What is Freemasonry?
"I think my grand father was one, but I'm not
sure what it means."
"Yeah, my dad and uncle both used to go to Masonic
meetings--I remember Uncle Fred coming by to pick him
up. But I don't know where they went or what they did."
"I think they wear those funny hats. "
"I remember when I went away to college, my father
showed me his ring and told me, if I ever needed help,
I should look for a man with a ring like that and tell
him I was the daughter of a Mason, but he never told me
much about it."
What's a Mason?
That's not a surprising question. Even though Masons
(Freemasons) are members of the largest and oldest
fraternity in the world, and even though almost
everyone has a father or grandfather or uncle who was a
Mason, many people aren't quite certain just who Masons
The answer is simple. A Mason (or Freemason) is a
member of a fraternity known as Masonry (or
Freemasonry). A fraternity is a group of men (just as a
sorority is a group of women) who join together
There are things they want to do in the world.
There are things they want to do "inside their own minds."
They enjoy being together with men they like and respect.
(We'll look at some of these things later.)
Masonry (or Freemasonry) is the oldest fraternity in
the world. No one knows just how old it is because the
actual origins have been lost in time. Probably, it
arose from the guilds of stonemasons who built the
castles and cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Possibly,
they were influenced by the Knights Templar, a group of
Christian warrior monks formed in 1118 to help protect
pilgrims making trips to the Holy Land.
In 1717, Masonry created a formal organization in
England when the first Grand Lodge was formed. A Grand
Lodge is the administrative body in charge of Masonry
in some geographical area. In the United States, there
is a Grand Lodge in each state. In Canada, there is a
Grand Lodge in each province. Local organizations of
Masons are called lodges.There are lodges in most
towns, and large cities usually have several. There are
about 13,200 lodges in the United States. If Masonry
started in Great Britain, how did it get to America?
In a time when travel was by horseback and sailing
ship, Masonry spread with amazing speed. By 1731, when
Benjamin Franklin joined the fraternity, there were
already several lodges in the Colonies, and Masonry
spread rapidly as America expanded west. In addition to
Franklin, many of the Founding Fathers--men such as
George Washington, Paul Revere, Joseph Warren, and John
Hancock--were Masons. Masons and Masonry played an
important part in the Revolutionary War and an even
more important part in the Constitutional Convention
and the debates surrounding the ratification of the
Bill of Rights. Many of those debates were held in
What's a lodge?
The word "lodge" means both a group of Masons meeting
in some place and the room or building in which they
meet. Masonic buildings are also sometimes called
"temples" because much of the symbolism Masonry uses to
teach its lessons comes from the building of King
Solomon's Temple in the Holy Land. The term "lodge"
itself comes from the structures which the stonemasons
built against the sides of the cathedrals during
construction. In winter, when building had to stop,
they lived in these lodges and worked at carving stone.
While there is some variation in detail from state to
state and country to country, lodge rooms today are set
up similar to the diagram on the following page.
(pictures are omitted here)
If you've ever watched C-SPAN's coverage of the
House of Commons in London,you'll notice that the
layout is about the same. Since Masonry came to America
from England, we still use the English floor plan and
English titles for the officers. The Worshipful Master
of the Lodge sits in the East ("Worshipful" is an
English term of respect which means the same thing as
"Honorable.") He is called the Master of the lodge for
the same reason that the leader of an orchestra is
called the "Concert Master." Its simply an older term
for "Leader." In other organizations, he would be
called "President." The Senior and Junior Wardens are
the First and Second Vice-Presidents. The Deacons are
messengers and the Stewards have charge of
Every lodge has an altar holding a "Volume of the
Sacred Law." In the United States and Canada, that is
almost always a Bible.
What goes on in a lodge?
This is a good place to repeat what we said earlier
about why men become Masons:
There are things they want to do in the world.
There are things they want to do "inside their own minds."
They enjoy being together with men they like and respect.
The Lodge is the center of those activities.
Masonry Does Things in the World.
Masonry teaches that each person has a responsibility
to make things better in the world. Most individuals
wont be the ones to find a cure for cancer, or
eliminate poverty, or help create world peace, but
every man and woman and child can do something to help
others and to make things a little better. Masonry is
deeply involved with helping people--it spends more
than $1.4 million dollars every day in the United
States, just to make life a little easier. And the
great majority of that help goes to people who are not
Masons. Some of these charities are vast projects, like
the Crippled Children's Hospitals and Burns Institutes
built by the Shriners. Also, Scottish Rite Masons
maintain a nationwide network of over 100 Childhood
Language Disorders Clinics, Centers, and Programs. Each
helps children afflicted by such conditions as aphasia,
dyslexia, stuttering, and related learning or speech
disorders. Some services are less noticeable, like
helping a widow pay her electric bill or buying coats
and shoes for disadvantaged children. And there's just
about anything you can think of in-between. But with
projects large or small, the Masons of a lodge try to
help make the world a better place. The lodge gives
them a way to combine with others to do even more good.
