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What is Freemasonry?

Freemasonry is the world’s oldest and most far-reaching fraternity.  Modern Freemasonry has existed since at least 1717, when the first formal Grand Lodge, now known as the United Grand Lodge of England, was founded in the United Kingdom.  The earliest Masonic texts (such as the Regius Manuscript) are widely accepted to date from the late 14th to the middle 15th centuries.

Freemasonry, however, almost certainly began somewhat earlier and had its roots in the operative stonemasons guilds that traveled throughout Europe.  The members of those guilds enjoyed certain privileges not available to the general public (such as the freedom to work and travel freely).  As most people of the time were illiterate, they employed secret modes of recognition and passwords which allowed them to prove to one another that they were qualified members of the guild and had achieved certain skills and levels of competence within their craft.  This tradition has been carried forward to more modern times and, today, is manifested by the handshakes and passwords used by Freemasons the world over to recognize one another, even though they may not speak the same language.

The structure of the ancient craft guilds is also evident in the structure and leadership of modern masonic Lodges.  Many of the Officers, as well as their particular responsibilities within the Lodge, are directly analogous to their medieval counterparts.  Further, the current Masonic “ranks” are directly descended from the ranks used in both ancient and modern trades organizations;  the apprentice, journeyman (or fellow), and master craftsman are known as the Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason within today’s Lodges.  As a member of the guild obtained more knowledge and displayed mastery over increasingly difficult skills, he would progress through the ranks from apprentice to master.  Today, Masons learn valuable lessons in each of three successive degrees and, after demonstrating proficiency in their work, are advanced from Entered Apprentice to Master Mason.

The Masonic degrees each teach a lesson which builds upon the teachings of the previous degree.  Originally, the stonemasons guilds were strictly “operative” in nature, teaching only those skills directly related to the craft of cutting, hewing, and building with stone.  As the Medieval times progressed into the Renaissance, many of the free-thinkers of the time sought to join the craft guilds, not only for the tangible benefits mentioned above, but also for the brotherhood and fellowship such organizations naturally foster.  As more and more Renaissance men joined the guilds, they naturally progressed to being more “speculative” in nature, concentrating less on the builder’s arts and more on the moral and cultural topics of the time.  These more cerebral lessons were conveyed using the symbols and tools common to the stonemason’s craft, a practice which continues to this day.

Masonic Lodges today are open to men, of lawful age (currently 18 in New York), who believe in a Supreme Being, and who are of good moral character.  Masons come from all walks of life, races, creeds, ethnicities, socio-economic classes, and faiths.  Despite their diverse backgrounds, they are bound together by common experiences, common ideals, and a common desire to improve both themselves and the world we all share.

Freemasonry is not a secret society.  Masons are anything but an “underground” organization.  Masons are proud of their membership, often displaying the square and compasses on rings, lapel pins, etc.  Our buildings are located throughout the country, in fact, throughout the world, and are clearly marked as Masonic in nature.   Our only secrets are the aforementioned modes of recognition and certain portions of our ritual which we believe convey the most meaning when delivered in the proper manner and in the proper context.

Freemasonry is also not a religion.  We do require members to believe in a Supreme Being, but we do not favor any one faith or sect over another.  We encourage each man to explore and be active within the faith of his choosing.  Although many of our lessons are derived from religious texts, their value is of a nature that men of all faiths can recognize them as being morally sound.  In fact, religion is one of two topics (the other being politics) that are specifically prohibited from being discussed in Lodge.  These two subjects, perhaps more than any others, can polarize and divide people and, as one of Masonry’s principal tenets is to promote respect, tolerance, harmony, fellowship, and brotherhood amongst its members and in the broader world, these subjects are forbidden within our Lodge rooms.

Freemasonry is, however, a fraternity with lofty goals.  Masons seek not only to improve themselves through their personal education and quest for knowledge, but also to improve the world as a whole by preserving valuable historical and cultural items, sponsoring cutting-edge medical research, caring for our aged, and protecting our young.  If you think that Freemasonry is for you, please click here.  If you’d like to know more about Masonry in New York, please see this page or you may wish to contact us.

MORI
The Chancellor Robert R. Livingston Masonic Library of the Grand Lodge of F. & A. M. of the State of New York