"I think my grandfather was one, but I'm not sure what
"Yeah, my dad and uncle both used to go to Masonic
meetings. I remember Uncle Fred coming by to pick him up. But I don't
know where they went or what they did."
"I think they wear those funny hats."
"I remember when I went away to college, my father
showed me his ring and told me, if I ever needed help, I should look for
a man with a ring like that and tell him I was the daughter of a Mason,
but he never told me much about it."
What is a Mason?
That's not a surprising question. Even though Masons
are members of the largest and oldest fraternity in the
world, and even though almost everyone has a father or grandfather or
uncle who was a Mason, many people aren't quite certain just who Masons
The answer is simple. A Mason is a member
of a fraternity known as Masonry. A fraternity is a
group of men (just as a sorority is a group of women) who join together
There are things they want to do in the world.
There are things they want to do "inside their own
They enjoy being together with men they like and
(We'll look at some of these things later.)
What is Masonry?
Masonry is the oldest fraternity in the
world. No one knows just how old it is because the actual origins have
been lost in time. Probably, it arose from the guilds of stonemasons who
built the castles and cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Possibly, they were
influenced by the Knights Templar, a group of Christian warrior monks
formed in 1118 to help protect pilgrims making trips to the Holy Land.
In 1717, Masonry created a formal organization in
England when the first Grand Lodge was formed. A Grand Lodge is the
administrative body in charge of Masonry in some geographical area. In
the United States, there is a Grand Lodge in each state. In Canada,
there is a Grand Lodge in each province. Local organizations of Masons
are called lodges. There are lodges in most towns, and large cities
usually have several. There are about 13,200 lodges in the United
If Masonry started in Great Britain, how did it get to
In a time when travel was by horseback and sailing ship,
Masonry spread with amazing speed. By 1731, when Benjamin Franklin
joined the fraternity, there were already several lodges in the
Colonies, and Masonry spread rapidly as America expanded west. In
addition to Franklin, many of the Founding Fathers -- men such as George
Washington, Paul Revere, Joseph Warren, and John Hancock -- were Masons.
Masons and Masonry played an important part in the Revolutionary War and
an even more important part in the Constitutional Convention and the
debates surrounding the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Many of
those debates were held in Masonic lodges.
What's a lodge?
The word "lodge" means both a group of Masons meeting in
some place and the room or building in which they meet. Masonic
buildings are also sometimes called "temples" because much of the
symbolism Masonry uses to teach its lessons comes from the building of
King Solomon's Temple in the Holy Land. The term "lodge" itself comes
from the structures which the stonemasons built against the sides of the
cathedrals during construction. In winter, when building had to stop,
they lived in these lodges and worked at carving stone.
If you've ever watched C-SPAN's coverage of the House of
Commons in London, the layout is about the same as a Masonic Lodge.
Since Masonry came to America from England, we still use the English
floor plan and English titles for the officers. The Worshipful Master of
the Lodge sits in the East. ("Worshipful" is an English term of respect
which means the same thing as "Honorable.") He is called the Master of
the lodge for the same reason that the leader of an orchestra is called
the "Concert Master." It's simply an older term for "Leader." In other
organizations, he would be called "President." The Senior and Junior
Wardens are the First and Second Vice-Presidents. The Deacons are
messengers and the Stewards have charge of refreshments.
Every lodge has an altar holding a "Volume of the Sacred
Law." In the United States and Canada, that is almost always a Bible.
What goes on in a lodge?
This is a good place to repeat what we said earlier
about why men become Masons:
There are things they want to do in the world.
There are things they want to do "inside their own
They enjoy being together with men they like and
The Lodge is the center of those activities.
Masonry Does Things in the World.
Masonry teaches that each person has a responsibility to
make things better in the world. Most individuals won't be the ones to
find a cure for cancer, or eliminate poverty, or help create world
peace, but every man and woman and child can do something to help others
and to make things a little better. Masonry is deeply involved with
helping people - it spends more than $1.4 million dollars every day in
the United States, just to make life a little easier. And the great
majority of that help goes to people who are not Masons. Some of these
charities are vast projects, like the Crippled Children's Hospitals and
Burns Institutes built by the Shriners. Also, Scottish Rite Masons
maintain a nationwide network of over 100 Childhood Language Disorders
Clinics, Centers, and Programs. Each helps children afflicted by such
conditions as aphasia, dyslexia, stuttering, and related learning or
speech disorders. Some services are less noticeable, like helping a
widow pay her electric bill or buying coats and shoes for disadvantaged
children. And there's just about anything you can think of in-between.
