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Freemasonry or Masonry consists of fraternal organisations that trace their origins to the local fraternities of stonemasons, which from the end of the fourteenth century regulated the qualifications of stonemasons and their interaction with authorities and clients. The degrees of Freemasonry retain the three grades of medieval craft guilds, those of Apprentice, Journeyman or fellow (now called Fellowcraft), and Master Mason. The candidate of these three degrees is progressively taught the meanings of the symbols of Freemasonry, and entrusted with grips, signs and words to signify to other members that he has been so initiated. The initiations are part allegorical morality play and part lecture. The three degrees are offered by Craft (or Blue Lodge) Freemasonry. Members of these organisations are known as Freemasons or Masons. There are additional degrees, which vary with locality and jurisdiction, and are usually administered by their own bodies (separate from those who administer the craft degrees).
The basic, local organisational unit of Freemasonry is the Lodge. The Lodges are usually supervised and governed at the regional level (usually coterminous with either a state, province, or national border) by a Grand Lodge or Grand Orient. There is no international, worldwide Grand Lodge that supervises all of Freemasonry; each Grand Lodge is independent, and they do not necessarily recognise each other as being legitimate.
Modern Freemasonry broadly consists of two main recognition groups. Regular Freemasonry insists that a volume of scripture is open in a working lodge, that every member profess belief in a Supreme Being, that no women are admitted (although, in some jurisdictions, those who transition to women after being initiated may stay; see below), and that the discussion of religion and politics is banned. Continental Freemasonry is now the general term for the jurisdictions which have removed some, or all, of these restrictions.
The Masonic lodge is the basic organisational unit of Freemasonry. The Lodge meets regularly to conduct the usual formal business of any small organisation (pay bills, organise social and charitable events, elect new members, etc.). In addition to business, the meeting may perform a ceremony to confer a Masonic degree or receive a lecture, which is usually on some aspect of Masonic history or ritual. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Lodge might adjourn for a formal dinner, or festive board, sometimes involving toasting and song.
The bulk of Masonic ritual consists of degree ceremonies. Candidates for Freemasonry are progressively initiated into Freemasonry, first in the degree of Entered Apprentice. Some time later, in a separate ceremony, they will be passed to the degree of Fellowcraft, and finally they will be raised to the degree of Master Mason. In all of these ceremonies, the candidate is entrusted with passwords, signs and grips (secret handshakes) peculiar to his new rank. Another ceremony is the annual installation of the Master and officers of the Lodge. In some jurisdictions Installed Master is valued as a separate rank, with its own secrets to distinguish its members. In other jurisdictions, the grade is not recognised, and no inner ceremony conveys new secrets during the installation of a new Master of the Lodge.
Most Lodges have some sort of social calendar, allowing Masons and their partners to meet in a less ritualised environment. Often coupled with these events is the obligation placed on every Mason to contribute to charity. This occurs at both Lodge and Grand Lodge level. Masonic charities contribute to many fields, such as education or disaster relief.
These private local Lodges form the backbone of Freemasonry, and a Freemason will necessarily have been initiated into one of these. There also exist specialist Lodges where Masons meet to celebrate events, such as sport or Masonic research. The rank of Master Mason also entitles a Freemason to explore Masonry further through other degrees, administered separately from the Craft, or “Blue Lodge” degrees described here, but having a similar format to their meetings.
There is very little consistency in Freemasonry. Because each Masonic jurisdiction is independent, each sets its own procedures. The wording of the ritual, the number of officers present, the layout of the meeting room, etc. varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
The officers of the Lodge are elected or appointed annually. Every Masonic Lodge has a Master, two Wardens, a secretary and a treasurer. There is also a Tyler, or outer guard, who is always present outside the door of a working Lodge. Other offices vary between jurisdictions.
Each Masonic Lodge exists and operates according to a set of ancient principles known as the Landmarks of Freemasonry. These principles have thus far eluded any universally accepted definition.
Joining a lodge
Candidates for Freemasonry will have met most active members of the Lodge they are joining before they are initiated. The process varies between jurisdictions, but the candidate will typically have been introduced by a friend at a Lodge social function, or at some form of open evening in the Lodge. In modern times, interested people often track down a local Lodge through the Internet. The onus is on candidates to ask to join; while candidates may be encouraged to ask, they are never invited. Once the initial inquiry is made, an interview usually follows to determine the candidate’s suitability. If the candidate decides to proceed from here, the Lodge ballots on the application before he (or she, depending on the Masonic Jurisdiction) can be accepted.
