All there is to know about Freemasonry

                                               An academic study of Freemasonry 

 

Sourced From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

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 constitutional declaration of belief in a Supreme Being. Freemasonry is an esoteric society, in that certain aspects of its internal work are not generally disclosed to the public, but it is not an occult system, and in recent years, it has become less and less a "secret society" than a "society with secrets". However, there are numerous reasons for the amount of secrecy which remains, 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 is often referred to as "a beautiful system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols." 

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Structure

1. lodges

2 Membership Requirements

2.1 Women in Freemasonry

2.2 Prince Hall Masonry

3 Principles and activities
4 Ritual and symbols

4.1 Degrees

5 Landmarks
6 History of Freemasonry

 6.1 The two great schisms of Freemasonry (1753 and 1877)

7Criticism, persecution, and prosecution

8 Contemporary challenges

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There are many different jurisdictions of governance of Freemasonry, each sovereign and independent of the others, and usually defined according to a national or geographic territory. There is no central Masonic authority, and in any event many practices are determined by Lodge custom, so any general description will inevitably be inaccurate in respect of some places.

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. However, it is common to forbid the discussion of Religion or Politics, so precluding any discrimination by reference to those subjects.

Freemasonry is often said to consist of two different branches: the Anglo-Saxon 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 first jurisdiction in the Anglo-Saxon branch of Freemasonry was the Grand Lodge of England, founded in 1717. After internal division, this Grand Lodge became known as the Moderns, but was reunited with the breakaway Antients Grand Lodge in 1813, to become the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE). It is today the largest, the only regular Craft 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.

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Lodges

A Lodge is the basic organisation of Freemasonry. Every new Lodge must be warranted by a Grand Lodge, but is subject to its direction only in enforcing the published Constitutions. A candidate for freemasonry must apply to a Lodge and be elected by its subscribing members after due enquiry; a single black ball (adverse vote) will often suffice to exclude a candidate. Once initiated, a freemason must take further degrees in his "Mother Lodge" before he is certified as a full Master Mason. At least in theory, a Master Mason is generally entitled to visit any Lodge, provided that he hails from a jurisdiction that is "in amity" with that of the host Lodge.

Contrary to popular belief, Freemasons meet as a Lodge and not in a Lodge. Lodge buildings have for many years been known as temples, but in the Irish Constitution  Masonic Centre or Hall has now replaced this term. Several different Lodges often use the same premises, each on regular dates shown in published calendars.

According to some Masonic legends, the operative lodges (the Medieval lodges of actual stonemasons) constructed a lodge building adjacent to their work site where the masons could meet for shelter, 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, (the Festive or Social Board), of the lodge is sometimes 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 it is said they employed a Tyler to guard the door against non-members, either malicious or simply curious people. This could be a revision of the word tether, used to tie the door closed, or simply a reference to the trade of the unskilled workmen employed as doorkeepers. The word Freemason may refer to these masons being "free" from work: they met to talk about masonic theory rather than practice or actually build anything; it could also relate to the liberal or "free" arts upon which much of freemasonry was based during its development in the Age of Enlightenment; or it may simply refer to the superior grade of masons who worked in freestone, as the word is used in early English statutes.

Today, most Lodges meet in buildings or rooms especially dedicated to holding meetings (see above). Many Lodges are formed by Masons from a specific area, those living within a given town or neighborhood. Other Lodges, particularly in urban areas where there are many Lodges close together, are formed by persons who share a particular interest or background, such as "old boy" lodges associated with certain schools, universities or military units. Others will concentrate on a particular profession: plumbers, stock brokers, fire fighters or insurance salesmen. Each Lodge is entirely free to elect its own membership, and to regulate itself under its applicable constitution and by-laws.

There are also specialist lodges within many Masonic jurisdictions. The most obvious are the Lodges of "Research and Instruction" (R&I). These may be associated with a worldwide organization of Masonic research, typically specializing in discovering and interpreting historical records and the meanings of Masonic symbolism left unrecorded, and for preserving and developing Masonic ritual. Membership in these lodges is typically open to interested members of other Lodges. However, this is by no means a standard practice, given that every Grand Lodge maintains its own jurisdiction as it sees fit.