Masonry does things "inside" the individual Mason.
"Grow or die" is a great law of all nature. Most people
feel a need for continued growth and development as
individuals. They feel they are not as honest or as
charitable or as compassionate or as loving or as
trusting as they ought to be. Masonry reminds its
members over and over again of the importance of these
qualities. It lets men associate with other men of honor
and integrity who believe that things like honesty and
compassion and love and trust are important. In some
ways, Masonry is a support group for men who are trying
to make the right decisions. It's easier to practice
these virtues when you know that those around you think
they are important, too, and wont laugh at you. That's
a major reason that Masons enjoy being together.
Masons enjoy each other's company.
It's good to spend time with people you can trust
completely, and most Masons find that in their lodge.
While much of lodge activity is spent in works of
charity or in lessons in self-development, much is also
spent in fellowship. Lodges have picnics, camping
trips, and many events for the whole family. Simply
put, a lodge is a place to spend time with friends.
For members only, two basic kinds of meetings take
place in a lodge. The most common is a simple business
meeting. To open and close the meeting, there is a
ceremony whose purpose is to remind us of the virtues
by which we are supposed to live. Then there is a
reading of the minutes; voting on petitions (applications of men who want to join the fraternity); planning for charitable functions, family events, and other
lodge activities; and sharing information about members (called "Brothers," as in most fraternities) who
are ill or have some sort of need. The other kind of
meeting is one in which people join the fraternity
one at which the "degrees" are performed.
But every lodge serves more than its own members.
Frequently, there are meetings open to the public.
Examples are Ladies' Nights, "Brother Bring a Friend
Nights," public installations of officers, Cornerstone
Laying ceremonies, and other special meetings
supporting community events and dealing with topics
of local interest.
What's a degree?
A degree is a stage or level of membership. It's also the
ceremony by which a man attains that level of member-
ship. There are three, called Entered Apprentice,
Fellow craft, and Master Mason. As you can see, the
names are taken from the craft guilds. In the Middle
Ages, when a person wanted to join a craft, such as the
gold smiths or the carpenters or the stonemasons, he
was first apprenticed. As an apprentice, he learned the
tools and skills of the trade. When he had proved his
skills,he became a "Fellow of the Craft" (today we
would say "Journeyman"), and when he had exceptional
ability, he was known as a Master of the Craft.
The degrees are plays in which the candidate participates. Each degree uses symbols to teach, just as plays
did in the Middle Ages and as many theatrical productions do today. (We'll talk about symbols a little
The Masonic degrees teach the great lessons of
life--the importance of honor and integrity, of being a
person on whom others can rely, of being both trusting
and trustworthy, of realizing that you have a spiritual
nature as well as a physical or animal nature, of the
importance of self-control, of knowing how to love and
be loved, of knowing how to keep confidential what
others tell you so that they can "open up" without
Why is Masonry so "secretive"?
It really isn't "secretive," although it sometimes has
that reputation. Masons certainly don't make a secret
of the fact that they are members of the fraternity. We
wear rings, lapel pins and tie tacks with Masonic
emblems like the Square and Compasses, the best known
of Masonic signs which, logically, recalls the
fraternity's roots in stonemasonry. Masonic buildings
are clearly marked, and are usually listed in the phone
book. Lodge activities are not secret--picnics and
other events are even listed in the newspapers,
especially in smaller towns. Many lodges have answering
machines which give the upcoming lodge activities. But
there are some Masonic secrets, and they fall into two
The first are the ways in which a man can identify
himself as a Mason--grips and passwords. We keep those
private for obvious reasons. It is not at all unknown
for unscrupulous people to try to pass themselves off
as Masons in order to get assistance under false
The second group is harder to describe, but they are
the ones Masons usually mean if we talk about "Masonic
secrets." They are secrets because they literally can't
be talked about, can't be put into words. They are the
changes that happen to a man when he really accepts
responsibility for his own life and, at the same time,
truly decides that his real happiness is in helping
It's a wonderful feeling, but it's something you simply can't explain to another person. That's why we
sometimes say that Masonic secrets cannot (rather than
"may not") be told. Try telling someone exactly what
you feel when you see a beautiful sunset, or when you
hear music, like the national anthem, which suddenly
stirs old memories, and you'll understand what we mean.
