What's the real history of the Freemasons? (2024)

What do Rev. Jesse Jackson, George Washington, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Duke Ellington, and Buzz Aldrin have in common? All are members of the world’s largest secret society, the Freemasons—a group whose members include some of the world’s most influential people and whose secretive rituals have persisted for centuries.

Conspiracy theorists speculate the group pulls the strings of international power and finance and is responsible for high-profile murders—some even claim its members worship Satan.

Where is the line between fact and fiction within this secretive society? Read on to learn more.

What's the real history of the Freemasons? (1)

The origins of Freemasonry

Though the Freemasonry movement has roots in medieval guilds of stonemasons, the vast majority of the movement’s members are not masters of stonework. It’s believed that as stonemason membership decreased, the group began accepting “speculative,” or honorary, members to bolster their numbers. Freemasonry’s modern incarnation dates to the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, when educated Englishmen aimed to commune with others and discuss issues of philosophy, religion, and life in an organized setting.

Fraternal organizations had existed for centuries, but in the 18th century, a variety of men’s groups named after the English pubs at which they met joined together in what they called a “Grand Lodge,” an association that would meet to hold rituals and ceremonies and induct new members. Now known as the Premier Grand Lodge of England, the group was the first of its kind, and as membership expanded so did its list of secret rituals and ceremonies and its membership requirements.

According to the Masonic Service Association of North America, there were about 898,000 Freemasons in the U.S. as of 2020, and there are an estimated 6 million Freemasons worldwide.

What's the real history of the Freemasons? (2)
What's the real history of the Freemasons? (3)

Who can be a Freemason?

Today, membership requirements are relatively simple: Though each group, or Lodge, of Freemasons has its own rules, in general a Freemason must be a male who is recommended by other members of the Lodge, believe in a “Supreme Being,” be of good moral character, and pledge to learn the ways of the fraternity and conform to what Freemasons call their “ancient uses and customs.”

Those customs include a strict hierarchy and a variety of ceremonies and rituals. After they are initiated into their lodge, members go through a series of “degrees” of membership, rising from Entered Apprentice to Fellowcraft to Master Mason. Along the way, they learn the language, rites, and beliefs of the “craft,” engaging in rituals that harken to Biblical beliefs . They also adopt emblems that range from the square and compass, which represents morality, the beehive, which is said to represent cooperation and work among members, and the “Eye of Providence” or “All-seeing Eye,” which represents God’s eternal watchfulness. Some of these symbols are so well known that they are familiar to non-Masons—for example, the Eye of Providence can be found on U.S. one dollar bills.

Why Catholicism forbids Freemasonry

When they’re not holding elaborate membership rituals, Freemasons often engage in community service and philanthropy, provide mutual support to members, or work with associated organizations. But despite this charitable focus and the fact that it is not a formal religion, Freemasonry isn’t universally accepted. In fact, Freemasonry is banned by Roman Catholicism, which forbids Catholics from joining and encourages them to associate with Catholic organizations like the Knights of Columbus instead.

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“Their principles have always been considered undesirable by the doctrine of the Church and therefore membership in them remains forbidden,” the Church declared in 1983. “The faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.” As Catholic Herald’s Ed Condon explains, the Church opposes Freemasonry because of its secular focus and its role as a sanctuary for “those with heterodox ideas and agendas.”

Power and panic

Those agendas have long spurred controversy because of the political power wielded by some Freemasons. Though the rules of most lodges discourage members from discussing politics, many of its members are active in political parties and government and the organization’s secrecy and vows of brotherhood have spawned conspiracy theories about its members’ political agendas.

Most conspiracy theories speculate that all Freemasons have the same beliefs and act as a body, tying in with modern anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that associate the group with a shady “New World Order” which controls international finance and relations.

What's the real history of the Freemasons? (7)
What's the real history of the Freemasons? (8)

As a result, Freemasonry has become iconic in popular culture and among non-members who are intrigued by its shady rituals. Yet membership has dwindled for years. Why the decline? Some connect it to a larger trend among fraternal organizations and service clubs like the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, which have seen steep declines over the decades. Others attribute falling membership to the movement’s refusal to recognize women despite the existence of some all-female lodges.

Or perhaps the fall is due to growing public awareness of the movement’s once-secret rituals, historian John Dickie told NPR in 2020. “I think possibly actually the issue is that secrecy has lost something of its magic," Dickie said. “In an age when it can take two minutes or less on Google to find out what the Freemasons' secrets really are, I'm not sure that they can really hold that much mystique for members anymore.”

