Freemasonry is a fraternal organization that arose from obscure origins (theorized to be anywhere from the time of the building of King Solomon's Temple to the mid-1600s). Freemasonry now exists in various forms all over the world, and has millions of members. The various forms all share moral and metaphysical ideals, which include, in most cases, a constitutional declaration of belief in a Supreme Being.
The fraternity is administratively organized into Grand Lodges (or sometimes Orients), each of which governs its own jurisdiction, which consists of subordinate (or constituent) Lodges. Grand Lodges recognize each other through a process of landmarks and regularity. There are also appending bodies, which are organizations related to the main branch of Freemasonry, but with their own independent administration.
Freemasonry uses the metaphors of operative stonemasons' tools and implements, against the allegorical backdrop of the building of King Solomon's Temple, to convey what has been described as "a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols."
The Masonic Lodge
A Lodge (often termed a Private Lodge or Constituent Lodge in Masonic constitutions) is the basic organizational unit of Freemasonry. Every new Lodge must be warranted by a Grand Lodge, but is subject to its direction only in enforcing the published Constitution of the jurisdiction. A Lodge must hold full meetings regularly at published dates and places. It will elect, initiate and promote its own members and officers; it will own, occupy or share premises; and will normally build up a collection of minutes, records and equipment. Like any other organization, it will have formal business, annual general meetings (AGMs), charity funds, committees, reports, bank accounts and tax returns, and so forth.
A man can only be initiated, or made a Mason, in a Lodge, of which he may well remain a subscribing member for life. A Master Mason is generally entitled to visit any Lodge meeting under any jurisdiction in amity with his own, and a Lodge may well offer hospitality to such a visitor after the formal meeting. He is first usually required to check the regularity of that Lodge, and must be able to satisfy that Lodge of his own regularity; and he may be refused admission if adjudged likely to disrupt the harmony of the Lodge. If he wishes to visit the same Lodge repeatedly, he may be expected to join it, and pay a membership subscription.
Freemasons correctly meet as a Lodge, not in a Lodge, the word "Lodge" referring more to the people assembled than the place of assembly. However, in common usage, Masonic premises are often referred to as "Lodges". Masonic buildings are also sometimes called "Temples" ("of Philosophy and the Arts"). In many countries, Masonic Centre or Hall has replaced Temple to avoid arousing prejudice and suspicion. Several different Lodges, as well as other Masonic organizations, often use the same premises at different times.
Early Lodges often met in a tavern or any other convenient fixed place with a private room. According to Masonic tradition, the Lodge of medieval stonemasons was on the southern side of the building site, with the sun warming the stones during the day. The social Festive Board (or Social Board), part of the meeting is thus sometimes called the South.
Most Lodges consist of Freemasons living or working within a given town or neighborhood. Other Lodges are composed of Masons with a particular shared interest, profession or background. Shared schools, universities, military units, Masonic appointments or degrees, arts, professions and hobbies have all been the qualifications for such Lodges. In some Lodges, the foundation and name may now be only of historic interest, as over time the membership evolves beyond that envisaged by its "founding brethren"; in others, the membership remains exclusive.
There are also specialist Lodges of Research, with membership drawn from Master Masons only, with interests in Masonic Research (of history, philosophy, etc.). Lodges of Research are fully warranted but, generally, do not initiate new candidates. Lodges of Instruction in UGLE may be warranted by any ordinary Lodge for the learning and rehearsal of Masonic Ritual.
Every Masonic Lodge elects certain officers to execute the necessary functions of the lodge's work. The Worshipful Master (essentially the lodge President) is always an elected officer. Most jurisdictions will also elect the Senior and Junior Wardens (Vice Presidents), the Secretary and the Treasurer. All lodges will have a Tyler, or Tiler, (who guards the door to the lodge room while the lodge is in session), sometimes elected and sometimes appointed by the Master. In addition to these elected officers, lodges will have various appointed officers—such as Deacons, Stewards, and a Chaplain (appointed to lead a non-denominational prayer at the convocation of meetings or activities—often, but not necessarily, a clergyman). The specific offices and their functions vary between jurisdictions.
