Freemasonry is the oldest fraternal organization for men in the world. The basic organizational unit of the fraternity is the Lodge. We believe the term comes from the Lodges (shelters) constructed at the building sites of cathedrals and castles during the Middle Ages. Masons worked and lived in these shelters.
No one knows with certainty how or when the Masonic Fraternity was formed. One 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 ritual come from this era. The oldest document that makes reference to Masons is the Regius Poem in a copy dated 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; Paul Revere served as the head of the fraternity of Massachusetts, as did Joseph Warren. Other well known Masons involved with the founding of America included Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Ethan Allen, Marquis de Lafayette, Baron Fredrick von Stuben, Nathaniel Greene, Henry Knox, 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 1700’s 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 fight of each person 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.
Freemasons support more ways to help people than any other private organization. In the beginning–the 1700’s and early 1800’s, Masonic charity was largely limited to members, their widows and their orphans. Homes for the Aged and Orphanages were established all over America. But Masonic charity soon reached far beyond that fraternity, and now the great majority of the $525 million dollars given in America each year goes to those with no connection to Masonry.
Today in North America, the Masonic Fraternity continues this tradition by giving over $2 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.
Perhaps the best known Masonic charity are the Shiners’ Hospitals for Children, where the world’s very best care for birth defects and orthopedic problems is available completely free of charge. In recent years, the Shrine has established Burn Centers where childhood victims of burns are treated, also free of charge.
The Scottish Rite has established Childhood Language Disorders Centers across America, where children with language problems (the most common problem children experience) are treated. Another part of the program provides training for teachers in a technique which is 87% effective in teaching children with dyslexia how to read.
The York Rite includes several philanthropies such as the Knight Templar Eye Foundation that does important vision research, as well as offering free eye surgery to children when the surgery is necessary to save their vision.
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 and sectarian discussion is forbidden in Lodge rooms. Masons meet in a spirit of toleration and brotherhood.
The major task of Masonry is to provide a setting and context in which men can seek his own spiritual development. Masons engage in a program for personal growth. A person usually joins Masonry because he feels that there is “something more” in life that he is missing. Masonry stresses a process of self-control and self-discovery. The rituals are used to teach the basic lessons of human duty and responsibility, including duty to one’s faith, one’s country, one’s community, one’s family and oneself.
No Lodge is permitted to exclude a candidate on the basis of his race or national origin. To petition for membership, the petitioner must be “a man of legal age, good reputation, and possess a belief in God.” While election to membership in the fraternity is a matter for the local Lodge to decide, the qualifications for membership are standard and all Masons are required to observe them.
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 organizations. The moral and ethical values that Freemasonry encourages are universal and not gender-based. In the middle 1800’s, the fraternity took the then radical step of creating organizations for 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. These groups are open to both men and women.
There are several youth organizations sponsored or supported by the various Masonic organizations. The three largest and best known are The Order of DeMolay, The International Order of Rainbow for Girls, and The International Order of Job’s Daughters. Membership in a Youth Order does not guarantee that a person will be accepted into a Masonic Order later. They are independent organizations sponsored by Masonic Bodies, not junior Masonic Organizations.