"Secret societies" became very popular in America in
the late 1800s and early l900s. There were literally
hundreds of them, and most people belonged to two or
three. Many of them were modeled on Masonry, and made a
great point of having many "secrets." And Masonry got
ranked with them. But if Masonry is a secret society,
it's the worst-kept secret in town.
Is Masonry a religion?
The answer to that question is simple. No.
We do use ritual in the meetings, and because there is
always an altar or table with the Volume of the Sacred
Law open if a lodge is meeting, some people have
confused Masonry with a religion, but it is not. That
does not mean that religion plays no part in
Masonry--it plays a very important part. A person who
wants to become a Mason must have a belief in God. No
atheist can ever become a Mason.
Meetings open with prayer, and a Mason is taught, as
one of the first lessons of Masonry, that one should
pray for divine counsel and guidance before starting an
important undertaking. But that does not make Masonry a
Sometimes people confuse Masonry with a religion
because we call some Masonic buildings "temples." But we
use the word in the same sense that Justice Oliver
Wendell Holmes called the Supreme Court a "Temple of
Justice" and because a Masonic lodge is a symbol of the
Temple of Solomon. Neither Masonry nor the Supreme
Court is a religion just because its members meet in a
In some ways, the relationship between Masonry and
religion is like the relationship between the Parent-
Teacher Association (the P.T.A.) and education. Members
of the P.T.A. believe in the importance of education.
They support it. They assert that no man or woman can
be a complete and whole individual or live up to his or
her full potential without education. They encourage
students to stay in school and parents to be involved
with the education of their children. They may give
scholarships. They encourage their members to get
involved with and support their individual schools.
But there are some things P.T.A.s do not do. They don't
teach. They don't tell people which school to attend.
They don't try to tell people what they should study or
what their major should be.
In much the same way, Masons believe in the importance
of religion. Masonry encourages every Mason to be
active in the religion and church of his own choice.
Masonry teaches that, without religion, a man is alone
and lost, and that without religion, he can never reach
his full potential.
But Freemasonry does not tell a person which religion
he should practice or how he should practice it. That is
between the individual and God. That is the function of
his house of worship, not his fraternity. And Masonry
is a fraternity, not a religion.
What is a Masonic Bible?
Bibles are popular gifts among Masons, frequently given
to a man when he joins the lodge or at other special
events. A Masonic Bible is the same book anyone thinks
of as a Bible (it's usually the King James translation)
with a special page in the front on which to write the
name of the person who is receiving it and the occasion
on which it is given. Sometimes there is a special
index or information section which shows the person
where in the Bible to find the passages which are
quoted in the Masonic ritual.
If Masonry isn't a religion, why does it use ritual?
Many of us may think of religion when we think of
ritual, but ritual is used in every aspect of life.
It's so much a part of us that we just don't notice it.
Ritual simply means that some things are done more or
less the same way each time.
Almost all school assemblies, for example, start with
the principal or some other official calling for the
attention of the group. Then the group is led in the
Pledge of Allegiance. A school choir or the entire
group may sing the school song. That's a ritual.
Almost all business meetings of every sort call the
group to order, have a reading of the minutes of the
last meeting, deal with old business, then with new
business. That's a ritual. Most groups use Robert's
Rules of Order to conduct a meeting. That's probably
the best-known book of ritual in the world.
There are social rituals which tell us how to meet
people (we shake hands), how to join a conversation
(we wait for a pause, and then speak), how to buy tickets
to a concert (we wait in line and don't push in ahead
of those who were there first). There are literally
hundreds of examples, and they are all rituals.
Masonry uses a ritual because it's an effective way to
teach important ideas--the values we've talked about
earlier. And it reminds us where we are, just as the
ritual of a business meeting reminds people where they
are and what they are supposed to be doing.
Masonry's ritual is very rich because it is so old. It
has developed over centuries to contain some beautiful
language and ideas expressed in symbols. But there's
nothing unusual in using ritual. All of us do it every
Why does Masonry use symbols?
Everyone uses symbols every day, just as we do ritual.
We use them because they communicate quickly.When you
see a stop sign, you know what it means, even if you
can't read the word "stop." The circle and line mean
"don't" or "not allowed." In fact, using symbols is
probably the oldest way of communication and the oldest
way of teaching.
