Freemasonry – or simply, Masonry – is a fraternal order whose basic tenets are brotherly love, relief (philanthropy), and truth. We strive to enjoy the company of our brother Masons, assist them in times of personal trouble, and reinforce essential moral values. There is an old adage that Masonry “takes good men and makes them better,” which is our goal.
It has often been observed that men are the products of everything they come into contact with during their lifetime. Masonry offers a man an opportunity to come into regular, enjoyable contact with men of good character, thus reinforcing his own personal moral development. Of course, Masonry is also meant to be enjoyed by its membership, so the order should not be viewed simply as a philosophical club, but rather a vibrant fellowship of men who seek to enjoy each other’s company…a fraternity.
To maintain this fraternity, discussion of religion and politics within the Lodge is forbidden as these subjects are those that have often divided men in the past. Masons cover the spectrum of all religious and political beliefs. Masonry encourages a man to be religious without advocating a particular religion, and to be active in his community without advocating a particular medium of political expression.
While there are probably some actual stoneworkers who are Masons, Masonry 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 compasses, the square, the level, etc. Each of these has a symbolic meaning in Masonry. For example, Masons are said to meet “on the level”, meaning that all Masons 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.
Masonry is distinguished from other fraternal orders by its emphasis on moral character, its ornate rituals, and its long tradition and history, which dates back to at least the 17th century in modern form, the 14th century (c. 1350-1390) in the written evidence of its precursors, and back to the mists of antiquity in its origin.
There are three degrees in Masonry. Other appendant bodies confer additional degrees – up to the 32nd Degree, or the honorary 33rd Degree of the Scottish Rite – but in symbolic “Blue Lodge” Masonry proper, there are only three Degrees. At the “Blue Lodge” level, Masons receive the degrees of Entered Apprentice (first degree), Fellowcraft (second degree), and Master Mason (third degree). Advancement requires the mastery of a small amount of memorized material.
Of course, no Mason would ever look down upon a Brother simply because he was of a lower degree – the degrees do not exist to create a pecking order or to confer rank. Rather, they are a system of initiation that allows men to become familiar with the august and ancient history and principles of Masonry at a comfortable pace.
Most Lodges have regular communications (meetings) once a month, which are business meetings. In California, these are open to Masons of any degree. Conferring of degrees is usually done at other meetings during the month.
While the conferral of degrees and mundane business do take up a lot of a Lodge’s time, there are a host of other activities that Masons engage in within the fraternity. Charitable work is often done in the form of fundraisers, community volunteer work, etc. Additionally, there are also a great many things done for the simple pleasure of company: monthly breakfasts or dinners, social nights, fishing trips, picnics, sporting competitions, lecturers on Masonic history – you name it and Masons do it. Masonry is a fraternity, and our membership seeks to have fun.
Local Masonic Lodges are organized under Grand Lodges. In the United States, each state has its own Grand Lodge, which is equal to every other Grand Lodge. There is no “Grandest Lodge.” Each Grand Lodge is supreme in its jurisdiction (i.e. in California) but has no authority elsewhere. Of course, this does not mean that Masonry in New York is radically different than Masonry in Scotland or New Mexico or Africa. Masons are very traditional and the differences between Grand Lodges are usually minor.
There are also a great many things that Masonry is NOT: a religion, a political organization, a secret society, etc.