Many offices are replicated at Provincial and Grand-Lodge levels, but with the addition of the word 'Grand' somewhere in the title. For example, where every lodge has a 'Junior Warden', Grand Lodges have a 'Grand Junior Warden' (or, as it is sometimes rendered, a 'Junior Grand Warden'). In addition there are a number of offices that exist only at the Grand Lodge level.
Other degrees, orders and bodies
There is no degree in Freemasonry higher than that of Master Mason, the Third Degree. There are, however, a number of organizations that require being a Master Mason as a prerequisite for membership. These bodies have no authority over the Craft. These orders or degrees may be described as additional or appending, and often provide a further perspective on some of the allegorical, moral and philosophical content of Freemasonry.
Appending bodies are administered separately from Craft Grand Lodges but are styled Masonic since every member must be a Mason. However, Craft Masonic jurisdictions vary in their relationships with such bodies, if a relationship exists at all. The Articles of Union of the "Modern" and "Antient" craft Grand Lodges (into UGLE in 1813) limited recognition to certain degrees, such as the Royal Arch and the "chivalric degrees", but there were and are many other degrees that have been worked since before the Union. Some bodies are not universally considered to be appendant bodies, but rather separate organizations that happen to require prior Masonic affiliation for membership. Some of these organizations have additional requirements, such as religious adherence (e.g., requiring members to profess Trinitarian Christian beliefs) or membership of other bodies.
Quite apart from these, there are organizations that are often thought of as being related to Freemasonry, but which are in fact not related at all and are not accorded recognition as Masonic. These include such organizations as the Orange Order, which originated in Ireland, or the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
Principles and activities
While Freemasonry has often been called a "secret society", Freemasons themselves argue that it is more correct to say that it is an esoteric society, in that certain aspects are private. The most common phrasing being that Freemasonry has, in the 21st century, become less a secret society and more of a "society with secrets". The private aspects of modern Freemasonry are the modes of recognition amongst members and particular elements within the ritual.
Ritual, symbolism, and morality
Masons conduct their meetings using a ritualized format. There is no single Masonic ritual, and each Jurisdiction is free to set (or not set) its own ritual. However, there are similarities that exist among Jurisdictions. For example, all Masonic ritual makes use of the architectural symbolism of the tools of the medieval operative stonemason. Freemasons, as speculative masons (meaning philosophical building rather than actual building), use this symbolism to teach moral and ethical lessons of the principles of "Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth" — or as related in France: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity".
Two of the principal symbols always found in a Lodge are the square and compasses. Some Lodges and rituals explain these symbols as lessons in conduct: for example, that Masons should "square their actions by the square of virtue" and to learn to "circumscribe their desires and keep their passions within due bounds toward all mankind". However, as Freemasonry is non-dogmatic, there is no general interpretation for these symbols (or any Masonic symbol) that is used by Freemasonry as a whole.
These moral lessons are communicated in performance of allegorical ritual. A candidate progresses through degrees gaining knowledge and understanding of himself, his relationship with others and his relationship with the Supreme Being (as per his own interpretation). While the philosophical aspects of Freemasonry tend to be discussed in Lodges of Instruction or Research, and sometimes informal groups, Freemasons, and others, frequently publish — to varying degrees of competence — studies that are available to the public. Any mason may speculate on the symbols and purpose of Freemasonry, and indeed all masons are required to some extent to speculate on Masonic meaning as a condition of advancing through the degrees. It is well noted, however, that no one person "speaks" for the whole of Freemasonry.