But with projects large or small, the Masons of a lodge try to help make
the world a better place. The lodge gives them a way to combine with
others to do even more good.
Masonry does things "inside" the individual Mason.
"Grow or die" is a great law of all nature. Most people
feel a need for continued growth and development as individuals. They
feel they are not as honest or as charitable or as compassionate or as
loving or as trusting as they ought to be. Masonry reminds its members
over and over again of the importance of these qualities. It lets men
associate with other men of honor and integrity who believe that things
like honesty and compassion and love and trust are important. In some
ways, Masonry is a support group for men who are trying to make the
right decisions. It's easier to practice these virtues when you know
that those around you think they are important, too, and won't laugh at
you. That's a major reason that Masons enjoy being together.
Masons enjoy each other's company.
It's good to spend time with people you can trust
completely, and most Masons find that in their lodge. While much of
lodge activity is spent in works of charity or in lessons in
self-development, much is also spent in fellowship. Lodges have picnics,
camping trips, and many events for the whole family. Simply put, a lodge
is a place to spend time with friends. Two basic kinds of
meetings take place in a lodge. The most common is a simple business
meeting. To open and close the meeting, there is a ceremony whose
purpose is to remind us of the virtues by which we are supposed to live.
Then there is a reading of the minutes; voting on petitions
(applications of men who want to join the fraternity); planning for
charitable functions, family events, and other lodge activities; and
sharing information about members (called "Brothers," as in most
fraternities) who are ill or have some sort of need. The other kind of
meeting is one in which people join the fraternity -- one at which the
"degrees" are performed.
But every lodge serves more than its own members. Frequently, there are meetings open to the public. Examples are Ladies'
Nights, "Brother Bring a Friend Nights," public installations of
officers, Cornerstone Laying ceremonies, and other special meetings
supporting community events and dealing with topics of local interest.
What's a degree?
A degree is a stage or level of membership. It's also
the ceremony by which a man attains that level of membership. There are
three, called Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. As you
can see, the names are taken from the craft guilds. In the Middle Ages,
when a person wanted to join a craft, such as the gold smiths or the
carpenters or the stonemasons, he was first apprenticed. As an
apprentice, he learned the tools and skills of the trade. When he had
proved his skills, he became a "Fellow of the Craft" (today we would say
"Journeyman"), and when he had exceptional ability, he was known as a
Master of the Craft.
The degrees are plays in which the candidate
participates. Each degree uses symbols to teach, just as plays did in
the Middle Ages and as many theatrical productions do today. (We'll talk
about symbols a little later.)
The Masonic degrees teach the great lessons of life --
the importance of honor and integrity, of being a person on whom others
can rely, of being both trusting and trustworthy, of realizing that you
have a spiritual nature as well as a physical or animal nature, of the
importance of self-control, of knowing how to love and be loved, of
knowing how to keep confidential what others tell you so that they can
"open up" without fear.
Why is Masonry so "secretive"?
It really isn't "secretive," although it sometimes has
that reputation. Masons certainly don't make a secret of the fact that
they are members of the fraternity. We wear rings, lapel pins and tie
tacks with Masonic emblems like the Square and Compasses, the best known
of Masonic signs which, logically, recalls the fraternity's roots in
stonemasonry. Masonic buildings are clearly marked, and are usually
listed in the phone book. Lodge activities are not secret. Picnics and
other events are even listed in the newspapers, especially in smaller
towns. Many lodges have answering machines which give the upcoming lodge
activities. But there are some Masonic secrets, and they fall into two
The first are the ways in which a man can identify
himself as a Mason -- grips and passwords. We keep those private for
obvious reasons. It is not at all unknown for unscrupulous people to try
to pass themselves off as Masons in order to get assistance under false
The second group is harder to describe, but they are the
ones Masons usually mean if we talk about "Masonic secrets." They are
secrets because they literally can't be talked about, can't be put into
words. They are the changes that happen to a man when he really accepts
responsibility for his own life and, at the same time, truly decides
that his real happiness is in helping others.