The absolute minimum requirement of any body of Freemasons is that the candidate must be free, and considered to be of good character. There is usually an age requirement, varying greatly between Grand Lodges, and (in some jurisdictions) capable of being overridden by a dispensation from the Grand Lodge. The underlying assumption is that the candidate should be a mature adult.
Additionally, most Grand Lodges require the candidate to declare a belief in a Supreme Being. In a few cases, the candidate may be required to be of a specific religion. The form of Freemasonry most common in Scandinavia (known as the Swedish Rite), for example, accepts only Christians. At the other end of the spectrum, “Liberal” or Continental Freemasonry, exemplified by the Grand Orient de France, does not require a declaration of belief in any deity, and accepts atheists (a cause of discord with the rest of Freemasonry).
During the ceremony of initiation, the candidate is expected to swear (usually on a volume of sacred text appropriate to his personal religious faith) to fulfil certain obligations as a Mason. In the course of three degrees, new masons will promise to keep the secrets of their degree from lower degrees and outsiders, and to support a fellow Mason in distress (as far as practicality and the law permit). There is instruction as to the duties of a Freemason, but on the whole, Freemasons are left to explore the craft in the manner they find most satisfying. Some will further explore the ritual and symbolism of the craft, others will focus their involvement on the social side of the Lodge, while still others will concentrate on the charitable functions of the lodge.
Grand Lodges and Grand Orients are independent and sovereign bodies that govern Masonry in a given country, state, or geographical area (termed a jurisdiction). There is no single overarching governing body that presides over worldwide Freemasonry; connections between different jurisdictions depend solely on mutual recognition.
Freemasonry, as it exists in various forms all over the world, has a membership estimated by the United Grand Lodge of England at around 6 million worldwide. The fraternity is administratively organised into independent Grand Lodges (or sometimes Grand Orients), each of which governs its own Masonic jurisdiction, which consists of subordinate (or constituent) Lodges. The largest single jurisdiction, in terms of membership, is the United Grand Lodge of England (with a membership estimated at around a quarter million). The Grand Lodge of Scotland and Grand Lodge of Ireland (taken together) have approximately 150,000 members. In the United States, total membership is just under 2 million.
Recognition, amity and regularity
Relations between Grand Lodges are determined by the concept of Recognition. Each Grand Lodge maintains a list of other Grand Lodges that it recognises. When two Grand Lodges recognise and are in Masonic communication with each other, they are said to be in amity, and the brethren of each may visit each other’s Lodges and interact Masonically. When two Grand Lodges are not in amity, inter-visitation is not allowed. There are many reasons one Grand Lodge will withhold or withdraw recognition from another, but the two most common are Exclusive Jurisdiction and Regularity.
Exclusive Jurisdiction is a concept whereby only one Grand Lodge will be recognised in any geographical area. If two Grand Lodges claim jurisdiction over the same area, the other Grand Lodges will have to choose between them, and they may not all decide to recognise the same one. (In 1849, for example, the Grand Lodge of New York split into two rival factions, each claiming to be the legitimate Grand Lodge. Other Grand Lodges had to choose between them until the schism was healed.) Exclusive Jurisdiction can be waived when the two overlapping Grand Lodges are themselves in Amity and agree to share jurisdiction (for example, since the Grand Lodge of Connecticut is in Amity with the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Connecticut, the principle of Exclusive Jurisdiction does not apply, and other Grand Lodges may recognise both).
Regularity is a concept based on adherence to Masonic Landmarks, the basic membership requirements, tenets and rituals of the craft. Each Grand Lodge sets its own definition of what these landmarks are, and thus what is Regular and what is Irregular (and the definitions do not necessarily agree between Grand Lodges). Essentially, every Grand Lodge will hold that its landmarks (its requirements, tenets and rituals) are Regular, and judge other Grand Lodges based on those. If the differences are significant, one Grand Lodge may declare the other “Irregular” and withdraw or withhold recognition.
The most commonly shared rules for Recognition (based on Regularity) are those given by the United Grand Lodge of England in 1929:
- The Grand Lodge should be established by an existing regular Grand Lodge, or by at least three regular Lodges.
- A belief in a supreme being and scripture is a condition of membership.
- Initiates should take their vows on that scripture.
- Only men can be admitted, and no relationship exists with mixed Lodges.
- The Grand Lodge has complete control over the first three degrees, and is not subject to another body.
