Freemasonry is a worldwide fraternal organization. Its members are 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 an esoteric art, in that certain aspects of its internal work are not generally revealed 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 this system is less effective if the observer knows beforehand what will happen. It often calls itself “a peculiar system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.”
History of Freemasonary
Freemasonry has been said to be an institutional outgrowth of the medieval guilds of stonemasons (1), a direct descendant of the “Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem” (the Knights Templar) (2), an offshoot of the ancient Mystery schools (1), an administrative arm of the Priory of Sion (3), the Roman Collegia (1), the Comacine masters (1), intellectual descendants of Noah (1), and to have many other various and sundry origins. Others will claim that it dates back only to the late 17th century, and has no real connections at all to earlier organizations.
Much of this is highly speculative, and the precise origins of Freemasonry may be lost in 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 even 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).
Some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints note similarities between the church’s sacred “Endowments” performed in LDS temples, and masonic rituals. Some Mormons have said this similarity may be because the Masonic rituals are descended from those given by God at the Temple of Solomon, and still contain many of the original truths. It may also be that early Mormon leaders (including Smith) were members of Freemasonry and incorporated its liturgy into the new religion.
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.
It seems reasonable to suppose that, whatever its precise origins, Freemasonry provided a haven for the unorthodox and their sympathizers during a time when such activity could result in one’s death, and that this has something to do with the tradition of secret meetings and handshakes. As the Middle Ages gave way to the Modern Age, the need for secrecy subsided, and Freemasons began to openly declare their association with the fraternity, which began to organize itself more formally.
In 1717, four Lodges which met 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 combined together and formed the first public Grand Lodge, the Grand Lodge of England (GLE). The years following saw Grand Lodges open throughout Europe, as the new Freemasonry spread rapidly. How much of this was the spreading of Freemasonry itself, and how much was the public organization 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.
Opinions about the origins, objectives and future of Freemasonry remain controversial from the times of its inception to our times. For example, Shoko Asahara, founder of the controversial Japanese religious group Aum Shinrikyo, has prophesied in some of his sermons that “in the future, Freemasonry will merge into united stream” with Aum Shinrikyo.
According to Sir Richard Burton, “Sufi-ism [was] the Eastern parent of Freemasonry.” (See, F. Hitchman, Burton, Volume 1, p. 286) The possibility that Burton was correct is examined in detail by Idries Shah in his book entitled The Sufis, beginning on page 205.
Main article: Grand LodgeThere are many different jurisdictions of governance of Freemasonry, each sovereign and independent of the others, and usually defined according to a geographic territory. There is thus 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 ruling authority of a Masonic jurisdiction is usually called a Grand Lodge, 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.
Most jurisdictions allow their members to visit Lodges in recognized jurisdictions without reservation, leaving it to the foreign Lodge to confirm that the two jurisdictions are in amity. The UGLE, on the other hand, requires its members to check with them before visiting lodges abroad to confirm amity – for example visiting American lodges is discouraged.
Contrary to popular belief, Freemasons meet as a Lodge and not in a lodge. (This is similar to the distinction made by Christians who meet as a church, with the actual building officially considered no more than a meeting place.)
According to Masonic legend, the operative lodges (the Medieval lodges of actual stonemasons) constructed a lodge building adjacent to their work site where the masons could meet for instruction and social contact. Normally this was on the southern side of the site (in Europe, the side with the sun warming the stones during the day.) The social part of the building was on the southern side, hence the social gathering of the lodge is still called the South.
Early speculative lodges (which included members who were not actual stonemasons) met in taverns and other convenient public meeting places, and employed a Tyler to guard the door from both malicious and simply curious people.
Lodge buildings have for many years been known as Temples. In many countries this term has now been replaced by Masonic Centre. (Shriners and their Temples.)
In North America, Masonic Lodges are typically known as “Blue Lodges”, and are the foundation of a collection of further “appended” Masonic groups or bodies: York Rite, Scottish Rite and The Shrine. To be a member of these other bodies, a man must pay dues to a Blue Lodge. The Blue Lodge and its ceremonies establish the fundamental bond which makes all Masons “brothers”, and is the cement which binds all other appendant Masonic bodies together.
Some specific specialist lodges exist within many Masonic jurisdictions.The most obvious are the specially constituted Lodges of “Research and Instruction” (R&I). These are associated with a world-wide organization of Masonic research, typically specialising in discovering and interpreting historical records and the meanings of Masonic symbolism left unrecorded, and for preserving and developing Masonic ritual. Membership in these many Lodges is typically open to interested members of other, normally-constituted Lodges.There are also Lodges formed by groupings of persons with similar interests or background, such as “old boy” Lodges associated with certain schools, universities, military units, or businesses.