Masonry uses symbols for the same reason. Some form of
the "Square and Compasses" is the most widely used and
known symbol of Masonry. In one way, this symbol is a
kind of trade mark for the fraternity, as the "golden
arches" are for McDonald's. When you see the Square and
Compasses on a building, you know that Masons meet
And like all symbols, they have a meaning.
The Square symbolizes things of the earth, and it also
symbolizes honor, integrity, truthfulness, and the
other ways we should relate to this world and the
people in it. The Compasses symbolize things of the
spirit, and the importance of a good and well developed spiritual life, and also the importance of self control of keeping ourselves within bounds. The G
stands for Geometry, the science which the ancients
believed most revealed the glory of God and His works
in the heavens, and it also stands for God, Who must be
at the center of all our thoughts and of all our
The meanings of most of the other Masonic symbols are
obvious. The gavel teaches the importance of
self control and self discipline. The hourglass teaches
us that time is always passing, and we should not put
off important decisions.
So, is Masonry education?
Yes. In a very real sense, education is at the center
of Masonry. We have stressed its importance for a very
long time. Back in the Middle Ages, schools were held
in the lodges of stonemasons. You have to know a lot to
build a cathedral, geometry, and structural
engineering, and mathematics, just for a start. And
that education was not very widely available. All the
formal schools and colleges trained people for careers
in the church, or in law or medicine. And you had to be
a member of the social upper classes to go to those
schools. Stonemasons did not come from the aristocracy.
And so the lodges had to teach the necessary skills and
information. Freemasonry's dedication to education
It has continued. Masons started some of the first
public schools in both Europe and America. We
supported legislation to make education universal. In
the 1800s Masons as a group lobbied for the
establishment of state supported education and federal
land-grant colleges. Today we give millions of dollars
in scholarships each year. We encourage our members to
give volunteer time to their local schools, buy
classroom supplies for teachers, help with literacy
programs, and do everything they can to help assure
that each person, adult or child, has the best
educational opportunities possible.
And Masonry supports continuing education and
intellectual growth for its members, insisting that
learning more about many things is important for anyone
who wants to keep mentally alert and young.
What does Masonry teach?
Masonry teaches some important principles. There's
nothing very surprising in the list. Masonry teaches
Since God is the Creator, all men and women are the
children of God. Because of that, all men and women are
brothers and sisters, entitled to dignity, respect for
their opinions, and consideration of their feelings.
Each person must take responsibility for his/her own
life and actions. Neither wealth nor poverty, education nor ignorance, health nor sickness excuses any
person from doing the best he or she can do or being
the best person possible under the circumstances.
No one has the right to tell another person what he or
she must think or believe. Each man and woman has an
absolute right to intellectual, spiritual, economic,
and political freedom. This is a right given by God,
not by man. All tyranny, in every form, is
Each person must learn and practice self-control. Each
person must make sure his spiritual nature triumphs
over his animal nature. Another way to say the same
thing is that even when we are tempted to anger, we
must not be violent. Even when we are tempted to
selfishness, we must be charitable. Even when we want
to "write someone off," we must remember that he or she
is a human and entitled to our respect. Even when we
want to give up, we must go on. Even when we are hated,
we must return love, or, at a minimum, we must not hate
back. It isn't easy!
Faith must be in the center of our lives. We find that
faith in our houses of worship, not in Freemasonry, but
Masonry constantly teaches that a person's faith,
whatever it may be, is central to a good life.
Each person has a responsibly to be a good citizen,
obeying the law. That doesn't mean we can't try to
change things, but change must take place in legal
It is important to work to make this world better for
all who live in it. Masonry teaches the importance of
doing good, not because it assures a person's entrance
into heaven--that's a question for a religion, not a
fraternity--but because we have a duty to all other men
and women to make their lives as fulfilling as they can
Honor and integrity are essential to life. Life, without honor and integrity, is without meaning.
What are the requirements for membership?
The person who wants to join Masonry must be a man
(it's a fraternity), sound in body and mind, who
believes in God, is at least the minimum age required
by Masonry in his state, and has a good reputation.
(Incidentally, the "sound in body" requirement which
comes from the stonemasons of the Middle Ages doesn't
mean that a physically challenged man cannot be a
Mason; many are).