- All Lodges shall display a volume of scripture with the square and compasses while in session.
- There is no discussion of politics or religion.
- “Antient landmarks, customs and usages” observed.
Other degrees, orders and bodies
Blue Lodge Freemasonry offers only three traditional degrees, and in most jurisdictions, the rank of past or installed master. Master Masons are also able to extend their Masonic experience by taking further degrees, in appendant bodies approved by their own Grand Lodge.
The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite is a system of 33 degrees (including the three Blue Lodge degrees) administered by a local or national Supreme Council. This system is popular in North America and in Continental Europe. The York Rite, with a similar range, administers three orders of Masonry, namely the Royal Arch, Cryptic Masonry, and Knights Templar.
In Britain, separate bodies administer each order. Freemasons are encouraged to join the Holy Royal Arch, which is linked to Mark Masonry in Scotland and Ireland, but separate in England. Templar and Cryptic Masonry also exist.
Ritual and symbolism
Freemasonry describes itself as a “‘beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols”. The symbolism is mainly, but not exclusively, drawn from the manual tools of stonemasons – the square and compasses, the level and plumb rule, the trowel, among others. A moral lesson is attached to each of these tools, although the assignment is by no means consistent. The meaning of the symbolism is taught and explored through ritual.
All Freemasons begin their journey in the “craft” by being progressively “initiated”, “passed” and “raised” into the three degrees of Craft, or Blue Lodge Masonry. During these three rituals, the candidate is progressively taught the meanings of the Lodge symbols, and entrusted with grips, signs and words to signify to other Masons that he has been so initiated. The initiations are part allegory and part lecture, and revolve around the construction of the Temple of Solomon, and the artistry and death of his chief architect, Hiram Abiff. The degrees are those of “Entered apprentice”, “Fellowcraft” and “Master Mason”. While many different versions of these rituals exist, with at least two different lodge layouts and versions of the Hiram myth, each version is recognisable to any Freemason from any jurisdiction.
In some jurisdictions, the main themes of each degree are illustrated by tracing boards. These painted depictions of Masonic themes are exhibited in the lodge according to which degree is being worked, and are explained to the candidate to illustrate the legend and symbolism of each degree.
The idea of Masonic brotherhood probably descends from a 16th-century legal definition of a “brother” as one who has taken an oath of mutual support to another. Accordingly, Masons swear at each degree to keep the contents of that degree secret, and to support and protect their brethren unless they have broken the law. In most Lodges the oath or obligation is taken on a Volume of Sacred Law, whichever book of divine revelation is appropriate to the religious beliefs of the individual brother (usually the Bible in the Anglo-American tradition). In Progressive continental Freemasonry, books other than scripture are permissible, a cause of rupture between Grand Lodges.
Since the middle of the 19th century, Masonic historians have sought the origins of the movement in a series of similar documents known as the Old Charges, dating from the Regius Poem in about 1425 to the beginning of the 18th century. Alluding to the membership of a lodge of operative masons, they relate it to a mythologised history of the craft, the duties of its grades, and the manner in which oaths of fidelity are to be taken on joining. The 15th century also sees the first evidence of ceremonial regalia.
There is no clear mechanism by which these local trade organisations became today’s Masonic Lodges. The earliest rituals and passwords known, from operative lodges around the turn of the 17th–18th centuries, show continuity with the rituals developed in the later 18th century by accepted or speculative Masons, as those members who did not practice the physical craft gradually came to be known. The minutes of the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary’s Chapel) No. 1 in Scotland show a continuity from an operative lodge in 1598 to a modern speculative Lodge. It is reputed to be the oldest Masonic Lodge in the world.
Alternatively, Thomas De Quincey in his work titled; Rosicrucians and Freemasonry, put forward the theory which suggested that Freemasonry was possibly an outgrowth of Rosicrucianism. The theory had also been postulated in 1803 by German professor; J. G. Buhle.
The first Grand Lodge, the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster (later called the Grand Lodge of England (GLE)), was founded on St John’s Day, 24 June 1717, when four existing London Lodges met for a joint dinner. Many English Lodges joined the new regulatory body, which itself entered a period of self-publicity and expansion. However, many Lodges could not endorse changes which some Lodges of the GLE made to the ritual (they came to be known as the Moderns), and a few of these formed a rival Grand Lodge on 17 July 1751, which they called the “Antient Grand Lodge of England.” These two Grand Lodges vied for supremacy until the Moderns promised to return to the ancient ritual. They united on 27 December 1813 to form the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE).
