Freemasonry has both a legendary history and a documented one.
The legendary history of Freemasonry, sometimes called "the Craft," goes back to Adam. Or at least to Noah—a builder, after all. Or at least to Solomon, who figures prominently in Masonic ritual. Or to the Roman architects, such as Vitruvius. Or at least to the Knights Templar.
The legends are fascinating, even thrilling. Some may even be partly true. But none are documented.
What is documented is that during the Middle Ages, working stonemasons—the men who designed and built Europe’s great cathedrals—were, like other craftsmen, organized into guilds. They met together in temporary buildings called "lodges," though the term also came to mean local groups of masons. Some were called "freemasons," either because they were free to move from jobsite to jobsite or because they worked with "freestone," a fine-grained, soft stone that can be carved, not just split.
During the 1600s, in Scotland and England, some of these working masons (we now call them "operative" masons) began admitting men who were not working masons (we call them "speculative" masons) to their lodges. We’re not certain why.
By the end of the 1600s many lodges came to consist mostly of speculative masons. In 1717 four of these speculative lodges came together in a London tavern to form the Grand Lodge of England. Over food and ale, modern Freemasonry was born.
By the mid-1700s the Craft had spread throughout Britain, to British colonies, and to the European continent. As Masonry spread (we use "Masonry," capitalized, as a synonym for speculative Freemasonry), new grand lodges were formed. Each of these grand lodges is fully autonomous, with no international governing body. Many countries have national grand lodges, but Canada and the United States have grand lodges only at the provincial or state level. One result of the autonomy of grand lodges is that no individual Masonic author, nor any other Mason or group of Masons, can speak for all of the fraternity.
David Stevenson, in his book The Origins of Freemasonry, points out that Freemasonry has drawn on three great periods of Western history: the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. From the Middle Ages, Freemasonry drew its lodge structure, its iconic aprons, and its primary symbols: the degrees and tools of working stonemasons, including the square and compasses. The Craft’s use of such symbols has entered the larger language—"on the level," "fair and square," a "square deal"—and may be the basis for today’s use of the gavel (originally a stonemason’s tool) in legislatures and courtrooms.
From the Renaissance, Freemasonry got its broad interest in the liberal arts and sciences, as well as its various esoteric elements, drawn from Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, and the kabbalah. (Actually, some of these esoteric elements may have been absorbed earlier by operative lodges.)
From the Enlightenment, Freemasonry drew its philosophy of individual rights, including the right to one’s own political and religious beliefs. In most jurisdictions, candidates for admission must affirm their belief in the Grand Architect of the Universe, but not in any particular religious doctrine. In fact, in most of the world’s lodges discussions of religion and politics are forbidden.
When Masons take their oaths—usually called "obligations"—they swear on a "Volume of Sacred Law" of their choice. So on many Masonic altars, including that of Albuquerque Lodge 60, lie copies of the Christian Bible, the Tanakh, and the Qur’an, with other sacred texts available as needed. The seal of the Grand Lodge of Israel includes not only the expected square and compasses, but also a Jewish Star of David, a Christian cross, and a Muslim crescent. In perhaps the world’s most contentious nation, Masons of all faiths meet as brothers.
Similarly, Masons can be found with a wide range of political philosophies. Throughout all the past "troubles" between some partisans of Northern Ireland and some of the the Republic of Ireland, the Grand Lodge of Ireland stood unified.
Many American Masons point out, with pride, that Freemasonry—carrying these Enlightenment values of freedom of thought and religion—surely influenced the many Masons who were leaders in the American Revolution and in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
In their lodge, Masons meet "on the level," regardless of their status outside Masonry. In 1948, President Harry Truman, who was running for president, had been grand master of Masons in his home state of Missouri. While campaigning in Indiana, the president cancelled an appearance so that he could attend a local lodge meeting where a young naval officer—whom the president recognized from his service on the presidential yacht—was being raised to the degree of master mason.
Within that lodge, the Truman was addressed not as "Mr. President," but only as a past grand master: "Most Worshipful Brother." When his Secret Service detail strongly objected to their not being able to accompany the president into the lodge room, he is said to have told them, "Gentlemen, I am safer in there than in the White House." And he was.
Freemasonry, in its essential form, has three "degrees," based on ranks of medieval stonemasons: the entered apprentice, the fellow craft, and the master mason. "Appendant bodies"—such as the York and Scottish Rites—have degrees with different names and higher numbers, but no Mason is higher in rank than the third-degree master mason.