It's a wonderful feeling, but it's something you simply
can't explain to another person. That's why we sometimes say that
Masonic secrets cannot ( rather than "may not") be told. Try telling
someone exactly what you feel when you see a beautiful sunset, or when
you hear music, like the national anthem, which suddenly stirs old
memories, and you'll understand what we mean.
"Secret societies" became very popular in America in the
late 1800s and early 1900s. There were literally hundreds of them, and
most people belonged to two or three. Many of them were modeled on
Masonry, and made a great point of having many "secrets." And Masonry
got ranked with them. But if Masonry is a secret society, it's the
worst-kept secret in town.
Is Masonry a religion?
The answer to that question is simple. No. We do use
ritual in the meetings, and because there is always an altar or table
with the Volume of the Sacred Law open if a lodge is meeting, some
people have confused Masonry with a religion, but it is not. That does
not mean that religion plays no part in Masonry -- it plays a very
important part. A person who wants to become a Mason must have a belief
in God. No atheist can ever become a Mason. Meetings open with prayer,
and a Mason is taught, as one of the first lessons of Masonry, that one
should pray for divine counsel and guidance before starting any important
undertaking. But that does not make Masonry a "religion."
Sometimes people confuse Masonry with a religion because
we call some Masonic buildings "temples." But we use the word in the
same sense that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called the Supreme Court a
"Temple of Justice" and because a Masonic lodge is a symbol of the
Temple of Solomon. Neither Masonry nor the Supreme Court is a religion
just because its members meet in a "temple."
In some ways, the relationship between Masonry and
religion is like the relationship between the Parent-Teacher Association
(the P.T.A.) and education. Members of the P.T.A. believe in the
importance of education. They support it. They assert that no man or
woman can be a complete and whole individual or live up to his or her
full potential without education. They encourage students to stay in
school and parents to be involved with the education of their children.
They may give scholarships. They encourage their members to get involved
with and support their individual schools.
But there are some things P.T.A.s do not do. They don't
teach. They don't tell people which school to attend. They don't try to
tell people what they should study or what their major should be.
In much the same way, Masons believe in the importance
of religion. Masonry encourages every Mason to be active in the religion
and church of his own choice. Masonry teaches that, without religion, a
man is alone and lost, and that without religion, he can never reach his
But Freemasonry does not tell a person which religion he
should practice or how he should practice it. That is between the
individual and God. That is the function of his house of worship, not
his fraternity. And Masonry is a fraternity, not a religion.
What is a Masonic Bible?
Bibles are popular gifts among Masons, frequently given
to a man when he joins the lodge or at other special events. A Masonic
Bible is the same book anyone thinks of as a Bible (it's usually the
King James translation) with a special page in the front on which to
write the name of the person who is receiving it and the occasion on
which it is given. Sometimes there is a special index or information
section which shows the person where in the Bible to find the passages
which are quoted in the Masonic ritual.
If Masonry isn't a religion, why does it use ritual?
Many of us may think of religion when we think of
ritual, but ritual is used in every aspect of life. It's so much a part
of us that we just don't notice it. Ritual simply means that some things
are done more or less the same way each time.
Almost all school assemblies, for example, start with
the principal or some other official calling for the attention of the
group. Then the group is led in the Pledge of Allegiance. A school choir
or the entire group may sing the school song. That's a ritual.
Almost all business meetings of every sort call the
group to order, have a reading of the minutes of the last meeting, deal
with old business, then with new business. That's a ritual. Most groups
use Robert's Rules of Order to conduct a meeting. That's probably the
best-known book of ritual in the world.
There are social rituals which tell us how to meet
people (we shake hands), how to join a conversation (we wait for a
pause, and then speak), how to buy tickets to a concert (we wait in line
and don't push in ahead of those who were there first). There are
literally hundreds of examples, and they are all rituals.
Masonry uses a ritual because it's an effective way to
teach important ideas -- the values we've talked about earlier. And it
reminds us where we are, just as the ritual of a business meeting
reminds people where they are and what they are supposed to be doing.