The Grand Lodge of Ireland and the Grand Lodge of Scotland were formed in 1725 and 1736 respectively, although neither persuaded all of the existing lodges in their countries to join for many years.
The earliest known American lodges were in Pennsylvania. The Collector for the port of Pennsylvania, John Moore, wrote of attending lodges there in 1715, two years before the formation of the first Grand Lodge in London. The Premier Grand Lodge of England appointed a Provincial Grand Master for North America in 1731, based in Pennsylvania. Other lodges in the colony obtained authorisations from the later Antient Grand Lodge of England, the Grand Lodge of Scotland, and the Grand Lodge of Ireland, which was particularly well represented in the travelling lodges of the British Army. Many lodges came into existence with no warrant from any Grand Lodge, applying and paying for their authorisation only after they were confident of their own survival.
After the American Revolution, independent U.S. Grand Lodges developed within each state. Some thought was briefly given to organising an overarching “Grand Lodge of the United States,” with George Washington (who was a member of a Virginian lodge) as the first Grand Master, but the idea was short-lived. The various state Grand Lodges did not wish to diminish their own authority by agreeing to such a body.
Freemasonry was imported to Jamaica by British immigrants who colonized the island for over 300 years. In 1908, there were eleven recorded Masonic Lodges which included three Grand Lodges, two Craft Lodges, and two Rose Croix Chapters. During slavery, the Lodges were open to all “freeborn” men. According to the Jamaican 1834 census, that potentially included 5,000 free black men and 40,000 free coloureds (mixed-race). After the full abolition of slavery in 1838, the Lodges were open to all Jamaican men of any race. Jamaica also kept close relationships with Masons from other countries. Jamaican Freemasonry historian Jackie Ranston, noted that:
Jamaica served as an arms depot for the revolutionary forces when two Kingston Freemasons, Wellwood and Maxwell Hyslop, financed the campaigns of SimÛn BolÌvar, the Liberator, to whom six Latin American Republics owe their independence”. BolÌvar himself was a Mason, enjoying contacts with Brethren in Spain, England, France, and Venezuela until after gaining power in Venezuela, he prohibited all secret societies in 1828 and included the Freemasons.
Prince Hall Freemasonry
Prince Hall Freemasonry exists because of the refusal of early American lodges to admit African Americans. In 1775, an African American named Prince Hall, along with 14 other African-American men, was initiated into a British military lodge with a warrant from the Grand Lodge of Ireland, having failed to obtain admission from the other lodges in Boston. When the British military Lodge left North America after the end of the Revolution, those 15 men were given the authority to meet as a Lodge, but not to initiate Masons. In 1784, these individuals obtained a Warrant from the Premier Grand Lodge of England (GLE) and formed African Lodge, Number 459. When the UGLE was formed in 1813, all U.S.-based Lodges were stricken from their rolls – due largely to the War of 1812. Thus, separated from both UGLE and any concordantly recognised U.S. Grand Lodge, African Lodge retitled itself as the African Lodge, Number 1 – and became a de facto Grand Lodge. (This lodge is not to be confused with the various Grand Lodges in Africa.) As with the rest of U.S. Freemasonry, Prince Hall Freemasonry soon grew and organised on a Grand Lodge system for each state.
Widespread racial segregation in 19th- and early 20th-century North America made it difficult for African Americans to join Lodges outside of Prince Hall jurisdictions – and impossible for inter-jurisdiction recognition between the parallel U.S. Masonic authorities. By the 1980s, such discrimination was a thing of the past. Today most U.S. Grand Lodges recognise their Prince Hall counterparts, and the authorities of both traditions are working towards full recognition. The United Grand Lodge of England has no problem with recognising Prince Hall Grand Lodges. While celebrating their heritage as lodges of black Americans, Prince Hall is open to all men regardless of race or religion.
Emergence of Continental Freemasonry
English Freemasonry spread to France in the 1720s, first as lodges of expatriates and exiled Jacobites, and then as distinctively French lodges which still follow the ritual of the Moderns. From France and England, Freemasonry spread to most of Continental Europe during the course of the 18th century. The Grande Loge de France formed under the Grand Mastership of the Duke of Clermont, who exercised only nominal authority. His successor, the Duke of Orléans, reconstituted the central body as the Grand Orient de France in 1773. Briefly eclipsed during the French Revolution, French Freemasonry continued to grow in the next century, at first under the leadership of Alexandre Francois Auguste de Grasse, Comte de Grassy-Tilly. A career Army officer, he had lived with his family in Charleston, South Carolina from 1793 to the early 1800s, after leaving Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) during the years of the Haitian Revolution.
