What is Freemasonry?

Freemasonry: A unique Institution with global membership

Freemasonry is one of the world’s oldest secular fraternal societies - a society of men concerned with moral and spiritual values.

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. It is not widely known that Freemasonry is one of the largest charitable benefactors in the UK, in fact second only to the National Lottery. 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. There are about 5 million Freemasons worldwide, with 480,000 in England & Wales. 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.

The Three Great Principles

For many years Freemasons have followed three great principles:

Brotherly Love
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 practise 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.

Freemasons & Society

Freemasonry attracts those with a sense of social responsibility: it encourages its members to be good members of society and to lead by example.

Freemasonry instils in its members a moral and ethical approach to life: it seeks to reinforce thoughtfulness for others, kindness in the community, honesty in business, courtesy in society and fairness in all things. 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.

That naturally leads to charitable giving (see separate page). From its earliest days, Freemasonry has been concerned with the care of orphans, the sick and the aged. This work continues today.

Freemasonry has certain charities, including those for widows and children of masons, but it is not in any sense a benefit society. Over the past five years, British Freemasonry has raised more than £75m for a wide range of charitable purposes, including medical research, education, and relief for suffers of international disasters.

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 it can react quickly. When help is needed urgently, the Masonic charities respond immediately and generously.

Freemasonry reminds its members that charitable donations are the start rather than the end of one's obligation to society and many members are active in their communities and in local charities.

For most Freemasons, Freemasonry is more than simply a hobby or a social activity: it is a philosophy.

Personal satisfaction not personal gain

It has been said that some people become Freemasons for personal benefit. This statement is true, but it may be misleading. 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. Membership brings warm and supportive companionship, and leads to close friendships which develop over many years.

Masons undertake not to use their membership of Freemasonry to gain pecuniary advantage. Of course there have been cases, and 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, to expect preferential treatment from fellow Freemasons is both misguided and contrary to one of the basic principles of the organisation. Failure to maintain this principle can lead to Masonic expulsion (although these are, thankfully, rare). Rather than spend your money on Masonic membership fees, you’d be better off buying a lottery ticket or joining that golf club.

Masonic symbolism has a purpose

But what about the so called funny handshakes and the outlandish dress styles? Modern Freemasonry has been in existence for over 300 years and over this time has developed a pattern of ceremony. They are no more eccentric than ceremonies such as the State Opening of Parliament and, 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 ceremony and symbolism, they no longer seem quirky.

In every generation, monarchs and heads of state have been promoters of Freemasonry, have participated in our mysteries and joined in our assemblies.  This practice continues today.

Members are taught its precepts (moral lessons and self-knowledge) by a series of two-part morality dramas. Like any form of theatre, it demands the learning by heart of the words and movements on stage.  The drama is then performed within each Lodge. This progression of plays follow ancient forms, and use operative stonemasons’ customs, tools and implements as metaphorical props set against the allegorical backdrop of the building of King Soloman's Temple. Through taking part in these ceremonies, Freemasons come to understand the truths that they contain. Masons refer to these plays as “ritual”, a term which perhaps leads to unfortunate and inaccurate interpretation by non-masons.

Why the secrecy?

The medieval stonemasons guilds upon whose rituals Freemasonry is based, used handshakes and other signs as ways of identifying an unknown Mason. These signs were kept secret in order to preserve the integrity of the guild, ensuring that unskilled workers could not bring the craft into disrepute. Nowadays, these 'modes of recognition' are the only part of the ceremonies that Freemasons are bound not to reveal, as a token of their integrity and trust. The remainder of the ceremonial, while not technically secret, is kept private so as not to spoil the experience for the candidate on whose behalf it is being conducted.

Masonic 'secrets' or its 'modes of recognition' may therefore be perceived as metaphorical keys to the doors of the different levels within Freemasonry, and allude to moral values that encourage high personal standards. Advancing in Freemasonry and discovering the messages associated with each level makes them easier to absorb and understand.

Further reading

If you think Freemasonry might be for you, read on...

We do not guarantee that resources accessed via links on the remainder of this page are either Masonic in nature or have been approved or endorsed by the United Grand Lodge of England. We specifically do not warrant that resources accessible from Web sites linked to below are recognised by, or have the approval of, the United Grand Lodge of England.

(with grateful acknowledgement to The Universal Book of Craft Masonry, published by Toye Kenning & Spencer Ltd)