The Development of Modern Freemasonry
How Did Masonry Become "Free"
Freemasonry is very old. In the UK, it has its origins in the Crusades and before and grew out of a culture that started in biblical times with the teachings of King Solomon and the work of the masons who designed and built the first monumental structures.
If you have read the Story of Masonry, you will know that masons gradually became "special" tradesmen, because of the nature of their work. They developed strong traditions of morality and good workmanship that crossed religions and cultures.
Let us remember that from the beginning of history, mankind has waged religious wars and in many of these periods, there has also been great political intrigue and moral dishonesty as religion and politics have, until the last generation or two, always been inextricably entwined. In fact they still are in the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East - and of course in Ireland.
The way in which the Stone Masons lived and did their work - and the philosophy of life they followed, must have seemed like an oasis of moral calm to those onlookers whose opinions were not fixed by generations of handed down bigotry.
In the early Middle Ages - and perhaps before, men started to become members of Masonic Lodges, not because they were stonework craftsmen, but because they admired the Masonic set of moral codes. These masons were referred to as "speculative" masons rather than "operative" masons. The concept of "free man" in mediaeval society developed out of the Roman concept of "citizenship" and anyone who was made a "freeman" of a city took on certain rights and responsibilities towards the city, both rights to its hospitality and protection, but also duties as to its laws and customs, including of course the duty to defend it. The word "Freeman" indicated that the holder of the title was not tied by apprenticeship, serfdom or patronage.
All members of Craft Guilds became "Freemen" upon becoming a Master Craftsman, or full members of their Guild, implying that they were no longer tied and thereby took on the full rights and responsibilities of citizen. Freemen of the City of London have for instance been summoned to Tower Hill at noon every Midsummer's Day to elect the Sheriff since some time in the 8th century.
It is because of this general tradition that to distinguish themselves from Operative Masons, the "Speculative" Masons began to describe themselves as "Freemasons", to indicate that they had taken on the rights and obligations of a Mason.
Grand Lodge - And A Multi-Cultural Heritage
By 1700, there were a large number of Lodges that were entirely speculative, rather than operative and in 1717, these autonomous scattered groups were brought into the beginnings of the administrative structure we have today, by the founding of the Grand Lodge of England, the numbering of the Lodges and the registering of all genuine Lodges and Freemasons.
It is interesting and perhaps astonishing to know, considering the behaviour of the rest of the human race, that while the Grand Lodge of England was primarily formed of Christian men, from all denominations in 1717, Jews started to become registered in 1730 and the first Muslim Freemasons (Two Persian Princes) joined a Paris Lodge in the early 1750s. By the late 19th Century, Parsees, Sikhs and Hindu's were commonly found in Freemasons Lodges and by the start of the 20th century, Freemasonry was a truly world-wide multicultural society of men.
Why do men seek to join Masonic Lodges?
Mainly because they want to associate with other men who believe in the value of the moral code, believe in the stability, order and good works espoused by Freemasonry and want to be influential in bringing these values to the rest of society.
It is the same today as it has been for several hundred years.
Masons ancient and modern view the terrible strife that religious conflict has caused through the ages as a deeply troubling example of man's inhumanity and intolerance to those from different cultural traditions.
It is a matter of much pride to the modern craft of Freemasonry that when the Grand Lodge of England (The modern administrative heart of Freemasonry) celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1967, a short time after the Six Day War in the Middle East, Jewish and Muslim Freemasons from the Middle East came and sat together in the Grand Lodge celebration, along with other Freemasons from around the world, thus demonstrating once again how religious and political differences, the two things that most divide the human race, do not exist within Freemasonry.
Who is eligible to join - and how do they join?
An Apologetic Word For the Ladies: Unfortunately in this modern egalitarian world, freemasonry is still very largely a male bastion with no women members. There are ladies Masonic organisations, mostly started in Victorian times when women first began to assert their position as independent members of society, but the vast bulk of what we understand as the official Masonic structure is still a male only domain. This may change in the long term, but at present, ladies get involved in the various social activities organised by Masonic lodges, but they are not eligible to join.
For the Men:Any man of 21 years or more can become a Freemason, providing he is of good character, believes in some form of supreme being, or overall power in the Universe and can find a proposer and seconder. There is no restriction in terms of race, culture, social status, political persuasion or religion. On a world wide basis, men from all the various cultures and religions can and do join freemasonry. However, we do quiz the proposer and seconder and we do interview candidates in order to try and filter out those men who are trying to join for reasons other than a wish to share our philosophy and a wish to be a better citizen of the world. In common with all membership organisations, we are not always successful in weeding out those who are joining for the wrong reasons.