The ritual form on which the Grand Orient of France was based was abolished in England in the events leading to the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1813. However the two jurisdictions continued in amity (mutual recognition) until events of the 1860s and 1870s drove a seemingly permanent wedge between them. In 1868 the Supreme Council of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of the State of Louisiana appeared in the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of Louisiana, recognised by the Grand Orient de France, but regarded by the older body as an invasion of their jurisdiction. The new Scottish Rite body admitted blacks. The resolution of the Grand Orient the following year that neither colour, race, nor religion could disqualify a man from Masonry prompted the Grand Lodge to withdraw recognition, and it persuaded other American Grand Lodges to do the same.
A dispute during the Lausanne Congress of Supreme Councils of 1875 prompted the Grand Orient de France to commission a report by a Protestant pastor which concluded that, as Freemasonry was not a religion, it should not require a religious belief. The new constitutions read, “Its principles are absolute liberty of conscience and human solidarity”, the existence of God and the immortality of the soul being struck out. It is possible that the immediate objections of the United Grand Lodge of England were at least partly motivated by the political tension between France and Britain at the time. The result was the withdrawal of recognition of the Grand Orient of France by the United Grand Lodge of England, a situation that continues today.
Not all French lodges agreed with the new wording. In 1894, lodges favouring the compulsory recognition of the Great Architect of the Universe formed the Grande Loge de France. In 1913, the United Grand Lodge of England recognised a new Grand Lodge of Regular Freemasons, a Grand Lodge that follows a similar rite to Anglo-American Freemasonry with a mandatory belief in a deity.
There are now three strands of Freemasonry in France, which extend into the rest of Continental Europe:-
- Liberal (also adogmatic or progressive) – Principles of liberty of conscience, and laicity, particularly the separation of the Church and State.
- Traditional – Old French ritual with a requirement for a belief in a Supreme Being. (This strand is typified by the Grande Loge de France).
- Regular – Standard Anglo-American ritual, mandatory belief in Supreme Being.
The term Continental Freemasonry was used in Mackey’s 1873 Encyclopedia of Freemasonry to “designate the Lodges on the Continent of Europe which retain many usages which have either been abandoned by, or never were observed in, the Lodges of England, Ireland, and Scotland, as well as the United States of America”. Today, it is frequently used to refer to only the Liberal jurisdictions typified by the Grand Orient de France.
The majority of Freemasonry considers the Liberal (Continental) strand to be Irregular, and thus withhold recognition. For the Continental lodges, however, having a different approach to Freemasonry was not a reason for severing masonic ties. In 1961, an umbrella organisation, Centre de Liaison et d’Information des Puissances maçonniques Signataires de l’Appel de Strasbourg (CLIPSAS) was set up, which today provides a forum for most of these Grand Lodges and Grand Orients worldwide. Included in the list of over 70 Grand Lodges and Grand Orients are representatives of all three of the above categories, including mixed and women’s organisations. The United Grand Lodge of England does not communicate with any of these jurisdictions, and expects its allies to follow suit. This creates the distinction between Anglo-American and Continental Freemasonry.
In the early 20th century Freemasonry was an influential semi-secret force in Italian politics with a strong presence among professionals and the middle class across Italy, as well as among the leadership of the parliament, public administration, and the army. The two main organisation were the Grand Orient and the Grand Lodge of Italy. They had 25,000 members in 500 or more lodges. Freemasons took on the challenge of mobilizing the press, public opinion and the leading political parties in support of Italy’s joining the Allies of the First World War in 1914-1915. Traditionally, they promoted Italian nationalism focused on unification, and undermining the power of the Catholic Church. In 1914-15 they dropped the traditional pacifistic rhetoric and used instead the powerful language of Italian nationalism. Freemasonry had always promoted cosmopolitan universal values, and by 1917 onwards they demanded a League of Nations to promote a new post-war universal order based upon the peaceful coexistence of independent and democratic nations.
Freemasonry and women
The status of women in the old guilds and corporations of mediaeval masons remains uncertain. The principle of “femme sole” allowed a widow to continue the trade of her husband, but its application had wide local variations, such as full membership of a trade body or limited trade by deputation or approved members of that body. In masonry, the small available evidence points to the less empowered end of the scale.
