Freemasonry is a fraternal organization, that is, an organisation for men, with a worldwide membership of around 3 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 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 Compasses", which are used to teach respectively "square conduct towards others" and "keeping passions and prejudices within due bounds".
Contrary to popular belief, Freemasons are not taught to 'prefer' other Masons or to do them special favors.
Standard Freemasonry, like many other fraternal societies, is divided into three degrees:
- the first is called Entered Apprentice,
- the second is Fellow Craft, and
- the third is Master Mason.
Progressing through the degrees traditionally involves memorization. After the third degree a Freemason may go on to other Masonic bodies such as the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, and the York Rite.
There is little known for certain about the early beginnings of Freemasonry. Masonic legends claim various theories about its origins, including some considered far fetched and 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 it was founded by Pythagoras or Euclid, both ancient Greek geometers, which is supposed to explain Masonry's obsession with geometric symbolism.)
- HRH The Duke of Kent (b. 1935) Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England since 1967 (cousin of both Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh)
- Lord Randolph Churchill (1849 - 1895)
- Sir Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965)
- Cecil Rhodes (1852 - 1903)
- Sir Joseph Banks (1744 - 1820)
- Dr Edward Jenner (1749 - 1823)
- Sir Alexander Fleming (1881 - 1955)
- Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury (1887 - 1972)
- Robert Burns (1759 - 1796)
- Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832)
- Anthony Trollope (1815 - 1882)
- Sir William S. Gilbert (1836 - 1911)
- Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842 - 1900)
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 - 1930)
- Rudyard Kipling (1865 - 1936)
- Field Marshal 1st Duke of Wellington (1769 - 1852)
- George Washington
- Major General Michael Jeffrey, Governor General of Australia
Women and Freemasonry
Women are accepted into the social events surrounding Freemasonry.
An organisation for women associated with Freemasonry is the Order of the Eastern Star, and Freemasons may attend their meetings.
Irregular Freemasonry including women
There are some branches that also accept women (Co-masonry) and a few exclusively for women. These are not considered 'regular' by Freemasons, and men can be expelled from their lodge if they are known to have attended meetings of these organisations.