Concordant and Appendant Bodies
Freemasonry is associated with several appendant bodies, such as the Scottish Rite, which is actually a complete system of Freemasonry, developed on the Continent (particularly in France), and the York Rite, which includes three sovereign and distinct rites, including the Holy Royal Arch, Royal and Select Masters (aka Cryptic Masonry) and Knights Templar.
In regard to the (Masonic) Templars, this particular organization is limited to Royal Arch and Cryptic Masons of the Christian faith and does not in any way impose this requirement on the entire York Rite system, as is commonly and erroneously believed.
Other groups include the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (Shriners), the Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm (Grotto), the Tall Cedars of Lebanon, the Society of Rosicrucians, and the Ancient and Heroic Order of the Gordian Knot, among numerous others, all of which tend to expand on the teachings of Craft or Blue Lodge Freemasonry – often with additional so-called higher degrees – while improving their members and society as a whole. The Shrine and Grotto tend to emphasise fun and philanthropy and are largely a North American phenomenon.
Different jurisdictions vary in how they define their relationship with such bodies. Some consider them wholly outside of Freemasonry proper. Others may give them some sort of formal recognition (or not). Some of these organizations may have additional religious requirements, compared to Freemasonry proper (or “Craft Masonry”), since they elaborate on Masonic teachings from a particular perspective.
There are also certain youth organizations (mainly North American) which are associated with Freemasonry, but are not necessarily Masonic in their content, such as the Order of DeMolay (for boys aged 12Ð21 who have Masonic sponsorship), Job’s Daughters (for girls aged 10-20 with proper Masonic relationship) and the International Order of the Rainbow for Girls (for girls 11Ð20 who have Masonic sponsorship). The Boy Scouts of America is not a Masonic organization, but was first nationally commissioned by Freemason Daniel Carter Beard. Beard exemplified the Masonic ideals throughout the Scouting program.
Freemasonry accepts members from almost any religion, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and so forth. In Lodges following in the Continental tradition, atheists and agnostics are also accepted, without qualification. Most other branches currently require 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 idealism (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, if joining a masculine jurisdiction (the case for the majority of jurisdictions), or a woman, if joining a feminine jurisdiction (unless joining a co-Masonic jurisdiction with no gender requirement),
- 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 (18Ð25 years depending on the jurisdiction),
- be of sound mind, body and of good morals, and
- be free (or “born free”, i.e. not born a slave or bondsman).
Traditionally, membership was limited to men only, and the degree of recognition that should be accorded to feminine and co-Masonic jurisdictions is still a matter of great controversy. The “free born” requirement does not come up in modern Lodges, and there is no indication that it would ever be enforced, but remains there for historical reasons (it is often interpreted as meaning something like “freethinking”). The “sound body” requirement is today generally taken to mean physically capable of taking part in Lodge rituals, and most Lodges today are quite flexible in accommodating disabled candidates.
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”. Freemasons are also commonly involved in public service and charity work, 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 organization 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 ones, and democratic revolutions (such as the United States and France on a smaller scale, but on a larger scale in other places such as Mexico, Brazil, 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 organizations 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 organizations, 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 other countries, where Freemasonry has been more recently, or is even currently, suppressed by the government, secrecy may be practised more in earnest.
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 exposŽs and anti-Masonic literature for, literally, centuries.
Women in Freemasonry
The position of women within Freemasonry is complex. Traditionally, only men could be made Freemasons. While this has been slowly changing, especially over the past century, there were exceptions to the rule as early as the 18th century. Perhaps the most authoritative account of a woman being admitted to Freemasonry in these early years surrounds Elizabeth Aldworth (nee St. Leger), who is reported to have viewed the proceedings of a Lodge meeting held at Doneraile House, the house of her father, first Viscount Doneraile, a resident of Cork, Ireland.
In the early part of the 18th century, it was customary for Lodges to be regularly held in private houses; this Lodge was duly warranted as number 150 on the register of the Grand Lodge of Ireland. Apparently, she removed a brick and saw the ceremony in the room beyond. After being discovered, Elizabeth’s situation was discussed by the Lodge, and it was decided that she should be initiated into Freemasonry.