At the dawn of the Grand Lodge era, during the 1720s, James Anderson composed the first printed constitutions for Freemasons, the basis for most subsequent constitutions, which specifically excluded women from Freemasonry. As Freemasonry spread, continental masons began to include their ladies in Lodges of Adoption, which worked three degrees with the same names as the men’s but different content. The French officially abandoned the experiment in the early 19th century. Later organisations with a similar aim emerged in the United States, but distinguished the names of the degrees from those of male masonry.
Maria Deraismes was initiated into Freemasonry in 1882, then resigned to allow her lodge to rejoin their Grand Lodge. Having failed to achieve acceptance from any masonic governing body, she and Georges Martin started a mixed masonic lodge that worked masonic ritual. Annie Besant spread the phenomenon to the English-speaking world. Disagreements over ritual led to the formation of exclusively female bodies of Freemasons in England, which spread to other countries. Meanwhile, the French had re-invented Adoption as an all-female lodge in 1901, only to cast it aside again in 1935. The lodges, however, continued to meet, which gave rise, in 1959, to a body of women practising continental Freemasonry.
In general, Continental Freemasonry is sympathetic to Freemasonry amongst women, dating from the 1890s when French lodges assisted the emergent co-masonic movement by promoting enough of their members to the 33rd degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite to allow them, in 1899, to form their own grand council, recognised by the other Continental Grand Councils of that Rite. The United Grand Lodge of England issued a statement in 1999 recognising the two women’s grand lodges there to be regular in all but the participants. While they were not, therefore, recognised as regular, they were part of Freemasonry “in general”. The attitude of most regular Anglo-American grand lodges remains that women Freemasons are not legitimate Masons.
In 2018 guidance was released by the United Grand Lodge of England stating that, in regard to transgender women, “A Freemason who after initiation ceases to be a man does not cease to be a Freemason”. The guidance also states that transgender men are allowed to apply to become Freemasons.
Anti-Masonry (alternatively called Anti-Freemasonry) has been defined as “opposition to Freemasonry”, but there is no homogeneous anti-Masonic movement. Anti-Masonry consists of widely differing criticisms from diverse (and often incompatible) groups who are hostile to Freemasonry in some form. Critics have included religious groups, political groups, and conspiracy theorists.
There have been many disclosures and exposés dating as far back as the 18th century. These often lack context, may be outdated for various reasons, or could be outright hoaxes on the part of the author, as in the case of the Taxil hoax.
These hoaxes and exposés have often become the basis for criticism of Masonry, often religious or political in nature or are based on suspicion of corrupt conspiracy of some form. The political opposition that arose after the “Morgan Affair” in 1826 gave rise to the term Anti-Masonry, which is still in use today, both by Masons in referring to their critics and as a self-descriptor by the critics themselves.
Freemasonry has attracted criticism from theocratic states and organised religions for supposed competition with religion, or supposed heterodoxy within the fraternity itself, and has long been the target of conspiracy theories, which assert Freemasonry to be an occult and evil power.
Christianity and Freemasonry
Although members of various faiths cite objections, certain Christian denominations have had high-profile negative attitudes to Masonry, banning or discouraging their members from being Freemasons.
The denomination with the longest history of objection to Freemasonry is the Catholic Church. The objections raised by the Catholic Church are based on the allegation that Masonry teaches a naturalistic deistic religion which is in conflict with Church doctrine. A number of Papal pronouncements have been issued against Freemasonry. The first was Pope Clement XII‘s In eminenti apostolatus, 28 April 1738; the most recent was Pope Leo XIII‘s Ab apostolici, 15 October 1890. The 1917 Code of Canon Law explicitly declared that joining Freemasonry entailed automatic excommunication, and banned books favouring Freemasonry.
In 1983, the Church issued a new code of canon law. Unlike its predecessor, the 1983 Code of Canon Law did not explicitly name Masonic orders among the secret societies it condemns. It states: “A person who joins an association which plots against the Church is to be punished with a just penalty; one who promotes or takes office in such an association is to be punished with an interdict.” This named omission of Masonic orders caused both Catholics and Freemasons to believe that the ban on Catholics becoming Freemasons may have been lifted, especially after the perceived liberalisation of Vatican II. However, the matter was clarified when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a Declaration on Masonic Associations, which states: “… the Church’s negative judgment in regard to Masonic association remains unchanged since their principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church and therefore membership in them remains forbidden. The faithful who enrol in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.” For its part, Freemasonry has never objected to Catholics joining their fraternity. Those Grand Lodges in amity with UGLE deny the Church’s claims. The UGLE now states that “Freemasonry does not seek to replace a Mason’s religion or provide a substitute for it.”
