Responses to Frequently Asked Questions
Courtesy of the Masonic Service Association
History of Freemasonry No one knows with certainty how or when the Masonic Fraternity was formed. A widely accepted theory among Masonic scholars is that it arose from the stonemasons’ guilds during the Middle Ages. The language and symbols used in the fraternity’s rituals come from this era. The oldest document that makes reference to Masons is the Regius Poem, printed about 1390, which was a copy of an earlier work. In 1717, four lodges in London formed the first Grand Lodge of England, and records from that point on are more complete.
Within thirty years, the fraternity had spread throughout Europe and the American Colonies. Freemasonry became very popular in colonial America. George Washington was a Mason, Benjamin Franklin served as the head of the fraternity in Pennsylvania, as did Paul Revere and Joseph Warren in Massachusetts. Other well-known Masons involved with the founding of America included John Hancock, John Sullivan, Lafayette, Baron Fredrick von Stuben, Nathanael Greene, and John Paul Jones. Another Mason, Chief Justice John Marshall, shaped the Supreme Court into its present form.
Over the centuries, Freemasonry has developed into a worldwide fraternity emphasizing personal study, self-improvement, and social betterment via individual involvement and philanthropy. During the late 1700s it was one of the organizations most responsible for spreading the ideals of the Enlightenment: the dignity of man and the liberty of the individual, the right of all persons to worship as they choose, the formation of democratic governments, and the importance of public education. Masons supported the first public schools in both Europe and America.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, Freemasonry grew dramatically. At that time, the government had provided no social “safety net”. The Masonic tradition of founding orphanages, homes for widows, and homes for the aged provided the only security many people knew.
Today in North America, the Masonic Fraternity continues this tradition by giving almost $1.5 million each day to causes that range from operating children’s hospitals, providing treatment for childhood language disorders, treating eye diseases, funding medical research, contributing to local community service, and providing care to Masons and their families at Masonic Homes.
The four million Masons worldwide continue to help men and women face the problems of the 21st century by building bridges of brotherhood and instilling in the hearts of men ideals for a better tomorrow.
Basic Principles. Freemasonry is not a religion, nor is it a substitute for religion. It requires of its members a belief in God as part of the obligation of every responsible adult, but advocates no sectarian faith or practice. Masonic ceremonies include prayers, both traditional and extempore, to reaffirm each individual’s dependence on God and to seek divine guidance. Freemasonry is open to men of any faith, but religion may not be discussed at Masonic meetings.
The Supreme Being. Masons believe that there is one God and that people employ many different ways to seek, and to express what they know of God. Masonry primarily uses the appellation, “Grand Architect of the Universe,” and other non-sectarian titles, to address the Deity. In this way, persons of different faiths may join together in prayer, concentrating on God, rather than differences among themselves. Masonry believes in religious freedom and that the relationship between the individual and God is personal, private, and sacred.
Volume of the Sacred Law. An open volume of the Sacred Law, “the rule and guide of life,” is an essential part of every Masonic meeting. The Volume of the Sacred Law in the Judeo/Christian tradition is the Bible; to Freemasons of other faiths, it is the book held holy by them.
The Oath of Freemasonry. The obligations taken by Freemasons are sworn on the Volume of the Sacred Law. They are undertakings to follow the principles of Freemasonry and to keep confidential a Freemason’s means of recognition. The much discussed “penalties,” judicial remnants from an earlier era, are symbolic, not literal. They refer only to the pain any honest man should feel at the thought of violating his word.
Freemasonry Compared with Religion. Freemasonry lacks the basic elements of religion: (a) It has no dogma or theology, no wish or means to enforce religious orthodoxy. (b) It offers no sacraments. (c) It does not claim to lead to salvation by works, by secret knowledge, or by any other means. The secrets of Freemasonry are concerned with modes of recognition, not with the means of salvation.
Freemasonry Supports Religion. Freemasonry is far from indifferent toward religion. Without interfering in religious practice, it expects each member to follow his own faith and to place his Duty to God above all other duties. Its moral teachings are acceptable to all religions.
Freemasonry and Secrecy. People sometimes refer to Freemasonry as being a “Secret Society.” In one sense the statement is true. Any social group or private business is “secret” in the sense that its business meetings may be open only to its members. In Freemasonry, the process of joining is also a private matter, and its members are pledged not to discuss with non-members certain parts of the ceremonies associated with the organization.
Freemasonry does have certain handshakes and passwords, customs incorporated into later fraternities, which are kept private. They are means of recognizing each other–necessary in an organization which spans the entire world and which encompasses many languages.
The tradition of using handshakes and passwords was very common in the Middle Ages, when the ability to identify oneself as belonging to a building or trade guild often made the difference in getting a job or in obtaining help for yourself and family. Today, Freemasons make the same pledge to every member that he will be offered assistance if he, or his family, ever requests it.
Freemasonry can’t be called a “secret society” in a literal sense. A truly secret society forbids its members to disclose that they belong to the organization, or that it even exists. Much of the Masonic ritual is in books called “Monitors” that are widely available, even in public libraries. Most Freemasons wear rings and lapel pins which clearly identify them as members of the fraternity. Masonic lodges are listed in public phone books, Masonic buildings are clearly marked, and in many areas of the country Masonic lodges place signs on the roads leading into town, along with civic organizations, showing the time and place of meetings.
In terms of what it does, what it teaches, who belongs, where it meets, there are no secrets in Freemasonry! It is a private fraternal association of men who contribute much toward the public good, while enjoying the benefits of the brotherhood of a fraternity.
Freemasonry and Women. In Freemasonry, as in all other areas of life, women play an important role. The opportunities for women to participate in Freemasonry are widespread and meet a variety of needs, from social interaction in the Orders for both men and women, to the unique needs met in the “women only” Masonic-related organizations. The moral and ethical values that Freemasonry encourages are universal and not gender-based.
Masonic Lodges maintain today a long-standing tradition of restricting membership in Freemasonry to men. This tradition is based on the historical all male membership of stonemasons guilds. During the Middle Ages, men traveled far from home and lived in lodges while constructing great cathedrals throughout Europe.
However, in the middle 1800s the fraternity took the progressive step, for that time, of creating organizations that included women, so that men and women could share Masonic fraternalism. The Order of the Eastern Star (the largest of these Masonic-related groups) was established in 1855, the Order of the Amaranth in 1873, and the White Shrine of Jerusalem in 1894.
Two national Masonic-related youth organizations are for young women: the International Order of Job’s Daughters, founded in 1920, and the International Order of Rainbow for Girls, founded in 1922. Rainbow and Job’s Daughters are involved with local charities, community services, and educational programs.