The Freemasons are "a worldwide fraternal organization where members are joined together by a common belief in a Supreme Being and a desire to live by high moral standards ...," present throughout the world. Freemasonry is an "esoteric art," in that certain aspects of its internal work are not generally revealed to the public. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that Freemasonry uses an initiatory system of degrees to explore ethical issues, and this system is less effective if the observer knows beforehand what will happen. Freemasons are expected to exhibit religious and political tolerance both in "lodge" (the meeting place of a group of Freemasons) and in their daily lives. Freemasonry will thus accept members from all denominations of Christianity, but is indubitably philosophically incompatible with those which view ecumenism with a negative eye or insist on intolerance for other forms of belief and worship.
However, the first papal condemnation of Freemasonry came in 1738 from Pope Clement XII in his papal bull Eminenti Apostolatus Specula, repeated by several later popes, notably Pope Leo XIII the encyclical Humanum Genus. The 1917 Code of Canon Law explicity declares that joining Freemasonry entailed automatic excommunication; the revised Code issued in 1983 does not explicitly name Masonic orders among the secret societies condemned in canon 1374. However, in a letter to the United States Bishops from the Office of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the interpretation was made clear - the prohibition against Catholics joining Masonic orders remains. One reason the Free Methodist Church was founded in the 1860s was that its founders believed the Methodist Church was being influenced by Freemasons and members of secret societies. The Free Methodist Church continues to prohibit its members from also joining societies such as the Freemasons. Recently the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest association of Baptists in the United States, also stated that participation in Freemasonry is inconsistent with their beliefs.
The position of women within Freemasonry is complex. In North America and many other parts of the World, women cannot become Freemasons per se, but rather generally join an associated body with its own, seperate traditions, the Order of the Eastern Star. In Britain and France, as well as certain other countries, women may join co-masonic Lodges such as those under the jurisdiction Le Droit Humaine which contain both men and women, or Lodges which comprise only women.
Freemasonry is connected to several "appendant bodies" such as the Scottish Rite, the York Rite, and the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (Shriners), all of which claim to expand on the teachings of Freemasonry while improving their members and Society as a whole.
As well, there are certain youth organisations which are associated with Masonry, but are not necessarily Masonic in their content, such as the Order of DeMolay (for boys aged 12-21) and the Job's Daughters (for girls of similar ages).
Freemasonry has been the object of a number of attacks throughout its history, including the famous Taxil hoax.
The Freemasons rely heavily upon the architectural symbolism of their erstwhile medieval namesakes who actually worked in stone. One of their principal symbols is the square and compasses, tools of the trade, so arranged as to form a quadrilateral. An expression often used in Masonic circles is "to be on the square", meaning to be a reliable sort of person, has entered common usage. The practice of Freemasonry is known by its adherents as "The Craft".
Many non-Masons mistakenly believe that individuals become Freemasons through invitation, patrimony, or other non-democratic means. This is incorrect; an individual must ask freely and without persuasion to become a Freemason in order to join the group. Freemasons are enjoined to avoid pursuading or encouraging anyone to join a Lodge, except by good example.
The popular television program, The Simpsons once featured an episode revolving around the "Stonecutters," a group obviously meant as a satire of Freemasons and similar organisations. Unfortunately, this episode promoted the myth that, in order to join the group, one must "... be the son of a ... [Freemason] or save the life of a ... [Freemason]." As mentioned above, this is untrue.
In order to be a Freemason, a man (unless joining a co-Masonic or female Masonic lodge) must believe in a Supreme being, be over 21 years of age, and have been born free (i.e. not born a slave). The last point does not come up in modern Lodges, and there is no indication of whether it would be enforced.
In France, the "Grand Orient" has declared that atheists may also become Freemasons, which has lead to French Freemasons being unrecognised as such almost universially among other orders.
It is believed by many non-Masons that Freemasons are involved in theurgy as well as worship, as well as being members of a vast social network that is constructed to aid and further member interests.
Many conspiracy theories involve the Freemasons.
Freemasonry has been said to be an institutional outgrowth of the medieval guilds of stonemasons (1), a direct descendant of the "Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon" (the Knights Templar)(2), an offshoot of the ancient Mystery schools(1), an administrative arm of the Priory of Zion(3), the Roman Collegia(1), the Comacine masters(1), intellectual descendants of Noah(1), and to have many other various origins. All of these theories are noted in several different texts, and the following are but examples pulled from a sea of books:
- In "A History of Freemasonry" by H.L. Haywood and James E. Craig, pub. circa 1927
- In "Born of Blood" By John Robinson, pub. 1989
- In "The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail" by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, pub. 1982
It is likely that Freemasonry is not an outgrowth of medieval guilds of stonemasons, for numerous reasons well documented in "Born in Blood" by John Robinson. Amongst the reasons for this conclusion are the fact that Stonemason's guilds do not appear to predate reasonable estimates for the time of Freemasonry's origin, that stonemasons lived near their worksite and thus had no need for secret signs to identify themselves, and that the "Ancient Charges" of Freemasonry are nonsensical when thought of as being rules for a Stonemason's guild.
Freemasonry is said to have existed even at the time of King Athelstan of England, in the very late 10th century C.E.. Athelstan is said to have been converted to Christianity in York, and to have issued the first Charter to the Masonic Lodges there. This story is not currently substantiated.
A more reliable (although still not unassailable) document asserting the antiquity of Freemasonry is the Halliwell Manuscript or Regius Poem, which is believed to date from ca. 1390, and which makes reference to several concepts and phrases similar to those found in Freemasonry. The manuscript itself refers to an earlier document, of which it is supposed to be an elaboration.
In 1717, four Lodges which met at the "Apple-Tree Tavern, the Crown Ale-House near Drury Lane, the Goose and Gridiron in St. Paul's Churchyard, and the Rummer and Grapes Tavern in Westminster" in London, England (as recounted in (2)) combined together and formed the first public Grand Lodge (this group was later known, colloquially, as the "Moderns"). Later another Grand Lodge formed, known colloquially as the "Ancients," causing a schism which was resolved with their amalgamation into the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) in 1813. The "Ancients" were based in York, and claimed that their version of the Freemasonic Ritual was truer to ancient tradition. Because both the "Ancients" and the "Moderns" had "daughter" Lodges throughout the world, and because many of those Lodges still exist, there is a great deal of variability in the Ritual used today. Most Lodges, however, conduct their Work in accordance with an agreed-upon "Rite," such as the "York Rite" (which is popular in America), or the "Canadian Rite" (which is, in some ways, a concordance between the Rites used by the "Ancients" and "Moderns").
In 1775, an African American named Prince Hall was initiated into an Irish Constitution Military Lodge, along with fourteen other African Americans, all of whom were free by birth. When the Military Lodge left the area, the Black gentlemen were given the authority to meet as a Lodge, form Processions on the days of the Saints John, and conduct Masonic funerals, but not to confer degrees or do other Masonic Work. These individuals applied for, and obtained, a Warrant for Charter from the Grand Lodge of England in 1784 and formed African Lodge #459. Despite being stricken from the rolls for non-payment of dues after 1813, the Lodge restyled itself as the African Grand Lodge #1 (not to be confused with the various Grand Lodges on the Continent of Africa) and separated from commonly recognised Masonry. At the present time, it is recognised by some Grand Lodges and not by others, and appears to be working its way toward full recognition. ()
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that their Temple Endowment ceremony, which shares some elements with those of the Freemasons, are similar because the Freemasons' rituals are corrupted forms of the rituals given by God at the Temple of Solomon.