The story is supported by other accounts that record how she was a subscriber to the Irish Book of Constitutions of 1744 and that she frequently attended, wearing her Masonic regalia, entertainments that were given under Masonic auspices for the benefit of the poor and distressed. She afterwards married Mr. Richard Aldworth of Newmarket. It is also reported that when she died she was accorded the honor of a Masonic burial.
International Co-Masonry began in France in 1882 with the initiation of Maria Deraismes into the Loge Libre Penseurs (Freethinkers Lodge), a men’s Lodge under the Grande Loge Symbolique de France. Along with activist Georges Martin, in 1893 Maria Deraismes oversaw the initiation of sixteen women into the first Lodge in the world to have both men and women as members, creating the jurisdiction Le Droit Humain (LDH).
In the United Kingdom and France, and most other countries, women still generally join co-Masonic Lodges, such as those under LDH, or they join Lodges under local jurisdictions that admit only women. In North America, it is more common for women not to become Freemasons per se, but to join an associated body with its own, separate traditions, such as the Order of the Eastern Star (OES), which admits only male Freemasons and their female relatives. In the Netherlands, there is a completely separate, although allied, sorority for women, the Order of Weavers (OOW), which uses symbols from weaving rather than stonemasonry.
The GOdF and other Continental jurisdictions give full formal recognition to co-Freemasonry and women’s Freemasonry. The UGLE and other Anglo jurisdictions do not formally recognize any Masonic body that accepts women, although in many countries they have an understanding and a kind of informal acceptance that such bodies are part of Freemasonry in a larger sense.
The UGLE, for instance, has recognized (since 1998) two local women’s jurisdictions as regular in practice, except for their inclusion of women, and has indicated that, while not formally recognized, these bodies may be regarded as part of Freemasonry. Thus, the position of women in Freemasonry is rapidly changing in the English-speaking world. While in many cases North America is following England’s lead on the issue of women, the remaining resistance to women in Freemasonry is mostly concentrated there.
Prince Hall Masonry
In 1775, an African American named Prince Hall was initiated into an Irish Constitution Military Lodge, along with fourteen other African Americans, all of whom were free by birth. When the Military Lodge left the area, the African Americans were given the authority to meet as a Lodge, form Processions on the days of the Saints John, and conduct Masonic funerals, but not to confer degrees nor to do other Masonic Work.
These individuals applied for, and obtained, a Warrant for Charter from the Grand Lodge of England in 1784 and formed African Lodge #459. Despite being stricken from the rolls (like all American Grand Lodges after the 1813 merger of the Antients and the Moderns) the Lodge restyled itself as the African Lodge #1 (not to be confused with the various Grand Lodges on the Continent of Africa), and separated itself from UGLE-recognised Masonry. This led to a tradition of separate, predominantly African American jurisdictions in North America, known collectively as Prince Hall Freemasonry.
Widespread racism and segregation in North America made it impossible for African Americans to join many so-called “mainstream” Lodges, and many mainstream Grand Lodges in North America refused to recognize as legitimate the Prince Hall Lodges and Prince Hall Masons in their territory.
Presently, Prince Hall Masonry is recognized by some UGLE-recognized Grand Lodges and not by others, and appears to be working its way toward full recognition. It is no longer unusual for traditional lodges to have significant African-American membership.
John Marrant the Huntingdonian minister preached to the Prince Hall Lodge on 24th June 1789. His Nova Scotia congregation was significant in the successful agitation for repatriation by Black Loyalists as well as the subsequent revolt which occurred in Sierra Leone in 1800.
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 compasses, 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). 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.
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 onÑwhether 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.
Freemasonry in the Arts
Mozart was a Freemason, and his opera, The Magic Flute, makes extensive use of Masonic symbolism. Two books that give a general feel for the symbolism and its interpretation are:
- Freemasonry: A Journey Through Ritual and Symbol by W.K. MacNulty, Thames & Hudson, London, 1991
- Symbols of Freemasonry by D. Beresniak and L. Hamani, Assouline, Paris, 2000.
The British author Rudyard Kipling also made use of Masonic symbolism and myth in his story, The Man Who Would Be King, which was later made into a film. Two adventurers are taken to be representatives of Alexander the Great because of their Masonic emblems.
Freemasonry in the Language
An expression often used in Masonic circles is to be on the square, meaning to be a reliable sort of person, and this has entered common usage. Another phrase from Freemasonry in common use is meeting on the level (without regard to social, economic, religious or cultural differences). The practice of Freemasonry is referred to amongst its members as the Craft, a term also used to distinguish the basic level of Freemasonry from other Masonic orders. A Mason who has served as Worshipful Master is known as a Past Master, which has passed into common use to indicate an expert in a subject.
