Original post on the UGLE site
Freemasonry is one of the world’s oldest and largest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisation. It teaches self-knowledge through participation in a progression of ceremonies. Members are expected to be of high moral standing and are encouraged to speak openly about Freemasonry.
Freemasonry means different things to each of those who join. For some, it’s about making new friends and acquaintances. For others it’s about being able to help deserving causes – making a contribution to family and for society. But for most, it is an enjoyable hobby.
Freemasonry is a society of men concerned with moral and spiritual values. Its members are taught its principles (moral lessons and self-knowledge) by a series of ritual dramas – a progression of allegorical two-part plays which are learnt by heart and performed within each Lodge – which follow ancient forms, and use stonemasons’ customs and tools as allegorical guides.
Freemasonry instils in its members a moral and ethical approach to life: its values are based on integrity, kindness, honesty and fairness. Members are urged to regard the interests of the family as paramount but, importantly, Freemasonry also teaches and practices concern for people, care for the less fortunate and help for those in need.
It is a society of men concerned with moral and spiritual values whose members are taught its precepts by a series of ritual dramas which follow ancient forms, and it uses stonemasons’ customs and tools as allegorical guides. It has over 250,000 members within England and Wales making up nearly 8,000 Lodges making it the largest fraternal organisation in the United Kingdom, and there are a further 30,000 members overseas. It is unknown precisely how long Freemasonry has been in existence. However our earliest records detail one Elias Ashmole who was made a Mason in England in 1646; these ancient records show that Freemasonry has been existence for at least three hundred and fifty years.
About the fraternity
Freemasonry, also known as Masonry, is based on the belief that each man has a responsibility to help make the world a better place. Through our culture of philanthropy, we make a profound difference for our brothers, our families, our communities, and our future.
The Basic Principles of Freemasons
Freemasons have a set of basic principles that they all live by. Masonic Lodge members promise never to bring anything offensive or defensive into the lodge with them — both weapons and words. The object of the lodge is to create a place where those divisions are left outside, so Masons can engage in activities that unite them instead of separating them:
A Moral Code: Freemasons believe in honor and that a man has a responsibility to behave honorably in everything he does. Freemasonry teaches its members the principles of personal decency and personal responsibility. It hopes to inspire them to have charity and good will toward all mankind, and to translate principles and convictions into action.
Charity: Freemasonry is devoted to the promotion of the welfare and happiness of all mankind. Freemasonry teaches its members that unselfishness is a duty and that it’s not only more blessed to give than to receive, but also more rewarding.
Education: Freemasonry teaches a system of morality and brotherhood by the use of symbols and dramatic presentations. It encourages its members to expand their knowledge of the world around them.
Religious, not a religion: Freemasons believe in the brotherhood of man, under the fatherhood of God. Freemasonry isn’t a religion, but it is religious because it requires its members to have faith in a Supreme Being, according to the individual Mason’s belief. It’s not a sectarian organisation and does not promote one religion over another. Masonic ceremonies describe a moral code, using basic principles that are common to all religions.
Social Responsibility: Freemasonry stands for the reverence of God and the proper place of individual faith in society; for truth and justice; for fraternity and philanthropy; and for orderly civil, religious, and intellectual liberty. It charges each of its members to be true and loyal to the government of the country to which he owes allegiance and to be obedient to the law of any state in which he may reside.
Nonpolitical, Nonsectarian: One of the first rules of Freemasonry forbids the discussion in Masonic meetings of religious matters and politics — topics likely to cause personal arguments. It’s also against the fundamental principles of Freemasonry for Masonic organisations to take political action or attempt to influence elections or legislation.
Equality Among Members: Freemasonry regards no man for his worldly wealth, social status, or outward appearance. Kings, princes, sultans, and potentates have been Masons. So have cooks, cleaners, car mechanics, factory workers, office workers, managers and directors.
A unique institution with global membership
People from all walks of life become Freemasons for a variety of reasons. Some are attracted by the valuable work that the movement performs in raising money for charity. A proportion of these funds is used to assist Freemasons and their dependents in times of need, particularly the sick and the elderly, but the greater part goes to non Masonic charities – local, national and international. Freemasons also assist the community in more direct ways, such as carrying out voluntary work. Others become Freemasons because of the unique fellowship it provides. Visit a Masonic lodge anywhere in the country – or indeed, the world – and you are greeted as an old friend. Freemasonry is the ultimate leveller, a community where friendship and goodwill are paramount.
