Freemasonry is a fraternity for men, with a worldwide membership of around 4 million. Local branches are called 'lodges', and the members meet together and perform rituals teaching moral truths, similar to short plays, based on Biblical imagery mostly concerned with the building of Solomon's temple in Jerusalem.
Perhaps the best-known Freemasons appendant body in the USA are the Shriners, who raise funds for children's hospitals and other charities.
Membership dues can vary widely between jurisdictions and individual lodges. Meals are often eaten before or after meetings. Lodges also frequently raise money for charity.
The central tenets of Freemasonry are:
Brotherly Love - the regard men have for each other;
Relief - relieving the necessities and destitution a man sees around him (charity);
Truth - being true to himself, his brother Masons, and others around him.
The most recognisable symbol of Freemasonry is the "Square and Compass," which is used to teach, respectively, "square conduct towards others" and "keeping passions and prejudices within due bounds". For most jurisdictions of Freemasonry there is a rule that the members must believe in one god or supreme being and in the immortality of the soul. As a result, members of different religions, if monotheistic, are admitted to membership with no expectation that they accept as correct or affirm the religions creeds of any other member. In Masonry, the supreme being is sometime called "The Great Architect of the Universe," a term that is said to be traceable back to the Christian thelogian, John Calvin.
Contrary to popular belief, Freemasons are not taught to 'prefer' other Masons or to do them special favors. They are pledged, however, to come to the assistance of other Masons if they are in need, so long as this does not involve any violation of one's ethical standards or imperil the well-being of the assisting Mason's family.
Standard Freemasonry is divided into three degrees: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason. The Mark degree can be gained after Master Mason but is considered to be an expansion of the Fellow Craft degree. The degree ceremonies traditionally involve participation in a number of stylised scenes from the building of the Temple and a series of moral lessons largely derived from the Old Testament and the tools and rituals of operative Masons. After the third degree a Freemason may go on to other Masonic bodies such as the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, the York Rite or the Holy Royal Arch. These are considered to be branches of Freemasonry, never "higher" or superior degrees above that of Master Mason.
There is little known for certain about the beginnings of Freemasonry. Masonic legends claim various theories about its origins, including some considered, even by Masons, to be improbable. Certainly, lodges of "operative" Freemasons (men who worked stone and built with it) were formed around the major religious and civil work places during the Middle Ages in Europe and the British Isles. These lodges were early societies or guilds for the craftsmen, and places where an apprentice could be taught. The lodges also instilled moral teaching.
When a man moved to another site he took special symbols, signs, and handshakes that were recognisable to the senior masons and formed a means of recognition of his standing in the wider society of masons. Over time, non-masons learned of the moral teaching and social atmosphere of the lodge and were admitted as non-operative or "speculative" masons. (However, some claim that the lodges first started with the ancient Hebrews or with Pythagoras or Euclid, both ancient Greek geometers. This is supposed to explain Masonry's emphasis upon geometric symbolism.)
In 1717 four lodges met together at a public house (pub, or hotel) in London and formed the Grand Lodge of England. It later chartered grand lodges in other countries.
HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Kent (1935 - ): Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England since 1967, cousin of both Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh
Prince Michael of Kent: Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons in England
Sam Hornish, Jr. (1979 - ): 2006 Indianapolis 500 champion, three-time Indy Racing League champion
Major General Sir Michael Jeffery (1937 - ): Governor-General of Australia
Kermit W. Richardson: National Master, National Grange
Historically well-known Masons:
Sir John J.C. Abbott, Prime Minister of Canada (1821-1893)
Sir Joseph Banks, naturalist, biologist, explorer (1744 - 1820)
Frédéric A. Bartholdi, French sculptor best known for his figure Liberty Enlightening the World, also known as the Statue of Liberty, (1834-1904)
Robert Burns, Scottish nationalist, poet (1759 - 1796)
Robert Byrd: Senator, the longest-serving member of the US Congress
Lord Randolph Churchill: British statesman (1849 - 1895)
Sir Winston Churchill: British politician (1874 - 1965)
Ty Cobb: baseball legend
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930): author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels
W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963): scholar and co-founder of the NAACP
HM Edward VII: King, Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England
HM Edward VIII: King, Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England
The Most Rev. Geoffrey Fisher (1887 - 1972): Archbishop of Canterbury
Sir Alexander Fleming (1881 - 1955): medical doctor who discovered penicillin
Gerald R. Ford: US President
Henry Ford: automotive executive
Richard J. Gatling (1818-1903): engineer and inventor
HM George VI: King
Sir William S. Gilbert (1836-1911): poet/librettist (Gilbert and Sullivan)
Tim Horton (1930-1974): Toronto Maple Leafs hockey standout and founder of Tim Horton's restaurants
Dr. Edward Jenner (1749-1823): medical doctor (wound sterilization)
Alexander Kerensky: Russian Prime Minister
Admiral Ernest J. King (1878-1956): Commander-in-Chief - US Fleet 1941, Chief of Naval Operations 1942-1945
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936): author
Robert E. Lee: General, leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, Confederate States of America
Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974): American aviator
Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964): General, US Chief of Staff
Dr. Parker Paul McKenzie (1897-1999): Kiowa Indian, linguist, grammarian, educator
Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815): 'mesmerist' (hypnotist), psychologist
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): musical composer. His work, The Magic Flute, contains many Masonic references.
Lt. Gen. Herman Nickerson, Jr.: USMC, Commander of I-Corps theater of operations in Vietnam
The Rev. Norman Vincent Peale: Christian pastor, evangelist, and writer
Robert Peary (1856-1920): Admiral, polar explorer
Aleksandr Sergeyvich Pushkin (1799-1837): Russian poet and author of Boris Gudunov
Cecil Rhodes (1852-1903): Anglo-African entrepreneur and politician, founder of Rhodesia, Prime Minister of Cape Colony 
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: United States President
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832): British historical novelist and poet
Red Skelton (1913-1997): actor, comedian
Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900): composer (Gilbert and Sullivan)
Anthony Trollope (1815-1882): British novelist
Harry S. Truman: United States President
Robert Pershing Wadlow (1918-1940): tallest man on record
George Washington (1732-1799): General, United States President
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769-1852): Field Marshal, defeated Napoleon, politician and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
William Charles Wentworth (1790-1872): Australian explorer and editor of first newspaper in Australia
Darryl F. Zanuck (1902-1979): movie maker
Women and Freemasonry
Women are accepted into the social events surrounding Freemasonry, and there are several auxiliaries for female relatives of Masons. The best known of these is the Order of the Eastern Star. Freemasons are permitted both to attend its meetings and become members of the OES.
Irregular Freemasonry including women:
There are some self-styled Masonic organisations that also accept women. These organisations are often referred to by the term, "Co-masonry". A few are exclusively for women. These are not considered "regular" by Freemasons, and men can be expelled from their lodges if they are known to have attended meetings of these so-called "clandestine" organisations.
- Freemasons in Space Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, retrieved August 24, 2011
The Philalethes Society Grand Lodge of England Masonry Catholic Encyclopedia. World Conference of Grand Masters Origin of Free Masonry Historical Documents: Thomas Paine Retrieved from "http://www.conservapedia.com/Freemasonry"