Landmarks are the ancient and unchangeable precepts of Masonry, the standards by which the regularity of Lodges and Grand Lodges is judged. However, since each Grand Lodge is self-governing and no single authority exists over Craft Masonry, even these supposedly-inviolable principles can and do vary, leading to controversies and inconsistency of recognition. Some examples of common landmarks include:
- A belief in a Supreme Being is required of all candidates for the degrees. The definition of “Supreme Being” is generally left to the candidate’s discretion.
- The modes of recognition are to be kept inviolate. They consist of covert gestures made with the hands, called signs; distinctive ways of shaking hands, called grips and tokens; and special identifying passwords, most often based on Hebrew words of the Old Testament. Variations have crept in over time, and often the modes of recognition will mark a Mason as coming from a specific jurisdiction.
- The legend of the Third Degree, involving the building of King Solomon’s Temple, is an integral part of Craft Masonry.
- The government of Lodges in an area, usually geographic, is in the hands of a Grand Lodge, specifically the Grand Master or Provincial Grand Master. A Grand Master rules autocratically, but is elected democratically. He may attend any meeting, anywhere within his jurisdiction, at any time and may conduct the Lodge at his pleasure.
- Each Lodge is governed by a Master, variously styled Worshipful or Right Worshipful Master, and two other officers, called the Senior and Junior Wardens.A Senior and Junior Deacon assist the Master and his Wardens by passing messages and guiding candidates around the Lodge.
- The Inner Guard is situated by the door of the lodge to lock and unlock it as the need arises, to admit latecomers and candidates.
- All Lodges, when at work, must be tyled, that is, the door is guarded so that non-Masons may not enter or overhear the proceedings. The Tyler or outer guard, as his name implies, is situated outside the door of the Lodge “being armed with a drawn sword to keep off all intruders and cowans to Masonry”.
Freemasonry has a system of Lodges of Research and Instruction. Additionally, most Masonic jurisdictions appoint Lecturers who are empowered to research, develop and/or deliver lectures in Lodges for the purpose of instructing the members.
On 5 March 2001, the University of Sheffield in England established the Centre for Research into Freemasonry, as part of the University’s Humanities Research Institute, that “undertakes and promotes objective scholarly research into the historical, social and cultural impact of freemasonry, particularly in Britain.” The CRF is headed by Professor Andrew Prescott, a medieval historian and expert on humanities computing, who was initially seconded from the British Library to the University of Sheffield for three years to establish the new Centre.
Most Grand Lodges and many regional Masonic Centres/Temples have a library, which is used for research.
One notable collection is the collection at the library of the University of Poznan in Poland. Some 80,000 books are housed at the main library and the Chateau de Ciazen some 80km distant. These were reportedly collected during World War II when Heinrich Himmler’s SS confiscated the books of Masonic libraries in Germany and other occupied countries such as Belgium and stored this archive in Poland.
The Two Great Schisms of Freemasonry (1753 and 1877)
The GLE (Grand Lodge of England), along with those jurisdictions with which it was in amity, later came to be known colloquially as the Moderns, to distinguish them from a newer, rival group of Freemasonry, known as the Antients. The Antients broke away and formed their own Grand Lodge in 1753, prompted by the GLE’s making changes to the secret modes of recognition. Tensions between the two groups were very high at times. The Antients tended to be more working class in membership, and probably more Christian, while the Moderns were more aristocratic and educated, and less religiously orthodox.
Benjamin Franklin was a Modern and a Deist, for instance, but by the time he died, his Lodge had gone Antient, and would no longer recognize him as one of their own, declining even to give him a Masonic funeral (see Revolutionary Brotherhood, by Steven C. Bullock, Univ. N. Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1996). It has been speculated that the Antients desired a more Christian style of Masonry, since they made popular a higher degree, called the “Holy Royal Arch”, which is generally thought of as having a more Christian flavour than the first three degrees.
The schism was healed in the years following 1813, when the competing Grand Lodges were amalgamated into the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE), by virtue of a delicately worded compromise which returned the modes of recognition to their pre-1753 form, and kept Freemasonry per se as consisting of three degrees only, but which was ambiguously worded so as to allow the Moderns to think of the Antient Royal Arch degree as an optional higher degree, while still allowing the Antients to view it as the completion of the third degree . This compromise, along with subsequent changes made in 1815 , left English Masonry still clearly not Christian, but at the same time somewhat less comfortable for unorthodox members, such as Deists and Pantheists. The merger also marked a levelling of the Masonic membership, in terms of social class and education.