In contrast to Catholic allegations of rationalism and naturalism, Protestant objections are more likely to be based on allegations of mysticism, occultism, and even Satanism. Masonic scholar Albert Pike is often quoted (in some cases misquoted) by Protestant anti-Masons as an authority for the position of Masonry on these issues. However, Pike, although undoubtedly learned, was not a spokesman for Freemasonry and was also controversial among Freemasons in general. His writings represented his personal opinion only, and furthermore an opinion grounded in the attitudes and understandings of late 19th century Southern Freemasonry of the USA. Notably, his book carries in the preface a form of disclaimer from his own Grand Lodge. No one voice has ever spoken for the whole of Freemasonry.
Free Methodist Church founder B.T. Roberts was a vocal opponent of Freemasonry in the mid 19th century. Roberts opposed the society on moral grounds and stated, “The god of the lodge is not the God of the Bible.” Roberts believed Freemasonry was a “mystery” or “alternate” religion and encouraged his church not to support ministers who were Freemasons. Freedom from secret societies is one of the “frees” upon which the Free Methodist Church was founded.
Since the founding of Freemasonry, many Bishops of the Church of England have been Freemasons, such as Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher. In the past, few members of the Church of England would have seen any incongruity in concurrently adhering to Anglican Christianity and practising Freemasonry. In recent decades, however, reservations about Freemasonry have increased within Anglicanism, perhaps due to the increasing prominence of the evangelical wing of the church. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, appeared to harbour some reservations about Masonic ritual, whilst being anxious to avoid causing offence to Freemasons inside and outside the Church of England. In 2003 he felt it necessary to apologise to British Freemasons after he said that their beliefs were incompatible with Christianity and that he had barred the appointment of Freemasons to senior posts in his diocese when he was Bishop of Monmouth.
In 1933, the Orthodox Church of Greece officially declared that being a Freemason constitutes an act of apostasy and thus, until he repents, the person involved with Freemasonry cannot partake of the Eucharist. This has been generally affirmed throughout the whole Eastern Orthodox Church. The Orthodox critique of Freemasonry agrees with both the Catholic and Protestant versions: “Freemasonry cannot be at all compatible with Christianity as far as it is a secret organisation, acting and teaching in mystery and secret and deifying rationalism.”
Regular Freemasonry has traditionally not responded to these claims, beyond the often repeated statement that those Grand Lodges in amity with UGLE explicitly adhere to the principle that “Freemasonry is not a religion, nor a substitute for religion. There is no separate ‘Masonic deity,’ and there is no separate proper name for a deity in Freemasonry.”
Christian men, who were discouraged from joining the Freemasons by their Churches or who wanted a more religiocentric society, joined similar fraternal organisations, such as the Knights of Columbus for Catholic Christians, and the Loyal Orange Institution for Protestant Christians, although these fraternal organisations have been “organized in part on the style of and use many symbols of Freemasonry”.
Islam and Freemasonry
Many Islamic anti-Masonic arguments are closely tied to both antisemitism and Anti-Zionism, though other criticisms are made such as linking Freemasonry to Al-Masih ad-Dajjal (the false Messiah in Islamic Scripture). Some Muslim anti-Masons argue that Freemasonry promotes the interests of the Jews around the world and that one of its aims is to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to rebuild the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. In article 28 of its Covenant, Hamas states that Freemasonry, Rotary, and other similar groups “work in the interest of Zionism and according to its instructions …”
Many countries with a majority Muslim population do not allow Masonic establishments within their borders. However, countries such as Turkey and Morocco have established Grand Lodges, while in countries such as Malaysia and Lebanon there are District Grand Lodges operating under a warrant from an established Grand Lodge.
Masonic lodges existed in Iraq as early as 1917, when the first lodge under the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) was opened. Nine lodges under UGLE existed by the 1950s, and a Scottish lodge was formed in 1923. However, the position changed following the revolution, and all lodges were forced to close in 1965. This position was later reinforced under Saddam Hussein; the death penalty was “prescribed” for those who “promote or acclaim Zionist principles, including freemasonry, or who associate [themselves] with Zionist organisations.”
In 1799, English Freemasonry almost came to a halt due to Parliamentary proclamation. In the wake of the French Revolution, the Unlawful Societies Act banned any meetings of groups that required their members to take an oath or obligation.