The Volume of the Sacred Law is always displayed in an open Lodge. In English-speaking countries, this is frequently the King James Version of the Bible or another standard translation; there is no such thing as an exclusive "Masonic Bible". In many French Lodges, the Masonic Constitutions are used instead. Furthermore, a candidate is given his choice of religious text for his Obligation, according to his beliefs. UGLE alludes to similarities to legal practice in the UK, and to a common source with other oath taking processes. In Lodges with a membership of mixed religions it is common to find more than one sacred text displayed.
In keeping with the geometrical and architectural theme of Freemasonry, the Supreme Being is referred to in Masonic ritual by the titles of the Great Architect of the Universe, Grand Geometrician or similar, to make clear that the reference is generic, and not tied to a particular religion's conception of God.
The three degrees of Craft or Blue Lodge Freemasonry are those of:
Entered Apprentice — the degree of an Initiate, which makes one a Mason;
Fellow Craft — an intermediate degree, involved with learning;
Master Mason — the "third degree", a necessity for participation in most aspects of Masonry.
The degrees represent stages of personal development. No Freemason is told that there is only one meaning to the allegories; as a Freemason works through the degrees and studies their lessons, he interprets them for himself, his personal interpretation being bounded only by the Constitution within which he works. A common symbolic structure and universal archetypes provide a means for each Freemason to come to his own answers to life's important philosophical questions.
As previously stated, there is no degree of Craft Freemasonry higher than that of Master Mason. Although some Masonic bodies and orders have further degrees named with higher numbers, these degrees may be considered to be supplements to the Master Mason degree rather than promotions from it. An example is the Scottish Rite, conferring degrees numbered from 4° up to 33°. It is essential to be a Master Mason in order to qualify for these further degrees. They are administered on a parallel system to Craft or Blue Lodge Freemasonry; within each organization there is a system of offices, which confer rank within that degree or order alone.
In some jurisdictions, especially those in continental Europe, Freemasons working through the degrees may be asked to prepare papers on related philosophical topics, and present these papers in open Lodge. There is an enormous bibliography of Masonic papers, magazines and publications ranging from fanciful abstractions which construct spiritual and moral lessons of varying value, through practical handbooks on organisation, management and ritual performance, to serious historical and philosophical papers entitled to academic respect.
The Landmarks of Masonry are defined as ancient and unchangeable precepts; standards by which the regularity of Lodges and Grand Lodges are judged. Each Grand Lodge is self-governing and no single authority exists over the whole of Freemasonry. The interpretation of these principles therefore can and does vary, leading to controversies of recognition.
The concept of Masonic Landmarks appears in Masonic regulations as early as 1723, and seem to be adopted from the regulations of operative Masonic guilds. In 1858, Albert G. Mackey attempted to set down 25 Landmarks. In 1863, George Oliver published a Freemason's Treasury in which he listed 40 Landmarks. A number of American Grand Lodges have attempted the task of enumerating the Landmarks; numbers differing from West Virginia (7) and New Jersey (10) to Nevada (39) and Kentucky (54).
Opposition to and criticism of Freemasonry
Anti-Masonry (alternatively called Anti-Freemasonry) is defined as "Avowed opposition to Freemasonry". However, there is no homogeneous anti-Masonic movement. Anti-Masonry consists of radically differing criticisms from sometimes incompatible groups who are hostile to Freemasonry in some form. They include religious groups, political groups, and conspiracy theorists.
There have been many disclosures and exposés dating as far back as the eighteenth century. These often lack context, may be outdated for various reasons, or could be outright hoaxes on the part of the author, as in the case of the Taxil hoax.
These hoaxes and exposures have often become the basis for criticism of Masonry, usually religious (mainly Roman Catholic and evangelical Christian) or political (usually Socialist or Communist dictatorial objections, but also the historical Anti-Masonic Party in the United States) in nature. The political opposition that arose after the "Morgan Affair" in 1826 gave rise to the term "Anti-Masonry", which is still in use today, both by Masons in referring to their critics and as a self-descriptor by the critics themselves.