Because both the Antients and the Moderns had daughter Lodges throughout the world, and because many of those Lodges still exist, there is a great deal of variability in the Ritual used today, even between UGLE-recognized jurisdictions. Most Lodges conduct their Work in accordance with an agreed-upon single Rite, such as the York Rite (which is popular in the United States; not to be confused with York Rite), or the Canadian Rite (which is, in some ways, a concordance between the Rites used by the Antients and Moderns).
The second great schism in Freemasonry occurred in the years following 1877, when the GOdF started accepting atheists unreservedly. While the issue of atheism is probably the greatest single factor in the split with the GOdF, the English also point to the French recognition of women’s Masonry and co-Masonry, as well as the tendency of French Masons to be more willing to discuss religion and politics in Lodge. While the French curtail such discussion, they do not ban it as outright as do the English (see ). The schism between the two branches has occasionally been breached for short periods of time, especially during the First World War when American Masons overseas wanted to be able to visit French Lodges.
Concerning religious requirements, the oldest constitution of Freemasonry (that of Anderson, 1723) says only that a Mason “will never be a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious Libertine [Freethinker]” if he “rightly understands the Art”. The only religion required was “that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves”. Masons disagree as to whether “stupid” and “irreligious” are meant as necessary or as accidental modifiers of “atheist” and “libertine”.
It is possible the ambiguity is intentional. In 1815, the newly amalgamated UGLE changed Anderson’s constitutions to include more orthodox overtones: “Let a man’s religion or mode of worship be what it may, he is not excluded from the Order, provided he believes in the glorious Architect of heaven and earth, and practices the sacred duties of morality.” The English enforce this with a requirement for belief in a Supreme Being, and in his revealed will. While these requirements can still be interpreted in a non-theistic manner, they made it more difficult for unorthodox believers to enter the fraternity.
In 1849, the GOdF followed the English lead by adopting the “Supreme Being” requirement, but there was increasing pressure in Latin countries to openly admit atheists. There was an attempt at a compromise in 1875, by allowing the alternative phrase “Creative Principle” (which was less theistic-sounding than “Supreme Being”), but this was ultimately not enough for the GOdF, and in 1877 they went back to having no religious entrance requirements, adopting the original Anderson document of 1723 as their official Constitutions.
They also created a modified ritual that made no direct verbal reference to the G.A.O.T.U. (although, as a symbol, it was arguably still present). This new Rite did not replace the older ones, but was added as an alternative (European jurisdictions in general tend not to restrict themselves to a single Rite, like most North American jurisdictions, but offer a menu of Rites, from which their Lodges can choose.)
Freemasonry and Anticlericalism
Historically, Freemasonry has been identified with 19th-century bourgeois liberalism, and Freemasons have often tended to regard traditional Christianity as allied to reactionary powers defending the status quo against the advance of human freedom. Masonic Lodges of this period were often associated with anticlericalism, and were part of a broader movement, as is pointed out by Ralph Gibson: “The republican enemies of the Church did not simply attack it on the grounds of its political alignment, but also in terms of more positive ideologies: to the old traditions of the Enlightenment were added first positivism, and then scientism.
Science was supposed to be the key to the understanding of the universe, and even to enable men to grasp its essential meaning. Social science was believed to be able to provide the basis for an ethical system. This new faith was ardently preached under the Third Republic in Masonic lodges and circles of libre pensŽe, in learned journals, and in educated republican society in general” (A Social History of French Catholicism, 1789-1914 [London & New York: Routledge, 1989], pp.237-38).
Controversies over the historical involvements of Freemasonry and anticlericalism reach a peak in attempting to understand the role of Freemasonry in the history of anticlericalism in Portugal, Italy, and Mexico. Freemasons were prominent in the foundation of the modern Mexican state and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the writing of its anticlerical constitution. Under the regime of Plutarco El’as Calles, the enforcement of anticlerical laws provoked the Cristero War. These animosities persist. As recently as 2004, Norberto Cardinal Rivera of Mexico at a conference in Mexico City denounced the influence of Freemasonry.
Criticism, Persecution, and Prosecution
Because of the sometimes secret nature of its rituals and activities, Freemasonry has long been suspected by both church and state of engaging in subversive activities.
