Freemasonry is one of the world’s oldest and largest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisations. It teaches self-knowledge through participation in a progression of ceremonies. Members are expected to be of high moral standing and are encouraged to speak openly about Freemasonry. The following information is intended to explain Freemasonry as it is practised under the United Grand Lodge of England, which administers Lodges of Freemasons in England and Wales and in many places overseas.
Freemasonry is a society of men concerned with moral and spiritual values. Its members are taught its principles (moral lessons and self-knowledge) by a series of ritual dramas – a progression of allegorical two-part plays which are learnt by heart and performed within each Lodge – which follow ancient forms, and use stonemasons’ customs and tools as allegorical guides.
Freemasonry instils in its members a moral and ethical approach to life: its values are based on integrity, kindness, honesty and fairness. Members are urged to regard the interests of the family as paramount but, importantly, Freemasonry also teaches concern for people, care for the less fortunate and help for those in need.
From its earliest days, Freemasonry has been concerned with the care of orphans, the sick and the aged. This work continues today. In addition, large sums are given to national and local charities.
There are two different theories for the formation of Freemasonry:
The first theory is that operative stonemasons who built the great cathedrals and castles, had Lodges in which they discussed trade affairs. They had simple Initiations for Apprentices and Fellows and, as there were no City and Guilds certificates, dues cards or trade union membership cards, they adopted secret signs and words so that they could demonstrate they were trained masons when they moved from site to site. In the 1600s these operative Lodges began to accept non-operatives as 'gentlemen masons' who gradually changed these lodges into 'free' or 'accepted' Lodges.
The second theory is that the group who formed Freemasonry (in the late 1500s and early 1600s) were a group who were interested in the promotion of religious and political tolerance in an age of great intolerance, when differences of opinion on matters of religion and politics were to lead to bloody civil war. What they were trying to do was to make better men and build a better world. As the means of teaching in those days was by allegory and symbolism, they took the idea of building and construction as the central allegory on which to form their system. The main source of allegory was the Bible, the contents of which were known to everyone (even if they could not read), and the only building described in detail in the Bible was King Solomon's Temple, which became the basis of the ritual. The old trade guilds provided them with their basic administration of a Master, Wardens, Treasurer and Secretary, and the operative mason's tools provided them with a wealth of symbols to moralise upon.
It is quite possible that the origins of Freemasonry, as we know it today, are a mixture of both the aforementioned theories. The first record of the 'making' of an English Freemason is Elias Ashmole, the antiquarian and herald, whose collections formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He recorded in his diary that a lodge met at his father-in-law's house in Warrington, Cheshire on 16th October 1646 to 'make him a Mason'. None of those involved was a stonemason.
Organised Freemasonry began with the founding of the Grand Lodge of England on 24th June 1717 when four London lodges came together at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House, St Paul's Churchyard, forming themselves into a Grand Lodge and elected Anthony Sayer, Gentleman, as their Grand Master – the first Grand Lodge in the world. Initially the Grand Lodge was simply an annual feast for lodges in London but in 1721 John, Duke of Montagu, was elected Grand Master and the Grand Lodge met in 'quarterly communication' and began to establish itself as a regulatory body, attracting to it lodges meeting outside London.
In 1723 the first rulebook – the Constitutions of Masonry – was published and William Cowper, Clerk of the Parliaments, was appointed Secretary to the Grand Lodge to keep minutes of its meetings. By 1730 the Grand Lodge had over 100 lodges in England and Wales under its control and had begun to spread Freemasonry abroad, warranting lodges to meet in Madrid and Calcutta.
For historical reasons separate Grand Lodges were formed in Ireland (1725) and Scotland (1736). Between them the 'home' Grand Lodges took Freemasonry around the globe. From the 1730s lodges were set up in Europe, the West Indies, North America and India.
In the later 18th and the 19th centuries, British Freemasonry was taken to the Mid and Far East, Australasia, Africa and South America, mirroring the development of the British Empire. When those areas eventually achieved nation status, many of the lodges formed independent local Grand Lodges, but other lodges decided to remain with their parent Grand Lodge – resulting in the United Grand Lodge of England still having some 750 lodges overseas, principally in Commonwealth countries.
