The Craft of Freemasonry
Freemasonry is the oldest, largest and most widely known fraternity in the world. But throughout its history, its structure and teachings have remained a mystery to many, and myths and misconceptions about the fraternity have arisen.
Exactly when Freemasonry began is not known for certain, but many historians trace the beginnings of Masonry to the Middle Ages, when stonemasons and other craftsmen traveled throughout Europe. These men were known as free masons, because unlike bondsmen, they were free to move where their work demanded. These free masons would gather in shelter houses, or lodges, and eventually organized themselves into Masonic guilds, using the secrets of their craft to identify themselves as masons. The square and compass – the tools of the masons’ trade – became the symbol of their brotherhood.
When the need for such builders declined, “Speculative” or “Symbolic” Masonry evolved, using the customs and tools of the craft to convey moral truths. The growing organization attracted men of integrity and good will, and the Masonic guilds began to accept members who were not masons, calling them “accepted masons.” The fraternity finally became known in some jurisdictions as “Ancient Free and Accepted Masons,” and in other jurisdictions as “Free and Accepted Masons.”
Today, Freemasonry is composed of men bound together not by trade but by their desire to be fraternal brothers. The tools of those early builders have remained as symbols to help Masons understand and remember the teachings of the fraternity. Through the improvement and strengthening of the individual’s character, Masonry seeks to improve the community and to make good men better through belief in the Brotherhood of Man and the fatherhood of God, and the immortality of the soul.
The basic organizational unit of Masonry is the Blue Lodge or Craft Lodge. When a man has been accepted for membership, he precedes through thee degrees, called Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason, which is the highest degree in Freemasonry. It is through these degrees that the teachings of Masonry are first presented.
Lodges organize to form a Grand Lodge, which governs Lodges in a specified territory. In most of North America, each state or province is governed by its own Grand Lodge. While the various Grand Lodges are bound together by tradition and custom, each is sovereign and autonomous in its own jurisdiction. There is no central governing body for any group of Grand Lodges or for Masonry as a whole, although some Grand Lodges do gather for Masonic conferences where they discuss issues of interest to the individual jurisdictions.
The only requirements for Masonic membership are that a man must be of good moral character, profess belief in a Supreme Being, and be at least 21 years of age. (In some Grand Lodge jurisdictions, the age requirement is 18 or 19.) One of the customs of the fraternity is that a man must join of his own free will. Masonry does not solicit members or conduct membership "drives” to supplement its membership roster. A man desiring to become a Mason may request a petition from a friend who is a Mason, and he must be recommended to the Lodge by two Masons and pass a ballot of Lodge members. Though Masonry does not permit direct or open membership solicitation, most jurisdictions have no objection to an approach being made to a man that is considered a suitable candidate for Freemasonry. The potential candidate should then be left to make his own decision and come of his own free will and accord.
The fraternity utilizes certain rituals, symbols and signs of recognition that are not made public, but Masonry is not a secret society. Its only secrets are its methods of recognition and symbolic instruction. It does not hide its existence, and may Masons proudly wear Masonic rings, tie clips or lapel pins. Nor is Masonry a religion, though it is religious in character, requiring a belief in the existence of a Supreme Being. Masonry accepts men regardless of their religion and encourages them to participate in their respective religions services and to worship according to their faith.