In modern democracies, Freemasonry is sometimes accused of being a sort of club, or network, where a lot of influence peddling, and perhaps illegal dealings, take place. In the early 1800s, William Morgan disappeared after threatening to expose Freemasonry’s secrets, causing some to claim that he had been murdered by Masons.
In Italy, in the 1970s, the P2 lodge was investigated in the wake of a financial scandal and a suspicious death. As a result, the Lodge was expelled from Italian Masonry (although it continued to function independently).
In Nice, France, the head prosecutor accused some judges and other judicial personnel of deliberately stalling or refusing to elucidate cases involving Masons.
In the 1990s in Britain, the Labor Party government tried unsuccessfully to pass a law requiring all public officials who were Masons to make their affiliation public.
Opinions about Freemasonry around the world may differ from place to place, but Freemasons always stress non-dogmatism and tolerance (albeit often within certain defined limits). This openness has led to friction between Freemasonry and organizations which hold a negative view of ecumenism, or are themselves intolerant towards other forms of belief and worship. Masons have been opposed throughout history by various religious groups, such as some Protestants and certain Muslims.
In general, there are two doctrinal objections to Freemasonry made by established Christian denominations, Catholic and non-Catholic alike:
- The ecumenical nature of Masonic membership, which is at odds with the claims of exclusivity of belief that distinguish the various religious denominations.
- The “esoteric” aspect of Masonic ritual, which is seen as synonymous with Gnosticism, declared heretical and suppressed by the early Christian church. (Manifestations of Gnosticism also appeared in the Jewish and Muslim communities, as Kabbalah and Sufism respectively; however, these movements have survived within Judaism and Islam.) Gnosticism is identified with the early Christian churches west of the Red Sea, such as the Egyptian and Ethiopean Coptic churches. The Nag Hammadi scrolls, discovered in Egypt, in 1945, which contain such apocrypha as the Gospel of Thomas, are considered to be Gnostic inspired or influenced. Thus, the possible connection between Gnosticism and the mythical Egyptian roots of Freemasonry is a subject of interest. The Rosicrucians, a modern Gnostic movement, claim such a connection.
The most vigorous opposition to the fraternity has come from the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is openly hostile to Freemasonry, deeming it at least partly responsible for the French Revolution and the resulting decline of the church in Europe. The Knights of Columbus and other Catholic fraternal organizations were established to provide alternatives to Freemasonry for observant Catholics. (Ironically, one of these organizations, Opus Dei, has been the target of accusations similar to those leveled against the Freemasons.) Although most Freemasons in the English-speaking world are Protestant, some Protestant churches hold that Freemasonry is incompatible with being a member of a community of Christian faith, based on the scriptural holding that “no man can serve two masters”.
The first papal condemnation of Freemasonry came in 1738 from Pope Clement XII in his papal bull “Eminenti Apostolatus Specula”, repeated by several later popes, notably Pope Leo XIII in the “encyclical Humanum Genus” (1884).
The 1917 Code of Canon Law explicitly declares that joining Freemasonry entailed automatic excommunication; the revised Code issued in 1983 does not explicitly name Masonic orders among the secret societies condemned in canon 1374. According to some interpretations of canon law, Roman Catholics are forbidden to become Freemasons by their church, though Freemasons do not bar Roman Catholics and it is not unusual to find Catholic members. The Eastern Orthodox church forbids its members from being Masons. Freemasonry is also discouraged by some denominations of Protestantism.
However, in a letter to the United States Bishops from the Office of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the interpretation was made clear – the prohibition against Catholics joining Masonic orders remains. Many Catholic Masons in the US choose to rely on the letter of the law.
One reason the Free Methodist Church was founded in the 1860s was that its founders believed the Methodist Church was being influenced by Freemasons and members of secret societies. The Free Methodist Church continues to prohibit its members from also joining societies such as the Freemasons. Recently the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest association of Baptists in the United States, also stated that participation in Freemasonry is inconsistent with its beliefs.
This form of criticism has been markedly reduced, since modern nation states like the USA and Europe in general are founded on religious tolerance, and many adherents of the religions that formally opposed Masons now believe in the main Masonic principles.
Political Conspiracy Theories Involving the Freemasons
Freemasonry has been a long-time target of conspiracy theories, which see it as an occult and evil power – often associated with the New World Order and other “agents,” such as the Pope, the Illuminati and Jews – either bent on world domination, or already secretly in control of world politics.
Nowadays, the main theme of anti-Masonic criticism involves the idea that Masons involve their organization in covert political activities. This assumption has been influenced by the assertion of Masons that many political figures in the past 300 years have been Masons.