The Grand Masters of both the Moderns and the Antients Grand Lodges called on Prime Minister William Pitt (who was not a Freemason) and explained to him that Freemasonry was a supporter of the law and lawfully constituted authority and was much involved in charitable work. As a result, Freemasonry was specifically exempted from the terms of the Act, provided that each private lodge’s Secretary placed with the local “Clerk of the Peace” a list of the members of his lodge once a year. This continued until 1967, when the obligation of the provision was rescinded by Parliament.
Freemasonry in the United States faced political pressure following the 1826 kidnapping of William Morgan by Freemasons and his subsequent disappearance. Reports of the “Morgan Affair”, together with opposition to Jacksonian democracy (Andrew Jackson was a prominent Mason), helped fuel an Anti-Masonic movement. The short-lived Anti-Masonic Party was formed, which fielded candidates for the presidential elections of 1828 and 1832.
In Italy, Freemasonry has become linked to a scandal concerning the Propaganda Due lodge (a.k.a. P2). This lodge was chartered by the Grande Oriente d’Italia in 1877, as a lodge for visiting Masons unable to attend their own lodges. Under Licio Gelli‘s leadership, in the late 1970s, P2 became involved in the financial scandals that nearly bankrupted the Vatican Bank. However, by this time the lodge was operating independently and irregularly, as the Grand Orient had revoked its charter and expelled Gelli in 1976.
Conspiracy theorists have long associated Freemasonry with the New World Order and the Illuminati, and state that Freemasonry as an organisation is either bent on world domination or already secretly in control of world politics. Historically, Freemasonry has attracted criticism—and suppression—from both the politically far right (e.g., Nazi Germany) and the far left (e.g. the former Communist states in Eastern Europe).
Even in modern democracies, Freemasonry is sometimes viewed with distrust. In the UK, Masons working in the justice system, such as judges and police officers, were from 1999 to 2009 required to disclose their membership. While a parliamentary inquiry found that there has been no evidence of wrongdoing, the government believed that Masons’ potential loyalties to support fellow Masons, should be transparent to the public. The policy of requiring a declaration of masonic membership by applicants for judicial office (judges and magistrates) was ended in 2009 by Justice Secretary Jack Straw (who had initiated the requirement in the 1990s). Straw stated that the rule was considered disproportionate, since no impropriety or malpractice had been shown as a result of judges being Freemasons.
Freemasonry is both successful and controversial in France. As of the early 21st century, membership is rising, but reporting in the popular media is often negative.
In some countries anti-Masonry is often related to antisemitism and anti-Zionism. For example, in 1980 the Iraqi legal and penal code was changed by Saddam Hussein‘s ruling Ba’ath Party, making it a felony to “promote or acclaim Zionist principles, including Freemasonry, or who associate [themselves] with Zionist organisations”. Professor Andrew Prescott of the University of Sheffield writes: “Since at least the time of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, antisemitism has gone hand in hand with anti-masonry, so it is not surprising that allegations that 11 September was a Zionist plot have been accompanied by suggestions that the attacks were inspired by a masonic world order”.
The preserved records of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (the Reich Security Main Office) show the persecution of Freemasons during the Holocaust. RSHA Amt VII (Written Records) was overseen by Professor Franz Six and was responsible for “ideological” tasks, by which was meant the creation of antisemitic and anti-Masonic propaganda. While the number of victims is not accurately known, historians estimate that between 80,000 and 200,000 Freemasons were killed under the Nazi regime. Masonic concentration camp inmates were classified as political prisoners and wore an inverted red triangle. Hitler believed Freemasons had succumbed to Jews conspiring against Germany.
The small blue forget-me-not flower was first used by the Grand Lodge Zur Sonne, in 1926, as a Masonic emblem at the annual convention in Bremen, Germany. In 1938 a forget-me-not badge—made by the same factory as the Masonic badge—was chosen for the annual Nazi Party Winterhilfswerk, the annual charity drive of the National Socialist People’s Welfare, the welfare branch of the Nazi party. This coincidence enabled Freemasons to wear the forget-me-not badge as a secret sign of membership.
After World War II, the forget-me-not flower was used again as a Masonic emblem in 1948 at the first Annual Convention of the United Grand Lodges of Germany in 1948. The badge is now worn in the coat lapel by Freemasons around the world to remember all who suffered in the name of Freemasonry, especially those during the Nazi era.
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