Freemasonry is a fraternal organization that arose from obscure origins in the late 16th to early 17th century. Freemasonry now exists in various forms all over the world, with a membership estimated at around 5 million, including just under two million in the United States and around 480,000 in England, Scotland and Ireland. The various forms all share moral andmetaphysical ideals, which include, in most cases, a constitutional declaration of belief in aSupreme Being.
The fraternity is administratively organized into Grand Lodges or sometimes Orients, each of which governs its own jurisdiction, which consists of subordinate (or constituent) Lodges. Grand Lodges recognize each other through a process of landmarks and regularity. There are also appendant bodies, which are organizations related to the main branch of Freemasonry, but with their own independent administration.
Freemasonry uses the metaphors of operative stonemasons' tools and implements, against theallegorical backdrop of the building of King Solomon's Temple, to convey what has been described by both Masons and critics as "a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols."
The origins and early development of Freemasonry are a matter of some debate and conjecture. A poem known as the "Regius Manuscript" has been dated to approximately 1390 and is the oldest known Masonic text. There is evidence to suggest that there were Masonic lodges in existence in Scotland as early as the late sixteenth century (for example the Lodge at Kilwinning, Scotland, has records that date to the late 1500s, and is mentioned in the Second Schaw Statutes (1599) which specified that "ye warden of ye lug of Kilwynning [...] tak tryall of ye airt of memorie and science yrof, of everie fellowe of craft and everie prenteiss according to ayr of yr vocations").There are clear references to the existence of lodges in England by the mid-seventeenth century.
The first Grand Lodge, the Grand Lodge of England (GLE), was founded on 24 June 1717, when four existing London Lodges met for a joint dinner. This rapidly expanded into a regulatory body, which most English Lodges joined. However, a few lodges resented some of the modernizations that GLE endorsed, such as the creation of the Third Degree, and formed a rival Grand Lodge on 17 July 1751, which they called the "Antient Grand Lodge of England". The two competing Grand Lodges vied for supremacy – the "Moderns" (GLE) and the "Antients" (or "Ancients") – until they united on 25 November 1813 to form the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE).
The Grand Lodge of Ireland and The Grand Lodge of Scotland were formed in 1725 and 1736 respectively. Freemasonry was exported to the British Colonies in North America by the 1730s – with both the "Antients" and the "Moderns" (as well as the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland) chartering offspring, or "daughter", Lodges, and organizing various Provincial Grand Lodges. After the American Revolution, independent U.S. Grand Lodges formed themselves within each State. Some thought was briefly given to organizing an over-arching "Grand Lodge of the United States", with George Washington (who was a member of a Virginian lodge) as the first Grand Master, but the idea was short-lived. The various State Grand Lodges did not wish to diminish their own authority by agreeing to such a body.
Although there are no real differences in the Freemasonry practiced by lodges chartered by the Antients or the Moderns, the remnants of this division can still be seen in the names of most Lodges, F. & A.M. being Free and Accepted Masons and A.F. & A.M. being Antient Free and Accepted Masons.
The oldest jurisdiction on the continent of Europe, the Grand Orient de France (GOdF), was founded in 1728. However, most English-speaking jurisdictions cut formal relations with the GOdF around 1877 – when the GOdF removed the requirement that its members have a belief in a Deity, thereby accepting atheists. The Grande Loge Nationale Française (GLNF) is currently the onlyFrench Grand Lodge that is in regular amity with the UGLE and its many concordant jurisdictions worldwide.
Due to the above history, Freemasonry is often said to consist of two branches not in mutual regular amity:
the UGLE and concordant tradition of jurisdictions (mostly termed Grand Lodges) in amity, and
the GOdF, European Continental, tradition of jurisdictions (often termed Grand Orients) in amity.
In most Latin countries, the GOdF-style of European Continental Freemasonry predominates, although in most of these Latin countries there are also Grand Lodges that are inregular amity with the UGLE and the worldwide community of Grand Lodges that share regular "fraternal relations" with the UGLE. The rest of the world, accounting for the bulk of Freemasonry, tends to follow more closely to the UGLE style, although minor variations exist.
The Supreme Being and the Volume of Sacred Law
Candidates for regular Freemasonry are required to declare a belief in a Supreme Being.However, the candidate is not asked to expand on, or explain, his interpretation of Supreme Being. The discussion of politics and religion is forbidden within a Masonic Lodge, in part so a Mason will not be placed in the situation of having to justify his personal interpretation. Thus, reference to the Supreme Being will mean the Christian Trinity to a Christian Mason, Allah to a Muslim Mason,Para Brahman to a Hindu Mason, etc. And while most Freemasons would take the view that the term Supreme Being equates to God, others may hold a more complex or philosophical interpretation of the term.
A Volume of the Sacred Law is always displayed in an open Lodge in those jurisdictions which require a belief in the Supreme Being. In English-speaking countries, this is frequently the King James Version of the Bible or another standard translation; there is no such thing as an exclusive "Masonic Bible". In many French Lodges, the Masonic Constitutions are used instead. Furthermore, a candidate is given his choice of religious text for his Obligation, according to his beliefs. UGLE alludes to similarities to legal practice in the UK, and to a common source with other oath taking processes. In Lodges with a membership of mixed religions it is common to find more than one sacred text displayed.
The three degrees of Craft or Blue Lodge Freemasonry are those of:
1° Entered Apprentice – the degree of an Initiate, which makes one a Freemason;
2° Fellow Craft – an intermediate degree, involved with learning;
3° Master Mason – the "third degree", a necessity for participation in most aspects of Masonry.
The degrees represent stages of personal development. No Freemason is told that there is only one meaning to the allegories; as a Freemason works through the degrees and studies their lessons, he interprets them for himself, his personal interpretation being bounded only by the Constitution within which he works. A common symbolic structure and universal archetypes provide a means for each Freemason to come to his own answers to life's important philosophical questions.
There is no degree of Craft Freemasonry higher than that of Master Mason. Although some Masonic bodies and orders have further degrees named with higher numbers, these degrees may be considered to be supplements to the Master Mason degree rather than promotions from it.
Freemasons do not recruit or solicit membership. Men who become Masons do so of their own free will and accord. Therefore, in order to become a Mason, you must ask another Mason for a petition to join a Masonic Lodge.