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Concordant and Appendant Bodies, Other Degrees and Orders

There is no Masonic degree higher than a Master Mason, although some Masonic bodies denominate numerically higher degrees. It is essential to be a Master Mason in order to qualify for these further bodies, each of which is organised and administered more or less similarly to freemasonry itself. In each organisation there is a system of offices (which confer rank within that degree or order alone).

Freemasonry is associated with several appendant bodies, such as the Scottish Rite, which is a system of Freemasonry developed on the Continent (particularly in France), and the York Rite which in America includes three distinct sovereign rites: the Holy Royal Arch, Royal and Select Masters (aka Cryptic Masonry), and Knights Templar. In most jurisdictions the Templars are limited to Cryptic Masons of the Christian faith, but this does not in any way impose this requirement on the entire York Rite system, as is commonly believed.

Other groups include the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine , the Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm , the Tall Cedars of Lebanon, and others, all of which tend to expand on the teachings of Craft or Blue Lodge Freemasonry — often with so-called higher degrees — while improving their members and society as a whole. The Shrine and Grotto, which are mostly located in North America, tend to emphasize fun and philanthropy. Though these other aforementioned bodies expand on the original three degrees of "Blue Lodge" or "Craft" Masonry, they do not constitute higher orders.

Different jurisdictions vary in how they define their relationship with such bodies, if at all. Some may give them some sort of formal recognition, while others consider them wholly outside of Freemasonry proper. Not all such bodies will be universally considered as appendant bodies, some being simply considered as more or less separate organizations that happen to require Masonic affiliation for membership. Some of these organizations have additional religious requirements, beyond "Craft Masonry", since they approach 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 DeMolay International (for boys aged 12–21), Job's Daughters International (for girls aged 10-20 with proper Masonic relationship) and the International Order of the Rainbow for Girls (for girls 11–20 who have Masonic sponsorship). The Boy Scouts of America, founded in 1910 by William D. Boyce, is not a Masonic organization, but when Daniel Carter Beard joined the BSA in 1910 as one of their National Scout Commissioners, he merged his group, the Sons of Daniel Boone, into the fledging BSA, and he is said to have exemplified the Masonic ideals throughout the Scouting program.

The Order of the Eastern Star was created in the the United States in the mid 19th century for female masonic relatives and master masons. Its members are mainly the wives and daughters of Master Masons.

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Membership Requirements

Freemasonry accepts members from almost any monotheistic religion. 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 idealism. 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:

  1. be a man who comes of his own free will

  2. 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),

  3. be at least the minimum age (18–25 years depending on the jurisdiction, but commonly 21),

  4. be of sound mind, body and of good morals, and of good repute.

  5. be free (or "born free", i.e. not born a slave or bondsman),

  6. have one or two references from current Masons (depending on jurisdiction).

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.

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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 eighteenth century. Perhaps the most authoritative account of a woman being admitted to Freemasonry in these early years surrounds Elizabeth Aldworth (born 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 honour of a Masonic burial.

While Mrs. Aldworth's situation was a very irregular (and perhaps unique) one, the admission of women was systematized when International Co-Freemasonry (or 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. In 1893, along with activist Georges Martin, 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). 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.

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Prince Hall Masonry

In 1775, an African American named Prince Hall was initiated into an Irish Constitution Military Lodge then in Boston, Massachusetts, 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 in the 19th and early 20th centuries made it impossible for African Americans to join most of the so-called mainstream lodges, and many mainstream Grand Lodges in North America refused to recognize the Prince Hall Lodges and Prince Hall Masons in their territory as legitimate.

At present, Prince Hall Masonry is recognized by some UGLE-recognized Grand Lodges and not by others, but appears to be working its way toward full recognition It is also no longer unusual for traditional lodges to have significant numbers of African-American members. The majority of Masonic Grand Lodges in the United States now grant at least some degree of recognition to the Prince Hall Lodges.

