Generally Freemasonry (or Masonry) is one of the world's oldest and largest secular fraternal organizations, whose members are concerned with moral and spiritual values. The Fraternity aims to unite men of differing beliefs into a harmonious and productive community through the application of Masonic moral values and the practice of benevolence, intellectual development, and mutual respect. The necessary prerequisite for acceptance into the Masonic fraternity is the belief in a Supreme Being and membership is open to men of all races and religions who profess belief in deity and are of good repute.
It is not known where Freemasonry began. The earliest recorded ‘making’ of a Freemason in England is that of Elias Ashmole in 1646. Organized Freemasonry began with the founding of the Grand Lodge of England on 24 June 1717, (St John’s Day), the first Grand Lodge in the world. Ireland followed in 1725 and Scotland in 1736. All the regular Grand Lodges in the world trace themselves back to one or more of the Grand Lodges in the British Isles.
There are two main theories of origin. According to one, the operative stonemasons who built the great cathedrals and castles had lodges in which they discussed trade affairs. They had simple initiation ceremonies and, as there were no City and Guilds certificates, dues cards or trade union membership cards, they adopted secret signs and words to demonstrate that they were trained masons when they moved from site to site. In the 1600s, these operative lodges began to accept non-operatives as “gentlemen masons”. Gradually these non-operatives took over the lodges and turned them from operative to ‘free and accepted’ or ‘speculative’ lodges.
The other theory is that in the late 1500s and early 1600s, there was a group, which was interested in the promotion of religious and political tolerance in an age of great intolerance when differences of opinion on matters of religion and politics were to lead to bloody civil war. In forming Freemasonry, they were trying to make better men and build a better world. As the means of teaching in those days was by allegory and symbolism, they took the idea of building as the central allegory on which to form their system. The main source of allegory was the Bible, the contents of which were known to everyone even if they could not read, and the only building described in detail in the Bible was King Solomon’s Temple, which became the basis of the ritual. The old trade guilds provided them with their basic administration of a Master, Wardens, Treasurer and Secretary, and the operative mason’s tools provided them with a wealth of symbols with which to illustrate the moral teachings of Freemasonry.
Freemasonry is a charitable, benevolent, educational and religious fraternity. Its principles are proclaimed as widely as men will hear. Its only secrets are in its methods of recognition and of symbolic instruction.
It is charitable in that it is not organized for profit and none of its income inures to the benefit of any individual, but all is devoted to the promotion of the welfare and happiness of mankind.
It is benevolent in that it teaches and exemplifies altruism as a duty.
It is educational in that it teaches by prescribed ceremonials a system of morality and brotherhood based upon the Sacred Law.
It is religious in that it teaches monotheism, the Volume of the Sacred Law is open upon its Altars whenever a Lodge is in session, reverence for God is ever present in its ceremonial, and to its Brethren are constantly addressed lessons of morality; yet it is not sectarian or theological.
It is a social organization in that it brings good men together in numbers to teach and practice the art of Freemasonry.
Through the art of Freemasonry, the improvement and strengthening of the character of the individual man, Freemasonry seeks to improve the community. Thus it impresses upon its members the principles of personal righteousness and personal responsibility, enlightens them as to those things which make for human welfare, and inspires them with that feeling of charity, or good will, toward all mankind which will move them to translate principle and conviction into action.
To that end, it teaches and stands for the reverence of God; truth and justice; fraternity and philanthropy; and enlightenment and orderly liberty - civil, religious and intellectual. It charges each of its members to be true and loyal to the government of the country to which he owes allegiance and to be obedient to the law of any State in which he may be.
Masonry abhors Tyranny as being repugnant to its concept of the dignity of the individual personality, destructive of the basic human rights which are the Divine heritage of all men, and contrary to the fundamental Masonic tenets of faith in God and the free exercise of religion.
It believes that the attainment of these objectives is best accomplished by laying a broad basis of principle upon which men of every race, country, sect and opinion may unite.
Believing these things, this Grand Lodge affirms its continued adherence to that ancient and approved rule of Freemasonry which forbids the discussion in Masonic meetings of creeds, politics or other topics likely to excite personal animosities.
It further affirms its conviction that it is contrary to the fundamental principles of Freemasonry and dangerous to its unity, strength, usefulness and welfare, for Masonic bodies to take action or attempt to exercise pressure or influence for or against any legislation, or in any way to attempt to procure the election or appointment of government officials, or to influence them, whether or not members of the Fraternity, in the performance of their official duties. The true Freemason acts in civil life according to his individual judgment and the dictates of his conscience
There are several bodies of Freemasonry of which a Master Mason may become a member after he has been raised a Master Mason. Some of these bodies you may have already heard of, but didn’t know they were comprised entirely of Masons such as the Shrine or Knights Templar. Essentially Freemasonry is divided into two primary bodies – the York Rite and the Scottish Rite, along with the Shrine and several appendant bodies.
The York Rite is an extension of the Blue Lodge through which you initially joined Freemasonry. There are fewer degrees in the York Rite than in the Scottish Rite, and are characterized as the Royal Arch, Cryptic Council and Knights Templar. These bodies provide opportunities for additional contemplation of the lessons taught in Craft Masonry, but a brother who progresses through all the bodies in Freemasonry is no “more a Mason” than one who is only a Master Mason.
The Scottish Rite is a more recent evolution, and developed as additional lessons to those taught in the York Rite. Unlike the York Rite, Scottish Rite degrees are simply numbered 4-33 with the 33rd Degree being honorary. Moreover, as in the York Rite and as all Masons understand, a 32nd or 33rd Degree Mason is again no “more a Mason” than any other Master Mason.
The Shrine is what some may consider the public view of Freemasonry. It is founded on the principles of the Craft but without the solemnity of the Blue Lodge. Among its many public and charitable functions, the Shrine is especially noted for its operation of the many Childrens’ Hospitals and Burn Institutes, as previously mentioned.
In addition to the above Masonic bodies there are several “appendant” organizations including the Order of Eastern Star, Job’s Daughters, Rainbow Girls, DeMolay, National Sojourners, High Twelve, Grotto, Tall Cedars of Lebanon, and others. In fact, there is a Masonic organization for every member of the family. For example, DeMolay is for boys, and Rainbow Girls for young ladies. There is also the Order of the Eastern Star (OES). Membership in the OES is open to all Master Masons, and to the female relatives of a Master Mason (who is living or deceased). OES is the largest Fraternal organization in the world to which both men and women may belong.