Masons, also known as Freemasons, are members of a fraternity or brotherhood that operates around the world. Although they are not a religious institution, per se, they do require a belief in a supreme being as part of their entry conditions. They have existed for hundreds of years but focus today on community work and developing good morals. Despite their emphasis on service and ethics, their tradition of keeping some elements of membership and operation secret have made them the target of both discrimination and conspiracy theories.
The Freemasons operate around the world, with large jurisdictions each having a main Grand Lodge with smaller branches. These subgroups are known as blue or beginner lodges. The fraternity adopted these terms based on the traditional makeshift lodges builders would erect for shelter on the sides of cathedrals they were working on.
One negative myth surrounding Masonry is that the fraternity essentially is out to dominate the world. In reality, even though Grand Lodges oversee their blue lodges, each one operates largely independently, with every group ultimately determining its own rituals and obligations. With such a lack of true cohesion and no single governing entity, the group simply does not have the collective power to force movement toward specific activities, and in fact, such force goes against its core principles.
Each lodge normally has a Worshipful (Honorable) Master, or president. The positions of Senior and Junior Wardens are similar to vice presidencies. Deacons typically serve as messengers, while Stewards provide refreshments. Chaplains lead a non-denominational prayer, but they don't necessarily have to be a member of the clergy. Other roles include Secretary and Treasurer.
General Goals and Objectives
Although each order is free to operate on its own, as a whole, modern Masons support the idea of remaining morally upright, teaching ethics related to "brotherly love, relief and truth." They also generally believe it is important to develop and maintain fraternal friendships, which they associate with a solid society. Members usually try to support various charities in the community for these reasons. One of the main purposes for their meetings is to share information, to develop intellectually and ethically so that they appreciate the world more and learn to make it better.
Freemasonry is based on a strong set of principles, and as a result, most members believe that joining the fraternity represents not just coming into a group, but adopting a way of life. They typically do not want to pressure anyone into membership and instead usually assert that commitment to the Masons has to be a personal decision. In most cases, current Masons cannot ask someone to join.
With those inside the group usually forbidden to or limited in their ability to solicit others, men who want to join have to inquire about applying on their own. Once they submit an application, members try to learn about the applicant's character and goals. If all goes well, they let him start learning and working with the organization.
Traditionally, to join, an applicant has to be a free man who can provide one or two character references, who is of sound mind and body (physical disabilities are fine if they don't interfere with work in the group), and who has a strong moral sense with a belief in a supreme being. In most regions, a man has to be 18 - 25 years old, although some branches occasionally allow sons of members to join earlier.
Although official, regular Masonry is still exclusive to men, some female orders have formed and practice based on traditional principles. Most of these are found within the United States. An example of an order that accepts women is the Order of the Eastern Star.
Members progress through different levels or degrees as they develop and learn in the organization. The first is Entered Apprentice, which simply grants Mason status. Fellow Craft is an intermediate level during which a member is expected to explore himself, his faith and the world. The third degree, Master Mason, lets a member participate in most activities within the group. Some orders acknowledge additional degrees, but these usually are seen as "add ons" or supplements to the third degree, not truly separate levels.
Once someone is a Mason, the fraternity expects him to abide by certain obligations, which can vary somewhat based on the order. Typical requirements include keeping the fraternity's secrets, attending regular meetings if possible, following both the laws of his jurisdiction and faith, acting charitably and being honest without the intent to defraud. The group has outlined a set of physical punishments for disregarding these obligations that get progressively more severe the higher someone's level is, but these are largely symbolic and are intended mainly to make the offending member think hard about the negative things he has done. The fraternity may reprimand, suspend or expel members if it feels such action is necessary.
Privacy and Conspiracy
The Masons are technically a public organization. They keep certain elements of their rituals private, however, such as how members of a lodge recognize each other and gain entrance to a meeting. This cloak of secrecy has led many people to look unfavorably on members and to be hesitant to extend trust to them. In fact, the fraternity regularly has been the target of various types of discrimination, with conspiracy theorists frequently tying the group to power quests and negative events around the world — some of this comes from the fact that many powerful political leaders have been members. In the United States, for example, anxieties rose high enough in the 19th century that people formed the Anti-Masonic Party, even supporting candidates for the 1828 and 1832 presidential elections.
The official stance of the group is that it is not and was never intended to be a religion, with members stressing that the fraternity does not have a unique theology. The fraternity does require those who join to accept a supreme being or Great Architect of the Universe, but lodges generally let an applicant interpret Him, Her or It on his own, accepting people of many different religions. The idea behind this stipulation is that association with a religion of the member's choice can help him see the world and others under a bigger, more compassionate lens, and that it will be the ultimate compass in everyday living.
Misunderstanding of this concept has led to outsiders thinking that the group is a cult. The very fact it does not profess one religion as being supreme has drawn harsh criticisms, as well, especially when coupled with other practices such as the taking of oaths. In particular, the Roman Catholic Church refuses to support the fraternity, claiming that members are in sin.
History and Origins
The exact origins of the fraternity are cloudy, but experts think the group got its start in the Middle Ages. English, Scottish and French kings of the time hired stone workers to build new cathedrals and castles. Those who could do more intricate work in softer, "free" stone were called freemasons. These workers joined together to maintain the positive status they had over the general masons. At first, only those who actually worked in the trade could be members of the group, but eventually, "philosophical builders" were let in, too. This history is why the Masons represent themselves with the symbols of the square and compass.
Many famous people through history have been associated with or admitted to the fraternity. The list includes François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), Sir Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin and Rudyard Kipling. Several U.S. presidents also were members, including George Washington, Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, Gerald Ford, Andrew Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.