 

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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, in theory, considerable variance in the emphasis on these different aspects of Masonry around the world. In Continental Europe, the philosophical side of Freemasonry is emphasized, while in Britain, North America, and the English-speaking parts of the world, charity tends to be emphasized by Masonic Lodges. Nevertheless, philosophy and esoteric knowledge remains a deep interest to many Freemasons in the English-speaking world, though, as the term, 'esoteric' surely implies, it is not immediately accessible to the beginner. Rather, in Britain and America, etc., the philosophical aspects of the 'Craft' tend to be discussed privately by the most dedicated Masons, sometimes in formal, and sometimes informal, organizations. Although non-Masons often regard Freemasonry as a "secret society," Freemasonry is neither a unified society (there being several groups not in a relationship with one another), nor are the secrets of Freemasonry secret. These have been published countless times, and can be found in many good libraries. Moreover, Freemasons themselves frequently reprint the "secrets" in scholarly studies that are available to the public, even though the "obligation" of Freemasonry technically prohibits this. Indeed, one of the least championed, though most important aspects of Masonry is its dedication to scholarly exploration of the "Craft".

Freemasonry as an organisation does not involve itself in politics. Thus, to quote the second rule or 'charge of a FreeMason', published by James Anderson in 1723, "A Mason is a peacable Subject to the Civil Powers, wherever he resides or works, and is never to be concern'd in Plots or Conspiracies..." It has been argued that some of its members have, over the centuries, supported political movements that in some way express notions similar to those of Freemasonry, e.g., the American Revolution. It is certainly true that some on the revolutionary side (such as George Washington) were Freemasons, though Freemasons were also present in the British and loyalist camps.

While freemasonry is often perceived as a monolithic movement, a number of organizations claim the title, with varying degrees of legitimacy. The Grand Orient of France, for example, accepts atheists as members, while most other "Masonic" Lodges and Grand Lodges will not. This has led to the belief that Freemasonry has, at times, taken on anti-Catholic and anti-clerical overtones. Yet, it is clear from the first charge recorded by Anderson, that such a stance is contrary to Masonic principle:

"A Mason is oblig'd, by his Tenure, to obey the moral Law, and if he rightly understands the Art, he will never be a stupid Atheist, nor an irreligious Libertine. But though in ancient Times masons were charg'd in every Country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was; 'tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all men agree, leavng their particular Opinions to themselves, that is, to be good Men and true, or Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denomination or persuasions they may be distinguish'd..."

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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). 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.

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Degrees

These are the degrees of Freemasonry:

  1. Entered Apprentice

  2. Fellow Craft

  3. 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. These three degrees are also known as the 'Blue Degrees'.

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Landmarks

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".

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History of Freemasonry

The origins of Freemasonry are unknown. The Masonic ritual claims that the fraternity was founded by the workmen who built King Solomon’s Temple but there is no documentary basis for this claim, and Freemasons themselves will admit that this ritualistic foundation myth is allegorical rather than factual. Beyond mythology, there is a distinct absence of documentation as to Freemasonry’s origins, which has led to a great deal of speculation among historians, both from within and from outside the fraternity. Hundreds of books have been written on the subject. 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.

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 organizations.

It is thought by many that Freemasonry cannot be a straightforward outgrowth of medieval guilds of stonemasons. Amongst the reasons given for this conclusion are the facts 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 practicing 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 speculative ones.

By 1583, the date of the Grand Lodge manuscript, the documentary evidence begins to grow. The Schaw Statues of 1598-9(4) are the source used to declare the precedence of Lodge Mother Kilwinning in [Kilwinning], Ayrshire, Scotland over Lodge Mary's Chapel in [Edinburgh], described as Head and Principal respectively. As a side note, Kilwinning is numbered Kilwinning #0 following a dispute over numbering at the formation of Grand Lodge of Scotland. 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.

By the early 1600’s we start to find references to Freemasonry in personal diaries and journals. For example Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), who was made a Mason in 1646, makes note of attending several Masonic meetings. And we know that Speculative Masons were being admitted into Lodges as early as 1634. There appears to be a general spread of the Craft during this era.

Then, 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 founded the Grand Lodge of England (GLE). With the foundation of this first Grand Lodge, Freemasonry shifted from being an obscure, relatively private, institution into the public eye. The years following saw new Grand Lodges open throughout England and Europe, and this new form of Freemasonry spread rapidly. How much of this growth was the spreading of Freemasonry itself, and how much was due to 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.