Despite controversy and condemnation, the movement persists—but only time can tell whether Freemasonry can remain relevant in the 21st century. Meanwhile, its members say they see Freemasonry as everything from a powerful brotherhood to a chance to give back to the community to what one English member calls “an avenue for personal growth and development.” For now, Freemasonry’s secretive rituals and symbols live on—along with the influence of its best-known members.

What's the real history of the Freemasons? (2024)

FAQs

What's the real history of the Freemasons? ›

Freemasonry or Masonry refers to fraternal organisations that trace their origins to the local guilds of stonemasons that, from the end of the 14th century, regulated the qualifications of stonemasons and their interaction with authorities and clients.

What do masons believe in? ›

What do Freemasons believe? Freemasonry has always been religious in character, though it subscribes to no particular orthodoxy. To become a Freemason, the applicant has to be an adult male and must believe in the existence of a supreme being and in the immortality of the soul.

How did Freemasons originate? ›

The origins of Freemasonry

Fraternal organizations had existed for centuries, but in the 18th century, a variety of men's groups named after the English pubs at which they met joined together in what they called a “Grand Lodge,” an association that would meet to hold rituals and ceremonies and induct new members.

Who is the father of Freemasonry? ›

Desaguliers is often described as the "father" of modern freemasonry. It was Desaguliers who inscribed the dedication to Anderson's Constitutions, headed the committee which directed and approved them, and supplied the "Gothic Constitutions" from which they were formed.

What religion condemned Freemasonry? ›

The Catholic Church first prohibited Catholics from membership in Masonic organizations and other secret societies in 1738. Since then, at least eleven popes have made pronouncements about the incompatibility of Catholic doctrines and Freemasonry.

What are the three great principles of freemasonry? ›

Tenets are principles, beliefs or doctrines generally held to be true, especially ones that are held in a common belief by members of an organised society. Thus the key Tenets of Freemasonry are our grand principles of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth.

What are the teachings of the Masons? ›

Freemasons, as speculative masons (meaning philosophical rather than actual building), use this symbolism to teach moral and ethical lessons, such as the four cardinal virtues of Fortitude, Prudence, Temperance, and Justice, and the principles of "Brotherly Love, Relief (or Morality), and Truth" (commonly found in ...

What presidents are Freemason? ›

Poster depicting portraits of the Masonic Presidents of the United States of America, as follows: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Warren G.

What religion is Freemasonry based on? ›

While Freemasonry is not itself a religion, all its members believe in a Supreme Being, or "Grand Architect of the Universe.” Members come from many faiths, but one denomination in particular bars any crossover.

What is the Freemason symbol? ›

The Square and Compasses (or, more correctly, a square and a set of compasses joined) is the single most identifiable symbol of Freemasonry.

What do Masons say at the end of a prayer? ›

"So mote it be" is a ritual phrase used by the Freemasons, in Rosicrucianism, and more recently by Neopagans, meaning "so may it be", "so it is required", or "so must it be", and may be said after the person giving the prayer says 'Amen'.

What is the son of a mason called? ›

It's said that the son of a Freemason who becomes a Freemason in his own right is called a Lewis, named after a simple but ingenious device employed by operative Masons to raise heavy blocks of dressed stone into place.

Who is the saint of Freemasonry? ›

Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist are said to be the Patron Saints of Freemasonry. Combined, they are known as 'The Holy Saints John,' and are prominent in Ohio's, as well as all of Freemasonry's, ritual and degree work.

Was Jesus a mason? ›

Jesus, scholars say, was a mason. He worked in stone, not wood. Instead of saws and nails he handled squares and compasses, chisels and hammers. And he would have been built, himself, like a block of granite.

What do the Masons believe in? ›

To become a Freemason, the applicant has to be an adult male and must believe in the existence of a supreme being and in the immortality of the soul. The teachings of Freemasonry enjoin morality, charity, and obedience to the law of the land.

Can a baptist be a mason? ›

In fact, I discovered numerous Baptist leaders down through the years have been freemasons, some of these men being well known, especially in the Southern Baptist world.

What are Masons in simple terms? ›

Freemasonry is a fraternal organization of men who believe in brotherhood and helping others. Its members are known as "Freemasons" (in full: "Ancient Free and Accepted Masons", or simply "Masons"). Freemasons also help one another in times of hardship. Freemasonry can be found all over the world in various forms.

What are Masons responsible for? ›

Masons build structures with brick, block, and stone, some of the most common and durable materials used in construction. They also use concrete—a mixture of cement, sand, gravel, and water—as the foundation for everything from patios and floors to dams and roads.

What is the Masonic goal? ›

Building good people. Freemasons are focused on building themselves as people of integrity, and membership provides the structure to help achieve that goal. Being a Freemason gives members a sense of purpose, supporting and guiding them on their journey through life.

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