Personal satisfaction not personal gain
It has been said that some people become Freemasons for personal benefit. This statement is true, but for the wrong reasons. The personal gain is in experiencing the warmth of an honourable society and being part of an organisation that works hard to help the less fortunate of the world. Freemasonry does ask its members to give as freely as they can to charity. How often have we told ourselves that we really should send money to help with some famine or other disaster we have seen on TV, only to forget all about it in the rush of everyday life? Freemasonry provides a structured channel for fundraising from its members and reacts quickly when help is needed urgently, as in the case of the tsunami disaster.
Masonic symbolism has a purpose
But what about the so-called funny handshakes and the outlandish dress styles? Freemasonry has been in existence for over 300 years and over this time has developed a pattern of rituals. They are no more outlandish than ceremonies such as the State Opening of Parliament but, like this event, they perform a valuable function in reminding members of the heritage and standards they are expected to maintain. Once people have become Freemasons and understand the context of the rituals and symbolism, they no longer seem quirky.
Handshakes don’t give an unfair advantage
The handshakes are signs used within Masonic ceremonies. Certainly they can be used in everyday society, but to expect preferential treatment or some other sort of advantage from fellow Freemasons met in this way is both misguided and contrary to one of the basic principles of the organisation. Rather than spend your money on Masonic membership fees, you’d be better off buying a lottery ticket.
Has anyone ever used their membership of Freemasonry to try to gain personal benefit? Of course there have been cases. But that is true of just about every group, society or body where men get together. How many business deals are cooked up on the golf course? The difference is that, unlike the golf club, Freemasonry has a system of morality that says no to this.
Why the mystery?
If Freemasonry has nothing to hide, why the mystery? The ‘mysteries’ that are revealed to members as they progress are nothing more sinister than sound advice that helps them to lead a balanced life, for example through thinking about things like the welfare of others. Similarly, Masonic passwords are simply keys to the doors of the different levels within Freemasonry. Learning these principles on a step by step basis makes them easier to absorb and understand. Masonic ceremonies are like short morality plays in which members play different parts. Like any form of theatre, it demands the learning of words and the movements on stage. Through taking part in these ceremonies, Freemasons come to understand the truths that they contain.
So what is involved?
So do you need the acting skills of a West End star to become a Freemason? Certainly not. In the convivial atmosphere of a Masonic meeting, members soon learn to relax and enjoy taking part in something rather special. It’s a place where everyone can be themselves and contribute in a way that suits their own personality. Many members actually find that learning and performing these rituals is a useful programme of self development. For those that want to do it, Freemasonry also provides the opportunity to practise after-dinner speaking with a totally friendly audience.
How time consuming is it?
Doesn’t all this take up a great deal of one’s time? The majority of lodges meet four times a year. The formal part of the proceedings (the ceremonies) usually start towards the end of the afternoon and are followed in the evening by a dinner and a few (hopefully short) speeches. Additionally there are weekly instruction meetings where members learn more about the principles of Freemasonry and to master the ritual performed in the ceremonies. Freemasons also gain great pleasure in visiting lodges other than their own, making new friends and seeing different traditions followed. While there are numerous opportunities to engage in Masonic pursuits, Freemasonry encourages its members to live well rounded lives and always stresses that one’s family and personal affairs must always come first.
Wives and partners matter to Freemasons
In the interests of domestic harmony, people interested in becoming Freemasons are strongly recommended to bring their wife / partner into the picture at the earliest possible stage. All of the Masonic Centres are happy to give guided tours to the general public. Visitors can see inside the Masonic temples where the ceremonies take place and ask about the issues discussed in this leaflet. There are also entertaining lectures, held inside a lodge or chapter rooms, for anyone interested in learning more about Freemasonry. These are usually followed by an informal dinner.
Not just for the well heeled
What about the cost? Membership subscriptions compare favourably with everyday sports and social clubs. Freemasonry is not a rich man’s hobby but an affordable and rewarding pastime for the many.
What else is involved in becoming a Freemason? You have to be male, aged 21 or over and be of good character (which means not having any criminal convictions). You must also believe in a Supreme Being, but Freemasonry is not a religion; men from a variety of faiths belong.