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Freemasonry is something that most readers will have heard of but of which few will know any details. This is mainly because of a policy that involved not dealing with the media, not correcting factual errors and generally keeping a low profile, which the United Grand Lodge of England maintained from the end of World War II to 1984. Since 1984, however, the United Grand Lodge of England has pursued a far more open policy and encouraged local lodges to become more involved in the community. Freemasons still tend to keep quiet about certain aspects of Freemasonry (specifically what happens in the allegoric plays in which members participate), and this is done so that things are not spoilt for new members. If pressed, Freemasons are free to talk about most of these things, unlike the methods of recognition that Freemasons use (which are the traditional equivalent of a smart chipped photo ID card and rely on secrecy to work), about which they swear an oath of secrecy.
The United Grand Lodge of England is not a secret society, at least no more than any other members-only group. Its headquarters can be found at Freemasons' Hall, Great Queen Street, London, and its website at www.grandlodge-england.org. Its telephone number is in the phonebook – not very secret at all really. It is however a private society - meetings are open only to members - and a membership list is not published, so perhaps this is where the confusion lies. It should also be said that Freemasons are nowadays encouraged to speak freely about their membership and, in situations where a perceived conflict of interest may arise, Freemasons should declare their membership of the lodge.
Despite what you may have heard elsewhere, Freemasonry is not a religion; members come from many different faiths and creeds. For this reason, the book on which members take oaths1 (primarily never to reveal any of the secrets or mysteries of Masonry) is referred to as the 'VSL' (Volume of the Sacred Law). For a Methodist or a Catholic this would be the Bible (although each has different versions), but for a Muslim it would be the Qur'an and so on. Additionally, it should be stated that The United Grand Lodge of England is a non-political society, as is Freemasonry generally.
Freemasons have also raised a significant amount of money for charity, with large sums being given to national and local organisations. UK Freemasons raised over £75 million2 for charity in the five-year period up to 2002. While some of this went to charities related to the Masons, much went to non-Masonic charities and appeals.
While the structure of Freemasonry is undoubtedly modelled on the structure of the 'unions' to which the stonemasons who built medieval cathedrals and castles belonged, there is no evidence of a direct link with these groups.
Although there are recorded instances of people joining non-stonemason Masonic lodges in the 17th Century and circumstantial evidence3 of non-stonemason Masonic groups in the medieval era, modern Freemasonry can be said to have started with the founding of the Grand Lodge on 24 June, 1717, when the four London lodges came together. From 1721 onwards, the Grand Lodge started to establish itself as a regulatory body, and lodges meeting outside London started affiliating themselves with the Grand Lodge. In 1723, the first rulebook of Freemasonry was published.
In 1725, a separate Grand Lodge was formed in Ireland and in 1736 a Grand Lodge was formed for Scotland. Between them these home Grand Lodges spread Freemasonry far and wide, with lodges being set-up in Europe, the West Indies, North America and India. Later, Freemasonry spread to the Middle and Far East, Oceania, Africa and South America, its spread following the development of the British Empire. Although many of these overseas branches later formed national Grand Lodges of their own, many stayed affiliated to The United Grand Lodge of England, which still numbers some 750 overseas lodges among those affiliated to it, predominantly in countries of the former British Empire.
Throughout the 18th Century Freemasonry grew largely without any official opposition, although there was the occasional exposure of what they believed were the secrets of Freemasonry in the popular press. In 1737, Frederick Lewis, Prince of Wales and son of King George II, became the first royal Freemason. In 1751, a rival Grand Lodge was formed by a group of Irishmen who apparently had difficulty joining the Grand Lodge - they claimed that the pre-existing Grand Lodge had made innovations and had departed from 'the ancient landmarks', whereas they claimed to be working 'according to the old institutions granted by Prince Edwin at York in AD926'. For this reason they became known as the 'Antients Grand Lodge' and referred to their older rival as 'Moderns'.
Freemasonry was almost dealt a mortal blow by the 'Unlawful Societies Act, 1799'. This act forbade any meetings of organisations that required members to take an oath or obligation. The Acting Grandmaster of the Modern Grand Lodge and the Grandmaster of the Ancients Grand Lodge secured a meeting with William Pitt, the Prime Minister (who was not a Freemason) and tried to convince him that Freemasons should be exempt. As a result of this meeting, Freemasonry was exempted from the provisions of the Act, providing that lodges registered their members with a local Clerk of the Peace. This requirement was rescinded by Parliament in 1967.
On 27 December, 1813, a ceremony was held at Freemasons' Hall, London, at which the two Grand Lodges combined to form the United Grand Lodge of England, with HRH The Duke of Sussex (the younger son of King George III) as Grandmaster.
In the 19th Century, Freemasonry expanded from the country into urban areas and many magnificent Masonic halls were built for these new urban branches. In 1875, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) was elected Grandmaster, which gave new vigour to the society and spurred on its growth, with him regularly making public appearances in the costume of the Grandmaster.
The growth continued in the 20th Century, despite the anti-Masonic propaganda that came out of Nazi Germany and Franco's Spain in the late 1930s, where Freemasons were tortured and killed. After World War II, Freemasonry followed a policy of privacy that included a deliberate policy of not dealing with the media and, more importantly, not correcting factual errors. Because of this, a great number of myths have grown up around Freemasonry but, since 1984, the United Grand Lodge of England has been actively countering that mythology by pursuing a policy of openness on Freemasonry.
Freemasonry is now also trying to demystify itself to the public, with some Masonic halls opening up to the public at certain times of year and lodge members attending and manning stands at local agricultural shows and suchlike. From the original four Lodges, the United Grand Lodge of England has grown to an organisation of over 330,000 members grouped in nearly 8,000 lodges.
What is Freemasonry?
Freemasonry is distinguished from other fraternal orders by its emphasis on moral character, its ornate rituals and its long tradition and history. Its purpose is to aid self-knowledge and teach moral lessons through participation in a series of symbolic plays, which are memorised and acted out in each lodge. As members progress through these plays they gain what are known as 'degrees'. Freemasonry does not teach its membership the literal techniques of stonework. Rather, it takes the actual 'operative' work of medieval Masons and uses it as an allegory for moral development. Thus, the symbols of Masonry are the common tools that were used by medieval stonemasons: the gavel, the rule, the compass, the square, the level, etc. Each of these has a symbolic meaning in Freemasonry. For example, Freemasons are said to meet 'on the square', meaning that all Freemasons are brothers, regardless of social status, personal wealth, or office within the Lodge or in the world at large. Similar symbolism exists for other tools.
There are three great principles that Freemasons follow:
Brotherly love - every Freemason must show tolerance and respect for the opinions of others and behave with kindness and understanding to his fellow creatures.
Relief - Freemasons are taught to practice charity and to care, not only for their own, but also for the community as a whole, both by charitable giving and by voluntary efforts and works as individuals.
Truth - Freemasons should strive for truth, requiring high moral standards and aiming to achieve them in their own lives.
To become a Freemason, the prospective member must be proposed and seconded by a lodge member who should have known him, both socially and at work, for a minimum of two years. For admission into a lodge, it is also essential to be male4 and to have a belief in a supreme being, with membership being open to those of any race or religion who can fulfil these essential qualifications and are of good repute.
For more information about Freemasons and Freemasonry, try the following sites:
- 'Freemasonry Today' Magazine
- The Canonbury Masonic Research Centre
- Sir John Soane Museum
- A question-and-answer session on Freemasonry
An anti-Freemasonry viewpoint is presented at this website.