Masonry's ritual is very rich because it is so old. It
has developed over centuries to contain some beautiful language and
ideas expressed in symbols. But there's nothing unusual in using ritual.
All of us do it every day.
Why does Masonry use symbols?
Everyone uses symbols every day, just as we do ritual.
We use them because they communicate quickly. When you see a stop sign ,
you know what it means, even if you can't read the word "stop." The
circle and line mean "don't" or "not allowed." In fact, using symbols is
probably the oldest way of communication and the oldest way of teaching.
Masonry uses symbols for the same reason. Some form of
the "Square and Compasses" is the most widely used and known symbol of
Masonry. In one way, this symbol is a kind of trademark for the
fraternity, as the "golden arches" are for McDonald's. When you see the
Square and Compasses on a building, you know that Masons meet there.
And like all symbols, they have a meaning.
The Square symbolizes things of the earth, and it also
symbolizes honor, integrity, truthfulness, and the other ways we should
relate to this world and the people in it. The Compasses symbolize
things of the spirit, and the importance of a well-developed spiritual
life, and also the importance of self-control -- of keeping ourselves
within bounds. The G stands for Geometry, the science which the ancients
believed most revealed the glory of God and His works in the heavens,
and it also stands for God, Who must be at the center of all our
thoughts and of all our efforts.
The meanings of most of the other Masonic symbols are
obvious. The gavel teaches the importance of self-control and
self-discipline. The hourglass teaches us that time is always passing,
and we should not put off important decisions.
So, is Masonry education?
Yes. In a very real sense, education is at the center of
Masonry. We have stressed its importance for a very long time. Back in
the Middle Ages, schools were held in the lodges of stonemasons. You
have to know a lot to build a cathedral -- geometry, and structural
engineering, and mathematics, just for a start. And that education was
not very widely available. All the formal schools and colleges trained
people for careers in the church, or in law or medicine. And you had to
be a member of the social upper classes to go to those schools.
Stonemasons did not come from the aristocracy. And so the lodges had to
teach the necessary skills and information. Freemasonry's dedication to
education started there.
It has continued. Masons started some of the first
public schools in both Europe and America. We supported legislation to
make education universal. In the 1800s Masons as a group lobbied for the
establishment of state supported education and federal land grant
colleges. Today we give millions of dollars in scholarships each year.
We encourage our members to give volunteer time to their local schools,
buy classroom supplies for teachers, help with literacy programs, and do
everything they can to help assure that each person, adult or child, has
the best educational opportunities possible.
And Masonry supports continuing education and
intellectual growth for its members, insisting that learning more about
many things is important for anyone who wants to keep mentally alert and
What does Masonry teach?
Masonry teaches some important principles. There's
nothing very surprising in the list. Masonry teaches that:
Since God is the Creator, all men and women are the
children of God. Because of that, all men and women are brothers and
sisters, entitled to dignity, respect for their opinions, and
consideration of their feelings.
Each person must take responsibility for his/her own
life and actions. Neither wealth nor poverty, education nor ignorance,
health nor sickness excuses any person from doing the best he or she can
do or being the best person possible under the circumstances.
No one has the right to tell another person what he or
she must think or believe. Each man and woman has an absolute right to
intellectual, spiritual, economic, and political freedom. This is a
right given by God, not by man. All tyranny, in every form, is
Each person must learn and practice self-control. Each
person must make sure his spiritual nature triumphs over his animal
nature. Another way to say the same thing is that even when we are
tempted to anger, we must not be violent. Even when we are tempted to
selfishness, we must be charitable. Even when we want to "write someone
off," we must remember that he or she is a human and entitled to our
respect. Even when we want to give up, we must go on. Even when we are
hated, we must return love, or, at a minimum, we must not hate back. It
Faith must be in the center of our lives. We find that
faith in our houses of worship, not in Freemasonry, but Masonry
constantly teaches that a person's faith, whatever it may be, is central
to a good life.
Each person has a responsibly to be a good citizen,
obeying the law. That doesn't mean we can't try to change things, but
change must take place in legal ways.
It is important to work to make this world better for
all who live in it. Masonry teaches the importance of doing good, not
because it assures a person's entrance into heaven -- that's a question
for a religion, not a fraternity -- but because we have a duty to all
other men and women to make their lives as fulfilling as they can be.