The premier Grand Lodge of England continued developing in the 1730s and 1740s without any opposition. There had been considerable public interest – meetings were advertised and reported on in the growing number of local newspapers – more especially in what the ceremonies of Freemasonry were. Enterprising journalists and pamphleteers were not slow to produce 'exposures' of what they believed were the 'secrets' of Freemasonry. Publicity increased interest and a growing number of aristocrats, landed gentry and professional men began to seek admission. In 1737 the first Royal Freemason was made - Frederick Lewis, Prince of Wales, son of King George II.
Whilst the United Grand Lodge of England is the headquarters of a male-only organisation, there is a Grand Lodge which admits both men and women, and there is another which refuses to admit men.
This is the official line taken by United Grand Lodge of England on the question of Women Freemasons:
There exist in England and Wales at least two Grand Lodges solely for women. Except that these bodies admit women, they are, so far as can be ascertained, otherwise regular in their practice. There is also one which admits both men and women to membership. They are not recognised by this Grand Lodge and intervisitation may not take place. There are, however, discussions from time to time with the women's Grand Lodges on matters of mutual concern. Brethren are therefore free to explain to non-Masons, if asked, that Freemasonry is not confined to men (even though this Grand Lodge does not itself admit women). Further information about these bodies may be obtained by writing to the Grand Secretary.
The Board is also aware that there exist other bodies not directly imitative of pure antient Masonry, but which by implication introduce Freemasonry, such as the Order of the Eastern Star. Membership of such bodies, attendance at their meetings, or participation in their ceremonies is incompatible with membership of this Grand Lodge.
Statement issued by UGLE - 10th March 1999
A Lodge meeting is usually formed of several parts.
As in any association, there is a certain amount of administrative procedure - minutes of last meeting, proposing and balloting for new Members, discussing and voting on financial matters, election of Officers, news and correspondence.
Then there are the ceremonies for making new masons and the annual Installation of the Master and appointment of Officers. Each of the three ceremonies of making a new Mason involve dramatic instruction in the principles and lessons taught in the Craft, followed by a lecture or a charge in which the Candidate's various duties are spelled out. The method of teaching is by a series of short plays based on ancient stories and stonemasons customs.
To mention but one aspect of the making of a Mason, Freemasonry is very much about Charity. The Candidate therefore in the story comes into the Lodge as a poor man in rags. In the last century the Candidate did actually change into a suit of rags. Now it is symbolised by rolling up one sleeve and one trouser leg. Taken out of context this could appear humiliating or silly but it has a genuine and sincere purpose. It does not matter who the Candidate is or how important - Prince or pauper, rich man or poor man - each must go through the same ritual. No matter what the differences outside masonry, inside everyone is equal and everyone must pass through the same historic ceremony that has remained essentially the same for hundreds of years. The ritual is a shared experience that binds the members together. Its use of drama, allegory and symbolism impresses the principles and teachings more firmly in the mind of each Candidate than if they were simply passed on to him in matter-of-fact modern language.
After the Ceremony is completed, more administrative matters may take place before the meeting comes to a close.
It is customary after a meeting to have 'Festive Board' which, although a continuation of the meeting, is a relaxed meal among friends. Formal toasts are made to the Queen, the Craft, distinguished Brethren, and to the Worshipful Master and Officers of the Lodge. A collection and raffle are common, with proceeds going to charities supported by the Lodge.
Freemasonry demands of its members a belief in a Supreme Being, and the ceremonies do contain prayers but it provides no system of faith of its own. If you want religion, you must go to Church or Synagogue or Temple or whatever. Freemasonry can only encourage you to be a better Christian, Jew, Muslim, or whatever one's faith is.
We refer to spiritual writings as the 'Volume of the Sacred Law'. To the majority of British Freemasons the VSL is the Bible. There are many in Freemasonry, however, who are not Christian and to them the Bible is not their sacred book. They will therefore take their Obligation on the book that is regarded as sacred to their religion. Thus when the 'Volume of the Sacred Law' is referred to in ceremonies, to a Christian it will always be the Bible and to a non-Christian it will be the holy book of his own religion. Incidentally, we do not say 'Amen' at the end of prayers. Instead we say 'So must it be', or in fact, we use the old English 'So mote it be'.
In order to maintain harmony in the Lodge, one of the basic principles of Freemasonry is that the Lodge shall not discuss religion. The United Grand Lodge of England will not have friendly association with another Grand Lodge if they tolerate such discussion.