R. F. Gould, History of Freemasonry throughout the World (rev. ed., 6 vol., 1936); A. G. Mackey, Encyclopedia of Freemasonry (rev. ed., 3 vol., 1946); F. L. Pick and G. N. Knight, The Pocket History of Freemasonry (4th ed. 1963); C. Kephart, Concise History of Freemasonry (2d ed. 1964); E. Bebe, The Landmarks of Free Masonry (1980); J. Ankerberg and J. Weldon, The Facts on the Masonic Lodge (1988).

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Image of Masonic symbols by Oswald Wirth. Fortean Picture Library.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

What is Freemasonry? Who are the Masons? What goes on in the Masonic Lodge downtown? Is it a religion?

The answer to these questions depends entirely on whom you ask.

To some, Freemasonry is an ancient cult still going about the business of establishing a new world order. Log on to any Internet search engine and before you even get to an official Masonic Order website, you will discover page after page of essays that supposedly "expose" Freemasonry. According to the majority of Internet sites (sponsored mostly by conservative Christian groups), Masons continue the tradition and mission of the Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, and the Illuminati. They are the secret organization that is out to take control of your life. They always have been and always will be. They have duped their many members, who do not see the truth behind the Master Plan, and they have made many inroads. Does not the Great Seal of the United States of America, the one printed on the dollar bill in your wallet, consist of Masonic signs only Masons understand? Were not George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Paul Revere Masons? Even former U.S. president Gerald Ford, for heaven's sake. For many years it's been a not-too-well-kept secret that Mozart's opera The Magic Flute is based on Masonic symbolism. That must prove something! A cult that old must be involved in secrets the rest of us don't know anything about.

But talk to a Mason or attend a public night held at the Masonic Lodge and you will get quite a different story. Freemasonry, along with its orders of the Knight's Templar and DeMolay for men and boys, and the orders of Eastern Star and Rainbow Girls for women and girls, is the oldest fraternity in the world. It exists to make the world a better place. It fosters goodwill and good work. It builds hospitals and finances community projects. There are secrets, of course. All fraternities have rituals, handshakes, and emblems known only to members. Yes, a lot of very famous men have belonged, but that can be seen as proof that the organization is worth joining.

During a dark time in American Masonic history, in the early nineteenth century, the movement was discredited and ridiculed. In November of 1826, after a member threatened to reveal the order's secrets, he was kidnapped and murdered by fellow Masons. After a very public trial, thousands left the order. But that was then. This is now. And the movement certainly has recovered from a time that was not at all representative of the men who now meet at the lodge once a week.

No one knows when Masonry really began. Some trace it all the way back to ancient Persia and Egypt and the building of the ziggurats and pyramids. Others say it began with the building of Solomon's Temple about three thousand years ago. Whatever the case, it certainly has a long and illustrious history. The modern Masonic Lodge is often called a temple because it is built following the pattern of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem and much of its ritual comes from those verses of the Bible that describe the construction.

The Masonic Knight's Templar trace their roots back to nine French knights who vowed to protect those who were on their way to the Crusades. They played an integral part in many battles during those times, earning a reputation for bravery. There are those who believe it was the Knights Templar who brought the Shroud of Turin, thought to be the burial shroud of Jesus, back to Europe and protected it down through the centuries. Some believe they had a part in the spiriting away of the Ark of the Covenant upon its disappearance (see Ark of the Covenant).

The first Masonic Grand Lodge was built in London in 1717. The order entered America through Boston in the eighteenth century. Many of America's founding fathers were Masons, and there is no question that many Masonic symbols found their way into the Great Seal and other national emblems.

The answer to the simple question, "Is Masonry a religion?" is not really straightforward. Masonry is not a religion. But Masons are religious. Although they will never try to convert anyone or change anyone's religion (by rule, it is forbidden), one has to believe in God in order to join the order. Meetings begin with prayer. Much of the ritual comes from the Old Testament of the Bible. Many Masons attend church on Sundays. Some of them nowadays may attend a synagogue.

If you attend a Masonic Lodge in your town during one of their open meetings, you will certainly not find a group of secret conspirators out to take over the world. You will find an order that is dwindling, probably due more to cultural patterns of modern lifestyle than anything else, a group of people who genuinely enjoy the company of others while engaged in the task of doing good things for the community and participating in a tradition with a long history.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
References in classic literature ?
"Yes, you do not know Him, my dear sir," said the Mason. "You cannot know Him.
You do not know Him, but He is here, He is in me, He is in my words, He is in thee, and even in those blasphemous words thou hast just uttered!" pronounced the Mason in a stern and tremulous voice.
The mason, after hesitating a long time between two-pounds-ten and five pounds, was emboldened by a fellow-workman, who treated him to some hot whiskey and water, to name the larger sum.
When the mason attempted to return to his ordinary work he was informed that he had contravened trade usage, and that his former employers would have nothing more to say to him.
"It don't sound right, Miss Mason. It just don't sound right.
"You like reading, Miss Mason?" he said, laying the book down.
Mason's MS.] This morning we had again some little trouble with the rod of the propeller, which must be entirely remodelled, for fear of serious accident - I mean the steel rod - not the vanes.
White Mason, whether you examined the farther side of the moat at once to see if there were any signs of the man having climbed out from the water?"
White Mason, to our going down to the house at once?
Mason stood near the fire, talking to Colonel and Mrs.
"And six wooden goblets, and six platters of wood and two of pewter to cat and drink from withal," said the mason, impressively.
"God bless them!" said Vergniaud, the sergeant, to the mason, when they reached the church porch.