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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. 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 (see below), 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. 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.)

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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. Due to the appearance of secrecy, and the possibility it might be implicated in rebellion, Freemasonry inserted words into its ritual that say to the newly initiated Freemason (similar to), "... you are to be a quiet and peaceable citizen, true to your government, and just to your country; you are not to countenance disloyalty or rebellion, but patiently submit to legal authority, and conform with cheerfulness to the government of the country in which you live." In similar manner, a promise made by a Mason before being made Master of his lodge is to, "... pay a proper respect to the civil magistrates...." (Duncan's "Masonic Ritual and Monitor", 1866)

In modern democracies, Freemasonry is sometimes accused of being a sort of club, or network, where a lot of influence peddling and illegal dealings take place. In 1826, William Morgan disappeared after threatening to expose Freemasonry's secrets, causing some to claim that he had been murdered by Masons.

In Italy, from the 1970s to the 2000s, the P2 lodge has been investigated in the wake of a financial scandal that nearly bankrupted the Vatican Bank in the late 1970s, as well as on suspicion of involvement in numerous murders, including the head of Banco Ambrosiano, Roberto Calvi, who was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London, England, with five kilos of stone in his pockets. The trial of some of Calvi's alleged killers will begin in the autumn of 2005.

While P2 is the most famous incident cited by critics of Freemasonry, there are other instances in other countries as well: in Nice, France, the head prosecutor accused some judges and other judicial personnel of deliberately stalling or refusing to elucidate cases involving Masons, and in Britain, the Labour Party government is currently planning to pass a law requiring all public officials who are members of any fraternal organisation to make their affiliation public.

Freemasonry has also 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 Illuminati; either bent on world domination, or already secretly in control of world politics.

One of the major religious objections to Freemasonry brought up by many mainstream Christian churches is the charge of Syncretism and that the religious aim of Freemasonry is the creation of a new 'super' or 'universal' religion created by combining various deities and teachings, many of which are pre-Christian.

In general, there are two doctrinal objections to Freemasonry made by established Christian denominations, Catholic and non-Catholic alike:

  • The non-dogmatic nature of Masonry, which is at odds with the claims of exclusivity of belief that distinguish the various religious denominations. Masonry itself takes no position on the validity of any given religion, but welcomes all men who believe in God, by whatever name they call him.

  • The esoteric aspect of Masonic ritual, which is seen as synonymous with Gnosticism, was declared heretical and suppressed by the early Christian church. (Some believe that manifestations of Gnosticism also appeared in the Jewish and Muslim communities, as Kabbalah and Sufism respectively; however, these movements have survived within those religions.)

Nowadays, the main theme of anti-Masonic criticism involves the idea that Masons involve their organisation 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. Opinions vary concerning this: some say the Masons constantly plot to increase their power and wealth, while others say the Masonic Brotherhood is engaged in a plot to produce a new world order of a type different (and 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). However, Masonry has been the largest target because of its size and notable membership.

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 organisation or secret society, is the practice of cronyism, or giving favours to fellow members. For example, many people have the impression that one increases chances for employment by joining the Masons, which has no verifiable basis in fact. This type of cronyism can be seen in the movie Gypsy, where the general idea is alluded to.

While any institution with moral overtones can be criticized for the moral faults of its 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 believes in.

One 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 the organisation. The phrase "charity begins at home" explains this situation very readily, and there is no institutionalized racism or classism within Freemasonry, as visible through the membership requirements above.

In a sectarian age many hold that Freemasonry is a new religion. Externally, to some at least, it has many similarities to a religion, for the following reasons:

  • it has an altar and a sacred book (VSL-The Volume of the Sacred Law, in most cases the Holy Bible)

  • it has its own way of saying "amen" ("So mote it be," a literal translation of "Amen")

  • it has far more developed rituals than many organized religions

  • Masonic meeting places are often called in some Constitutions as "temples" but in the Irish Constitution the meeting place is referred to as a Masonic centre or hall

  • it has a large amount of iconography and symbolism.

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; they impress no religious obligation whatsoever on the participants. The symbolism that Masonry uses is not indicative of any one religion, but more of universal symbols. In another sense, 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.

