An international organization, claiming adherents of all faiths, whose principles are embodied in symbols and allegories connected with the art of building and involving an oath of secrecy. The origins of Freemasonry probably lie in the twelfth century, when English masons founded a fraternity to guard the secrets of their craft. The “lodge,” the name given to the meeting place of modern masons, was not only a workshop, but a place to exchange views, air grievances, and discuss craft matters. Hence their secrecy.
There are two elements in the masonic tradition: (1) the Old Charges. Two manuscripts, now in the British Museum, dating from 1390 and about 1400, detail the customs and the rules of the craft. Rules apply to the master in charge, the journeymen, and the apprentice who is learning the trade; (2) the Masonic Word. This is probably a Scottish institution and is somewhat obscure in origin and development. It is a distinguishing secret sign, either a word, a handshake, or both.
The development of Freemasonry falls into three periods. In the first, all members were operative masons. During the age of “Accepted Masonry,” nonoperative masons either joined existing lodges or formed new ones. From the eighteenth century there developed “Speculative Masonry,” Freemasonry as it is known today. The Grand Lodge was founded in 1717 principally to maintain communication and harmony among lodges. Following 1721, many of the highest offices were filled by members of the aristocracy. The origins of the modern masonic ceremonies are obscure, though they probably derive from seventeenth-century practices. The influence of speculative masonry on these practices has almost obscured their operative origins. There are ceremonies for entry into each grade-entered apprentice, fellow of the craft, and master mason. These grades, and their associated secrets and rituals, are fundamental to modern Freemasonry.
Freemasonry places considerable emphasis on social and welfare activities. It is to be found throughout the world, though it is proscribed in Communist countries. Freemasonry claims to be based on the fundamentals of all religions held in common by all men. Among many reasons for its criticism by Christian bodies are the following. Freemasonry was closely connected with the upsurge of Deism in eighteenth-century England, and this outlook continues to prevail. Freemasonry calls for a “common denominator” God who incorporates Assyrian and Egyptian elements. The name of God in masonic rituals veils the doctrine of a blind force governing the universe. In its elaborate ritual Freemasonry omits the name of, Savior and Lord. The masonic vows involve a depth of commitment which Christians should give only to Jesus Christ. The masonic initiation is to an unknown course of action and is often for this reason held in grave suspicion. The bloodcurdling vows, if taken seriously, are at best rash, and if not taken seriously, are frivolous.
Because of its invitation to men of all faiths, Freemasonry does not hold to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. It does not teach the necessity of salvation through Christ alone. Good works, it believes, will cause a man to ascend to “the Grand Lodge Above.” It accords no preeminent place to the Bible and claims that masonic initiation gives a measure of illumination unattainable elsewhere. The Roman Catholic Church has frequently condemned Freemasonry, mainly for its masonic secret. Six papal bulls have been directed against it-byin 1738, in 1751, Pius VII in 1821, Leo XII in 1826, Pius IX in 1864, and Leo XIII in 1884.
A.G. Mackey, Encyclopedia of Freemasonry (rev. ed., 3 vols., 1946); W. Hannah, Darkness Visible (5th ed., 1953), and Christian by Degrees (1954).