Some say the Masons constantly plot to increase their power and wealth, others say the Masonic Brotherhood is engaged in a plot to produce a new world order of a type different (usually more sinister) than the existing world order. These theories would be possible to apply to almost any secret society (since a society with secret meetings allows secret coordination, the very essence of a conspiracy). Nevertheless, Masons have been the largest target because of their size and notable membership.
The historical complaints that the Masons have secretly plotted to create a society based on their ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, and religious tolerance, are not denied by Masons. In an enlightened age many have now accepted the core Masonic values as stated, and persistent enemies of the society have been forced to come up with more sinister motives as to what Freemasons allegedly conspire to achieve.
Freemasonry is almost universally banned in totalitarian states. In 1925, it was outlawed in Fascist Italy. In Nazi Germany, Freemasons were sent to concentration camps and all Masonic Lodges were ordered shut down. German Masons used the blue forget-me-not as a secret means of recognition and as a substitute for the traditional (and too easily recognized) square and compasses.
Criticisms of Masonic ‘Cronyism’
Another criticism that may or may not have to do with the specific nature of Freemasonry, but may be applied generally to any type of organization or secret society, is the practice of cronyism, or giving favors to fellow members. Anecdotely many have the impression that one increases chances for employment by joining the Masons. This type of cronyism can be seen in the movie “Gypysie”, where the general idea is alluded to, although possibly not in reference to Freemasons, but to fraternities like the Moose Lodge. Unscrupulous Masons have been known to claim they can get out of driving tickets because of Masonic logos on their car. Again, this criticism can be easily applied to almost any fraternity, but the Masons are a big target because they are the largest fraternity, and because they are worldwide, and not simply based in colleges.
Criticisms Based on the Moral Faults of Known Masons
Although fraternal organizations with religious overtones can be criticized for the moral faults of some of their members, Freemasonry is especially vulnerable to criticism because amongst its aims is the drive to improve its members’ morality above and beyond whatever religion the individual member might profess his preference for.
A general fault ascribed to the Masons is that a Freemason would be charitable mainly to other Masons, an assumption which is made worse by the accusations of classism and racism sometimes leveled against Masonic Lodges. The phrase “charity begins at home” goes some way towards justifying this natural proclivity.
Critics also attack what they perceive as a preoccupation with ritual minutiae and personal status (ie. degree, a concept critics call similar to the thrill of an RPG level) within the hierarchy of the organization. Some critics also argue that the Freemasons are primarily a social club.
Masons respond to these criticisms by pointing out that they can equally well be applied to Christians (or practically any religion) – the assumption being that if certain members of a group are bad, the group itself must be bad.
Criticism that Freemasonry is a New Religion
In a sectarian age many hold that Freemasonry is a new religion. Externally, to some at least, it has many similarities to a religion: it has its own version of the Bible (the VSL), it has its own way of saying “amen” (“So mote it be,” a literal translation of “Amen”), it has far more developed rituals than most Protestant denominations, some groups of Masons (especially the Scottish Rite) call their Lodges “temples,” and it has a large amount of iconography and symbolism. From the perspective of many religions, which feel that they present the perfect system of morality, any competing system of morality can be considered opposed to them – and if not strictly another religion, then certainly as competitor.
Many Masons argue in response that the ritual observances of Masons should be seen in the same context as rituals maintained in the military services, in government, and civil authorities. It has been argued that any organized system of morality (which the Masons claim to be) is a religion; the Green Party might thus qualify as such.
Criticism that Freemasonry Worships Satan
While the practice of any given magical or mystical system is not specifically associated with Freemasonry (mainstream Masonry has always tended as much to rationalism as to mysticism), there are some groups of Masons, such as Masonic Rosicrucians, that may interpret Masonic ritual magically (or “hermetically”), which is their right as Masons, given the fraternity’s non-dogmatic stance.
However, the very existence of hermetic interpretations within Masonry has lead some Christians to label Freemasonry as “Satanic”. This charge is commonly made about any hermetic society that has ritualistic practices reserved for the initated.
Many Anti-Masonic activists quote Albert Pike’s Morals and Dogma to “prove” that Masons worship Lucifer. The oft-quoted section (Chapt. XIX; p.321) reads:
Some Masons counter that the critics who cite this as evidence of Freemasonry’s Satanic leanings ignore the first part of the passage while emphasizing the association of Lucifer with Light. Alternately,the argument is made that because a Pike claims the works of Plato and Philo were as divinely inspired as the The Apocalypse of Saint John, and b that Plato and Philo were pre-Christian pagans, and c that all pagan beliefs are Satanic, and therefore d that Pike (and Freemasonry) practice Satan worship.