Those are the only "formal" requirements. But there are
others, not so formal. He should believe in helping
others. He should believe there is more to life than
pleasure and money. He should be willing to respect the
opinions of others. And he should want to grow and
develop as a human being. How does a man become a
Some men are surprised that no one has ever asked them
to become a Mason. They may even feel that the Masons
in their town don't think they are "good enough" to
join. But it doesn't work that way. For hundreds of
years, Masons have been forbidden to ask others to join
the fraternity. We can talk to friends about Masonry,
we can tell them about what Masonry does. We can tell
them why we enjoy it. But we can't ask, much less
pressure anyone to join.
There's a good reason for that. It isn't that we're
trying to be exclusive. But becoming a Mason is a very
serious thing. Joining Masonry is making a permanent
life commitment to live in certain ways. We've listed
most of them above to live with honor and integrity,
to be willing to share and care about others, to trust
each other, and to place ultimate trust in God. No one
should be "talked into" making such a decision.
So, when a man decides he wants to be a Mason, he asks
a Mason for a petition or application. He fills it out
and gives it to the Mason, and that Mason takes it to
the local lodge. The Master of the lodge will appoint a
committee to visit with the man and his family, find
out a little about him and why he wants to be a Mason,
tell him and his family about Masonry, and answer their
questions. The committee reports to the lodge, and the
lodge votes on the petition. If the vote is
affirmative and it usually is the lodge will contact
the man to set the date for the Entered Apprentice
Degree. When the person has completed all three
degrees, he is a Master Mason and a full member of the
So, what's a Mason?
A Mason is a man who has decided that he likes to feel
good about himself and others. He cares about the
future as well as the past, and does what he can, both
alone and with others, to make the future good for
Many men over many generations have answered the
question, "What is a Mason?" One of the most eloquent
was written by the Reverend Joseph Fort Newton, an
internationally honored minister of the first half of
the 20th Century.
When is a man a Mason?
When he can look out over the rivers, the hills, and
the far horizon with a profound sense of his own
littleness in the vast scheme of things, and yet have
faith, hope, and courage which is the root of every
When he knows that down in his heart every man is as
noble, as vile, as divine, as diabolic, and as lonely
as himself, and seeks to know, to forgive, and to love
his fellow man.
When he knows how to sympathize with men in their
sorrows,yea, even in their sins knowing that each man
fights a hard fight against many odds.
When he has learned how to make friends and to keep
them, and above all how to keep friends with himself.
When he loves flowers, can hunt birds with out a gun,
and feels the thrill of an old forgotten joy when he
hears the laugh of a little child.
When he can be happy and high-minded amid the meaner
drudgeries of life.
When star-crowned trees and the glint of sunlight on
flowing waters, subdue him like the thought of one much
loved and long dead.
When no voice of distress reaches his ears in vain, and
no hand seeks his aid without response.
When he finds good in every faith that helps any man to
lay hold of divine things and sees majestic meanings in
life, whatever the name of that faith may be.
When he can look into a wayside puddle and see
something beyond mud, and into the face of the most
forlorn fellow mortal and see something beyond sin.
When he knows how to pray, how to love, how to hope.
When he has kept faith with himself, with his fellow
man, and with his God; in his hand a sword for evil, in
his heart a bit of a song glad to live, but not afraid
Such a man has found the only real secret of Masonry,
and the one which it is trying to give to all the
This booklet is produced by The Masonic Information
Center (MIC) whose logo is pictured above. The
partially completed C, containing the Masonic Square
and Compasses, stands for "Center." The C is incomplete
because communication, the Center's mission, is ongoing
so long as humankind needs Freemasonry's universal
message of Brotherhood, Relief, and Truth.
Those who helped prepare this booklet deserve special
thanks. They are: Jim Tresner, Director of Work,
Guthrie, Oklahoma; Richard E. Fletcher, Executive
Secretary, Masonic Information Center/Masonic Service
Association; John W. Boettjer, Managing Editor, and
Jason A. Naughton, Desktop publisher, Scottish Rite
To obtain additional copies .25 each (PPD); 40%
discount in lots of 50 or more copies, plus shipping/
Masonic Information Center
8120 Fenton Street
Silver Spring, MD 20910-4785
Telephone (301) 588-4010; Fax (301) 608-3457
The Masonic Information Center is a division of The
Masonic Service Association. The Center was founded in
1993 by a grant from John J. Robinson, well-known
author, speaker, and Mason. Its purpose is to provide
information on Freemasonry to Masons and non-Masons
alike and to respond to critics of Freemasonry. The
Center is directed by a Steering Committee of
distinguished Masons geographically representative of
the Craft throughout the United States and Canada.
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