What is involved in joining Freemasonry Today?
Well of course rumours and stories abound, but most are untrue!
Like all ancient organisations with their origins in the Middle Ages and before, Freemasonry has a joining procedure which may seem a little strange or even comical, if it is taken out of the symbolic context of the Masonic principles it is supposed to represent.
We are all familiar with at least some medieval ceremonies and practices still surviving today. The marriage ceremony, baptism, the coronation of a king or bishop are all ancient traditions that might look comical or strange to a man from Mars. The ceremonial aspects of parliament, the courts, or guilds and livery companies are also "a little strange" when viewed in a modern context, but they are familiar and we accept them as such, because we understand the importance of the traditions they represent.
The same is true of Masonic traditions. There are no goats or other animals involved, in spite of jokes or rumours you may have heard and there are definitely no satanic or other rites that would cause offence to a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or member of any other religion or cultural tradition.
If the rituals of joining each of the three degrees of mainstream Craft Masonry were public, they would attract about as much comment as your average ancient tradition does when seen on TV - Black Rod performing his various roles in the houses of parliament, a young couple saying "I do" in a church somewhere, or a bewigged Judge presiding over a courtroom at the Old Bailey.
Masonic tradition is however kept private and while the diligent researcher can find publications that describe these events more or less accurately, they remain a mystery to the non Masonic world and in the present day of PR agents and spin doctors, are therefore viewed with deep suspicion by some.
So why all the secrecy? What is there to hide that is so important?
Nothing really of any religious, political, financial or moral importance! What is kept secret is, in today's world so trivial that it is completely unimportant. It is as trivial as keeping secret one's favourite colour. It does however have an extremely powerful historical significance and is therefore one of the central parts of our tradition, even though its modern importance is completely insignificant.
There is another thread to this penchant for privacy which is also important to most Freemasons and which too is completely misconstrued by those in modern society who, to use the vernacular, "do not know where we are coming from".
It is quite simply that we prefer to do good works for their own sake and not for any praise, publicity or other advantage that might accrue from shouting it from the rooftops. Because of tremendous pressure from the media and elsewhere, Grand Lodge is now making public all the works done by our Grand Charity which is a very large giver indeed. This has caused some divisions within Freemasonry because it is against our tradition of "only the giver or the receiver knows the value of the gift".
Freemason's lodges are places of equality where men of vastly different rank and fortune in the outside world treat each other with the same degree of courtesy and respect. In this context it is very important that the taxi driver who gives £100 to one of our charities is valued just the same as the duke or captain of industry who contributes £10,000. Charitable giving is therefore a private matter like political or religious views, which are also left outside the door of the Lodge and never discussed.
Freemasonry has survived the wreck of mighty empires and endured the destroying hand of time like no other institution in the history of the human race. The reason it has done this is that its traditions keep private, or "outside Freemasonry" the things that cause conflict in the human race; Social status; financial means; political persuasion and religious beliefs. Of course we know that some are rich, or titled and some are not; some are Christian, some Jewish, some Muslim etc, but what is important to us is not those things, it is the enduring brotherhood of man, the contribution we can personally make to it and the strength we can draw from it, no matter who or what we are.
It is for these reasons then that Freemasons the world over believe the brotherhood only endures if the tradition of privacy is kept. That includes keeping silent on the four contentious issues that divide the human race and symbolic of this is keeping silent when anyone, even our nearest and dearest, say to us "If you trust me, then tell me the password and give me the handshake!".
It is not about mistrust, nor is it about clandestine plots of a political, criminal or financial nature. It is a symbol of our brotherhood and a reminder that "keeping good counsel with all mankind" requires that we remain silent on the issues that divide the human race and concentrate on the forces for good that bind us - without any fuss, publicity, or political spin.
Wisdom, Truth and Justice is what we aspire to. Brotherhood and Charity are our traditional means of trying to deliver it around the world.
We are sorry if the symbolic act of keeping a trivial secret as a reminder of our aims and objectives offends anyone, but having been given the reasons why, if you still think this makes for a subversive organisation bent on no good, or an irrelevance in terms of our future, you are welcome to your opinion. We are not in the business of evangelising our creed and pushing it down the throats of the suspicious or the unwilling.
No one will ever press you to become a Freemason. That is the whole point.
If our way of looking at the world and the history through which we have travelled interests you, you have to make an enquiry. There are no invitations.