Other Masons counter simply by pointing out that Masonry is non-dogmatic, and hence Pike’s opinions about it are his own personal (and now somewhat out-dated) interpretations.
The Roman Catholic Church has repeatedly condemned Freemasonry, and although not claiming that it is directly Satanic, the church has claimed that Freemasonry has “led on or assisted” “partisans of evil” (from Humanum Genus).
Much of the landscape of Washington D.C. is thought by many to be inspired by, or directly designed by, Freemasons, including the layout of national buildings, the mapping of streets and roadways, and the placement of national monuments. This has caused some to speculate that some of the esoteric practices and symbolism in Freemasonry, seen as “occult”, have embedded themselves within the structure of several governments – in this case, the United States.
Criticism of Masonic Blood Oaths
The traditional Masonic obligations, sworn by a candidate during the initiation ritual, are sometimes called “blood oaths”, particularly by those critical of the fraternity. The candidate wishes severe physical punishment upon himself should he ever reveal the secrets of Freemasonry to a non-Mason. While many non-Masons are horrified by this, Masons defend the traditional obligations as no more literal than the commonplace childhood “blood oaths”, like “cross my heart and hope to die”Ña very psychologically powerful way to express a serious bond or promise.
In addition, some Masons argue that the bloody punishments mentioned in the obligations are, historically, references to the punishments that the state used to inflict on defenders of civil liberties and religious freedoms, such as Freemasons. But in spite of repeated attempts to defend them, by the early 1980s, the “blood oaths” had become quite problematic from a public relations standpoint, and many Masonic jurisdictions replaced them with more politically correct “bloodless oaths”.
Some conspiracy theorists look at certain historical killings and deduce that they were done as a fulfillment of the blood oath. In particular, Jack the Ripper is theorized by some to have been a Mason made psychotic for having to carry out a blood oath, and who then killed random people in the same fashion. Masons counter that the Ripper mutilations have no similarity to the symbolic punishments of the Masonic obligations.It should be noted that there are only 3 penalties that Masonry can actually impose on a member: censure, suspension of membership, and expulsion.
Criticisms of the Process of Becoming a Freemason
It is commonly held that individuals become Freemasons through invitation, patrimony, or other non-democratic means, but officially an individual must ask freely and without persuasion to become a Freemason in order to join the fraternity.This arrangement is said by some to conflict with the Freemasons mission to “make good men better”, on the basis that a hidden society cannot promote itself publicly. If the society is secret, it is argued, how is a good man supposed to be attracted to it?
In practice, Freemasons have been known not to question the motives of anyone seeking membership, but clearly members are going to prefer those individuals who can offer something of value to the group, and will thus indicate to potential members some clue that they may be appropriate candidates; it is then incumbent upon the seeker to make the request.
Many of these myths have taken hold in the imagination of “conspiracy buffs” partly because many Freemasons, like government intelligence agencies and big business, and understanding the value of misinformation, have had a tendency of allowing the uninitiated to argue amongst themselves, so that the truth remains private. Masons have only in recent years attempted to make their organization more open to public view.
U.S. Presidents who were Freemasons
George Washington, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln (inducted postmortem by the lodge that he had petitioned for, and was denied, membership in while running for the U.S. Senate), Andrew Johnson, James Garfield, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Warren Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford.
Famous early Americans who were Freemasons: Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Benedict Arnold, Stephen Austin, Jim Bowie, David Crockett, and Sam Houston.
Rudyard Kipling used masonic symbols and characters in some of his writings, most notably The Man Who Would Be King.
One of the main characters in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace becomes a Freemason.
The plot of the opera “Die Zauberflšte” (“The Magic Flute”) contains several references to Masonic ideals and ceremonies. Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder were brothers in the same Masonic lodge.
Freemasons, along with the Illuminati and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, feature heavily in Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s satire, The Illuminatus! Trilogy.
Dan Brown’s bestselling books Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code draw heavily on Masonic lore and symbolism.
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco also deals with Masonry.
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion was a Freemason as were the first five presidents of the Church: Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow. When the Mormons first settled Utah, the entire church hierarchy was composed of Freemasons. Many Mormon symbols and rituals bear a striking similarity to Masonic ceremonies.
One of the main characters in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace becomes a Freemason.
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