While regular Masonry has always tended as much to rationalism as it does to mysticism, there are some groups of Masons, such as Masonic Rosicrucians, who may interpret Masonic ritual magically (or "hermetically"). This is their right as Masons, given the fraternity's non-dogmatic stance, but is by no means indicative of the fraternity as a whole. However, the very existence of the possibility of hermetic interpretations within Masonry has led some Christians to label Freemasonry as Satanic. This charge is commonly made about any hermetic society that has ritualistic practices reserved for the initated and also against any beliefs other than the religion of the person making the accusation.

Many Anti-Masonic activists quote Albert Pike's Morals and Dogma to try to show that Masons worship Lucifer. The oft-quoted section (Chapt. XIX; p.321) reads:

The Apocalypse is, to those who receive the nineteenth Degree, the Apotheosis of that Sublime Faith which aspires to God alone, and despises all the pomps and works of Lucifer. LUCIFER, the Light-bearer! Strange and mysterious name to give to the Spirit of Darkness! Lucifer, the Son of the Morning! Is it he who bears the Light, and with its splendors intolerable blinds feeble, sensual or selfish Souls? Doubt it not! for traditions are full of Divine Revelations and Inspirations: and Inspiration is not of one Age nor of one Creed. Plato and Philo, also, were inspired.

Alternatively, the argument is made that because Pike claims the works of Plato and Philo were as divinely inspired as The Apocalypse of Saint John, and because Plato and Philo were pre-Christian pagans, and that all pagan beliefs are Satanic, therefore Pike and other Freemasons are Satan worshippers.

The first argument is countered by noting that the critics who cite this as evidence of Freemasonry's Satanic leanings ignore the first part of the passage emphasizing the association of Lucifer with Light. The second argument is countered simply by pointing out that Masonry is non-dogmatic, and thus Pike's opinions are his own personal (and now somewhat outdated) interpretations. Most tellingly, Pike himself admits that his book is culled more from other sources than it is his original work. On the factual level, while Plato may be classified as a pagan, Philo was a Hellenized Jew.

The traditional Masonic obligations sworn by a candidate during the initiation ritual are sometimes called blood oaths 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 than a very psychologically powerful way to express a serious bond or promise. By the early 1980s, however, the oaths had become quite problematic from a public relations standpoint, and many Masonic jurisdictions replaced them with more politically correct bloodless oaths. The only real penalties awaiting someone who behaves contrary to the rules of the fraternity are reprimand, suspension, or expulsion. The traditional obligations now serve nothing more than a historical purpose.

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 recent years, however, Masonry has become more public in certain jurisdictions in order to raise its community visibility, so the criticism loses some of its weight.

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Contemporary challenges

Like many other fraternal organisations in the post-World War II era, Freemasonry in some districts of the United States, the UK and other Anglo jurisdictions has been losing members, through attrition, faster than it can replenish its rolls. In the United States, the average age of members is around 45. In Australia the average age is over 60. Television is the most likely cause for the decline of fraternal organisations, with men now more inclined to stay home after dinner. In contrast, the number of Masons is generally on the rise in South America and Continental Europe.

Many Grand Lodges in the U.S. have tried a variety of often-controversial measures to address declining membership, including "one-day" ceremonies of the three degrees for large groups of candidates (as opposed to individual degree conferrals taking months or years to complete), advertising on billboards, and even active recruitment of new candidates by members (as opposed to the tradition of considering only those who actively seek membership for themselves). Some Masons object to the traditions and principles of Freemasonry being diluted by these changes, feeling that the Fraternity has survived centuries of social change without changing itself; others cite a need for Freemasonry to modernize and make itself relevant to new generations.

U.S. Freemasonry also faces an image problem because some people perceive it as being racist. This is due in part to the fact that only three Grand Lodges in the states that were part of the Confederacy during the Civil War era now recognize their Prince Hall counterparts (all those in the Northern part of the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii, recognize their Prince Hall counterparts).

In Britain, Freemasons are strongly associated with the various police forces throughout the island. In Scotland, they have long been accused of being anti-Catholic. Scotland has a large Catholic minority.

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