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 age 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. 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 both religious and political beliefs and encourage 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 probably are some actual stone-workers 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 compass, 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, and multiple levels of symbolism have been suggested. Masons affectionately and symbolically refer to their work as "The Craft."
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. Freemasonry has a "paper trail" going back to the 14th century, and the concepts it espouses, and the lessons it aims to confer are older still.
There are three degrees in modern Masonry. Other appendant bodies confer additional degrees, up to the 32nd (or the honorary 33rd) of the Scottish Rite, but in symbolic Masonry (or Blue Lodge Masonry) proper, there are only three. At the Blue Lodge, Masons receive the degrees of Entered Apprentice (first), Fellowcraft (second), and Master Mason (third). Promotion generally requires the mastery of a small body of memorized material, the contents of which vary according to jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, only the signs, tokens, and grips of each degree must be learned; in others, a longer amount of material.
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) twice a month, that are also referred to as "stated meetings" or "business meetings".
While 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. And there are also a great many things done for the simple pleasure of company: monthly breakfasts or dinners, picnics, card/chess matches, lecturers on Masonic history, you name it. Masonry is a fraternity, and its membership seeks to have fun. Masonic Lodges can be found in many cities, of all sizes, around the world. There are presently approximately 6 million Masons, half of which are in the United States.
Local Masonic Lodges are organized under Grand Lodges. In the United States, each state has its own Grand Lodge, which is a peer with every other Grand Lodge. There is no "Grandest Lodge"-- each Grand Lodge is supreme in its jurisdiction but has no authority elsewhere. This does not mean that Masonry in New York is radically different than Masonry in Scotland or New Mexico. Masons are very traditional and the differences between Grand Lodges are usually minor.
The Essential Qualification for Membership:
The essential qualification for admission into and continuing membership is a belief in a Supreme Being. Membership is open to men of any race or religion who can fulfill this essential qualification and are of good repute.
To become a Freemason you must:
• Be a man of at least 18 years of age
• Be of good moral character
• Have a personal belief in a Supreme Being (the definition of a Supreme Being is a personal matter for each individual)
• Decide to become a Mason of "your own free will and accord" without expectation of any material gain or benefits
• Be loyal to your country
• Be dedicated to providing for your own family
• Have a sincere determination to conduct yourself in a manner that will earn the respect and trust of others
• Possess a desire to help others through community service and universal benevolence
Freemasonry and Religion:
Freemasonry is not a religion, nor is it a substitute for religion. Its essential qualification opens it to men of many religions and it expects them to continue to follow their own faith. It does not allow religion or politics to be discussed at its meetings.
The Three Great Principles:
For many years Freemasons have followed three great principles:
Every true Freemason will show tolerance and respect for the opinions of others and behave with kindness and understanding to his fellow creatures.
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.
Freemasons strive for truth, requiring high moral standards and aiming to achieve them in their own lives.
Freemasons believe that these principles represent a way of achieving higher standards in life.
From its earliest days, Freemasonry has been concerned with the care of orphans, the sick and the aged. This work continues today. In addition, large sums are given to national and local charities.
Freemasonry and Society:
Freemasonry demands from its members a respect for the law of the country in which a man works and lives. Its principles do not in any way conflict with its members' duties as citizens, but should strengthen them in fulfilling their private and public responsibilities. The use by a Freemason of their membership to promote his own or anyone else's business, professional or personal interests is condemned, and is contrary to the conditions on which he sought admission to Freemasonry. His duty as a citizen must always prevail over any obligation to other Freemasons, and any attempt to shield a Freemason who has acted dishonorably or unlawfully is contrary to this prime duty.
The secrets of Freemasonry are concerned with its traditional modes of recognition. It is not a secret society, since all members are free to acknowledge their membership and will do so in response to inquiries for respectable reasons. Its constitutions and rules are available to the public. There is no secret about any of its aims and principles. Like many other societies, it regards some of its internal affairs as private matters for its members.
Freemasonry and Politics:
Freemasonry is non-political, and the discussion of politics and or religion at Masonic meetings is strictly forbidden.
Aims and Objectives of Freemasonry:
We are dedicated to making good men better and to developing our knowledge of ourselves as individuals and the world around us through education, discussion and social exchange.
We aim to make proper use of our time, dividing it between worship, work, leisure and service, thus making the best use of our mental and physical abilities.
We aim to use our talents for the benefit of ourselves, our families, our neighbors and our communities throughout our private, public, business and professional life.
We declare our membership whenever any possible conflict of interest may arise or be perceived to arise.
We promise not to use our membership to promote our own or anyone else's private, public, business or professional interests.
A Freemason is encouraged to do his duty first to God through his faith and religious practice; and then, without detriment to his family and those dependent on him, to his neighbor through charity and service. None of these ideas is exclusively Masonic, but all should be universally acceptable. Freemasons are expected to follow them.