Freemasonry is traditionally a men’s organization, though it has branches for women, such as the Eastern Star. Some "Masonic" lodges themselves admit women, though these lodges are not recognized as legitimate by the great majority of grand lodges around the world.
Just as Masons have a wide variety of political and religious beliefs, they also have a wide variety of views of Freemasonry itself. In this variety, they are like the fabled blind men with the elephant. Some modern Masons see Freemasonry as primarily a social club—and it can be that, though most Masonic lodge buildings don’t allow drinking. Some see Masonry as primarily a charitable organization—and it is that as well.
Some see it as a self-help group—and it can be that, often claiming that it exists "to make good men better." Indeed, it can be argued that Masonry needs to be for men only, just as some women’s support groups need to be for women only, because men and women must take somewhat different inner and outer journeys through life.
Others see Freemasonry as a rich field of study—historical, philosophical, symbolic, and more. Two US-based, worldwide organizations support Masonic research and education: Philalethes Society and the Masonic Society.
Still others see Freemasonry as an esoteric, initiatory Mystery school—and it can be that too. In fact, some esotericists have used Masonic membership as a gateway into their schools of ritual magic.
Is Freemasonry a "secret society"? In most of the world, the answer is no. Masonic buildings openly display the square and compasses, most Masonic lodges have websites, and many individual Masons are proud to identify themselves as such—some by sporting Masonic lapel pins, tie tacks, or rings.
Masons sometimes put it this way: Freemasonry is not a secret society, but a "society with secrets." Like modern corporations—Coca-Cola, for example—medieval stonemasons had trade secrets, from how to create a right angle using only a straightedge and compasses to how to build a flying buttress to support a towering cathedral wall. Some likely used passwords and handshakes as "union cards," enabling them to arrive at a new construction site and be instantly credentialed for an appropriate kind of work.
Modern Freemasonry has secret words and grips, and even though they are widely available (correctly or incorrectly) in some books and websites, Masons promise not to reveal them—largely to demonstrate to each other that they are men of honor, capable of keeping secrets and worthy of their brothers’ trust.
Still, in a few countries, the Craft is flat-out banned and so must exist as a truly secret society.
Freemasonry has, in various times and places, been condemned. In the United States in 1826, a scandal involving one William Morgan led to anti-Masonic fervor and the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party, the first successful third party in U.S. politics. In the twentieth century, Hitler regarded Freemasons—along with Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, the disabled, and others—as part of the problem that required the "final solution" we call the Holocaust. An estimated eighty thousand to two hundred thousand Masons died in Nazi gas chambers.
Over the centuries, some religious bodies have condemned Freemasonry for its openness to all religious beliefs, or for its imagined occult or conspiratorial activities. Recently the radical group ISIS has explicity named Freemasons as among their enemies. Many Masons take pride in that fact, saying that if ISIS hates us, we must be doing something right. Yet despite opposition from various religious organizations and their members, Masonry continues to draw men from all faiths.
In various times and places, for the past three centuries, Freemasonry has been hugely successful, and its members have included important figures in the arts, literature, philosophy, government, the military, business, science, exploration, sports, and other areas.
Traditionally, Masons haven’t recruited new members; they have waited for good men to seek them out. Today’s grand lodges interpret that tradition in varying ways. But if you’re interested in becoming a Mason, don’t wait to be asked; that may never happen. Let us know by [HOWEVER THIS WILL BE DONE ON THE NEW SITE]. You’ll hear from us.
If you live outside the Albuquerque area, we can put you in touch with your local grand lodge. Or you can make that contact yourself. Find the website of the grand lodge of your state, province, or country, and read what it says about joining.
Or ask any Mason. There are lots of us.
Kenneth W. Davis
Chaplain, Albuquerque Lodge 60 and the Lodge of Research of New Mexico
First Vice President, The Masonic Society
If you want to read more about Freemasonry, consider two excellent books: Christopher Hodapp’s Freemasons for Dummies and S. Brent Morris’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Freemasonry. (The two authors are good friends and have joked about doing a "Dummies and Idiots" book tour together.)
One important caution: though neither book reveals Masonic secrets, they both discuss Masonic ritual. If you are considering becoming a Mason, we strongly encourage you not to read anything about ritual. The less you know in advance, the more moving Masonic ritual will be for you. Just know that you will be participating in essentially the same solemn ritual that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Amadeus Mozart, Mark Twain, Simon Bolivar, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall, John Wayne, Gerald Ford, and millions of other Freemasons have experienced.