Honor and integrity are essential to life. Life, without
honor and integrity, is without meaning.
What are the requirements for membership?
The person who wants to join Masonry must be a man (it's
a fraternity), sound in body and mind, who believes in God, is at least
the minimum age required by Masonry in his state, and has a good
reputation. (Incidentally, the "sound in body" requirement - which comes
from the stonemasons of the Middle Ages -- doesn't mean that a
physically challenged man cannot be a Mason; many are).
Those are the only "formal" requirements. But there are
others, not so formal. He should believe in helping others. He should
believe there is more to life than pleasure and money. He should be
willing to respect the opinions of others. And he should want to grow
and develop as a human being.
How does a man become a Mason?
Some men are surprised that no one has ever asked them
to become a Mason. They may even feel that the Masons in their town
don't think they are "good enough" to join. But it doesn't work that
way. For hundreds of years, Masons have been forbidden to ask others to
join the fraternity. We can talk to friends about Masonry, we can tell
them about what Masonry does. We can tell them why we enjoy it. But we
can't ask, much less pressure anyone to join.
There's a good reason for that. It isn't that we're
trying to be exclusive. But becoming a Mason is a very serious thing.
Joining Masonry is making a permanent life commitment to live in certain
ways. We've listed most of them above -- to live with honor and
integrity, to be willing to share and care about others, to trust each
other, and to place ultimate trust in God. No one should be "talked
into" making such a decision.
So, when a man decides he wants to be a Mason, he asks a
Mason for a petition or application. He fills it out and gives it to the
Mason, and that Mason takes it to the local lodge. The Master of the
lodge will appoint a committee to visit with the man and his family,
find out a little about him and why he wants to be a Mason, tell him and
his family about Masonry, and answer their questions. The committee
reports to the lodge, and the lodge votes on the petition. If the vote
is affirmative -- and it usually is -- the lodge will contact the man to
set the date for the Entered Apprentice Degree. When the person has
completed all three degrees, he is a Master Mason and a full member of
So, what is a Mason?
A Mason is a man who has decided that he likes to feel
good about himself and others. He cares about the future as well as the
past, and does what he can, both alone and with others, to make the
future good for everyone.
Many men over many generations have answered the
question, "What is a Mason?" One of the most eloquent was written by the
Reverend Joseph Fort Newton, an internationally honored minister of the
first half of the 20th Century.
When is a man a Mason?
When he can look out over the rivers, the hills, and the
far horizon with a profound sense of his own littleness in the vast
scheme of things, and yet have faith, hope, and courage which is the
root of every virtue.
When he knows that down in his heart every man is as
noble, as vile, as divine, as diabolic, and as lonely as himself, and
seeks to know, to forgive, and to love his fellow man.
When he knows how to sympathize with men in their
sorrows, yea, even in their sins knowing that each man fights a hard
fight against many odds.
When he has learned how to make friends and to keep
them, and above all how to keep friends with himself. When he loves
flowers, can hunt birds without a gun, and feels the thrill of an old
forgotten joy when he hears the laugh of a little child.
When he can be happy and high-minded amid the meaner
drudgeries of life.
When star-crowned trees and the glint of sunlight on
flowing waters, subdue him like the thought of one much loved and long
When no voice of distress reaches his ears in vain, and
no hand seeks his aid without response.
When he finds good in every faith that helps any man to
lay hold of divine things and sees majestic meanings in life, whatever
the name of that faith may be.
When he can look into a wayside puddle and see something
beyond mud, and into the face of the most forlorn fellow mortal and see
something beyond sin.
When he knows how to pray, how to love, how to hope.
When he has kept faith with himself with his fellow man,
and with his God; in his hand a sword for evil, in his heart a bit of a
song - glad to live, but not afraid to die!
Such a man has found the only real secret of Masonry,
and the one which it is trying to give to all the world.
This is the text of a booklet by the same name produced
by The Masonic Information Center, a division of the Masonic Service
association. Its numerous illustrations have not been included as it
would considerably delay file loading. To obtain illustrated copies,
Masonic Service Center
8120 Fenton Street
Silver Spring, MD 20910-4785
Tel (301) 588-4010; Fax (301) 608-3457