If you’re like many people, your knowledge of the Free Masons may be limited to driving by a Masonic Lodge on your way to work or reading about them as a plot point in a historical mystery novel. In reality, however, the Masonic Fraternity is an ancient organization with roots dating back to the Middle Ages and a powerful influence in the shaping of our modern world.
Although some parts of the Freemason Society are kept secret from non-members, much of the Freemasonry history and values are open knowledge to the public.
What Are the Masons?
The Freemason Society is the largest and oldest fraternity in the world, with over 2 million men. It accepts members from a diversity of religions and races and operates in many countries. All Masons are men, and all men seeking to join the fraternity must believe in a higher power and be willing to meet with an existing member to discuss membership details in private. However, all it takes to become a member of the Freemasons is a willingness to do so.
The fraternity values good will and the spirit of universal brotherhood. The Free Mason Motto is “Better men make a better world.” Its Medieval roots are still evident in some of the terminology and ceremonies used by members as well as the use of the term “lodge” to describe the building where the Masons gather for meetings.
These Masonic lodges are far from hidden. Often housed in nondescript buildings, they will usually proudly bear the Masonic emblem and colors. The lodges are considered civic buildings and have phone numbers listed in most local phone books, although you may not have much luck in reaching anyone there as the lodge may only be in use a few days out of the month.
Some aspects of the Freemasons are secret and known only by other Masons. These include special handshakes and the content of certain Masonic ceremonies. In general, these ceremonies exist to pay tribute to the fraternity’s long and rich history.
Freemasons sometimes wear rings or lapel pins that identify them as members of the fraternity, and membership is by no means a secret. Like any other civic organization, the Freemasons exist primarily to contribute toward their community while providing support and brotherhood among members.
Origins and History of the Freemasons
The exact origins of Freemasonry are unknown, and speculation about them has given rise to a number of theories and areas of study. What is known is that the Freemasons are a very old fraternity, dating back hundreds of years.
Some Masonic ceremonies share the story that the Freemasons were present at the Temple of Jerusalem during King Solomon’s time, but it’s generally accepted that these stories are more allegorical than historical. Early historical records make it difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of the Masonic fraternity, but the best guess is that Freemasonry evolved from Medieval stone mason guilds.
In the Middle Ages, great cathedrals and castles were built by stone masons. These masons were at the time organized into guilds, where more experienced artisans would train apprentices. It’s possible that the language and rituals of the Freemason fraternity originated among these guilds.
During the Medieval period, stone masons would travel widely to practice their trade. During the construction of a cathedral or castle, which could take many years of even generations, stone masons would live in communal lodges. While living and working together, it’s likely that these stone mason guilds would have developed strong fraternal bonds; these may have been the roots of the modern society of Freemasons.
The spirit of universal brotherhood was of utmost importance during the Renaissance, when political and religious turmoil caused many difficulties thorughout Europe. It has been suggested that the originators of the modern Freemason fraternity were men who sought to promote peace and tolerance toward building a better world.
The concept of “masonry” is incorporated into the Masonic teachings primarily as an allegory or symbolic language with which to discuss the goal of building a better society. This is why builder’s tools are featured in the Masonic emblems.
There is historical evidence to support the evolution of the Freemasons. The Regius Poem, printed in 1390 as a copy of an earlier work, makes reference to Masons in a context similar to modern Freemasonry. By the 1600s, Masonic lodges in Scotland and England began to accept men who were not affiliated with the masonry trade. The purpose of the lodge shifted, leaving behind its connections to the building craft. By 1717, four Masonic lodges in London organized to form the Grand Lodge of England, and record keeping from that point forward in history becomes much more clear.
It’s interesting to note that although African-Americans were not permitted in the early Masonic lodges of the 1700s, they were free to create lodges of their own. A group of African-American Masons formed their own lodge in Boston in 1776 and were formally chartered in 1784. A number of other lodges were formed, developing what came to be known as the Prince Hall Masonry system. These Masonic lodges operated under the same rituals, beliefs and ideals of all other Freemasons.
In modern times, there is no such racial divide. There are no formal statistics kept regarding the race or socioeconomic status of Freemasons, but a lodge cannot exclude or deny a candidate based on race or nationality. Today’s Freemason fraternity is inclusive and welcomes men from many walks of life into its universal brotherhood.
Masonic Influence Throughout the Ages
Because Freemasonry was especially active in the 1700s, it’s unsurprising that the Masons played a crucial role in the building of America. After the first Grand Lodge was formed in London in 1717, Masonic influence spread. Within 30 years, lodges could be found throughout Europe and in the American colonies, where it became very popular.
Many of our nation’s founding fathers were Freemasons, including:
– George Washington
– Benjamin Franklin
– Paul Revere
– Joseph Warren
– John Hancock
– John Sullivan
– Baron Fredrick Von Stuben
– Nathanael Greene
– John Paul Jones
The values of Freemasonry align closely with those of the of the founding fathers: Universal brotherhood, self-improvement, charity and a caring society. Benjamin Franklin was the head of the Masonic fraternity in Pennsylvania. Chief Justice Marshall, who was responsible for establishing and shaping what would become the modern Supreme Court, was also a Mason.
In the late 1700s, Freemasonry was largely responsible for the spread and development of Enlightenment ideals. Concepts like social development, self-improvement, personal study and philanthropy were promoted then and still are to this day. Other values promoted by the Freemasons include:
– Religious freedom
– Democratic government
– Personal liberty
For this reason, it’s hardly surprising that so many influential members of society have their roots in the Masonic Brotherhood.
Masons were also influential in the creation and development of the earliest public schools. The Freemasons believe that education is essential for personal development and that it should be available to everyone, and those beliefs are at the core of the public school system’s origins as well.
Even today, the Freemasons are still invested in the well-being of public education. Although Masonic lodges generally have their members avoid potentially contentious religious and political topics of discussion, political issues related to public schools in the local community are an exception to this rule. Masons are encouraged to act publicly in support of local schools, from supporting school bond issues to volunteering to serve on advisory committees or the school board.
By the 1800s and early 1900s in America, Freemasonry’s influence grew even wider. The Masons were responsible for many charitable programs, creating orphanages and homes for widows and the elderly. At that time, there was no government support or social programs to fill this need, so private organizations had to step up to the task. As always throughout history, the Freemasons were ready and willing to step up to fulfill this civic need.
In modern times, the Freemasons still fulfill civic responsibilities and charity work. The spirit of philanthropy is deeply valued by the Masons, and it’s estimated that across the country the fraternity donates $1.5 million every single day to charitable causes such as children’s hospitals, medical research, community service and more. Masons and their families can also receive care and support during difficult times.
The Future of the Masonic Fraternity
Although there are many rumors and conspiracies surrounding the Masons, as there are with any ancient organization, the fact is that the Freemason Society is first and foremost a civic organization with deep ties to its community and a respect for history.
As the oldest fraternal organization in the world, it has a rich and storied history and a powerful influence on the progressive thought and social enrichment of our modern world. Although no one can know for sure what the future holds, it’s a safe bet that the Freemasons will continue to thrive and flourish for many years to come as they have for centuries.