The secret and fraternal organizations believed to have evolved from the medieval guilds of the stonemasons.
Membership is open to men only, requires no allegiance to a single faith or religion, although belief in God is necessary, and aims to enable members to meet in harmony, to promote friendship, and to be charitable. The orders provide a network for business, professional and social success and advancement.
It has also been suggested that Freemasonry was introduced into Europe by the Knights Templar. It would be hard to discover a similar institution which in the view of some authorities had not been founded by that order; and it is hard to believe that the proud chivalry of Norman times would have claimed any connection whatsoever with an operative craft. Nevertheless there are indications that Scottish Rite Masonry has strong Templar influences.
The basic unit of freemasonry is the lodge, which exists under a charter issued by a grand lodge exercising administrative powers. The lodges are linked together informally by a system of mutual recognition between lodges that meet the Masonic requirements. The lodge confers three degrees: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason. Additional degrees are conferred by two groups of advanced freemasonry: the York Rite, which awards 12 degrees, and the Scottish Rite, which awards 30 higher degrees.
Many legendary theories exist concerning the origin of Freemasonry, but it is generally linked to the development of medieval craft guilds of stonemasons. Small numbers of skilled stonemasons would travel between towns to build churches and cathedrals commissioned by the clergy. To protect their knowledge they organized into guilds, complete with passwords, rules of procedure, payment and religious devotion. How the membership of the guilds changed to clubs or lodges attracting largely unskilled, honorary membership is unclear, but Freemasonry's present organizational form began on June 24, 1717, when a grand lodge was formed in London. Since that time lodges have spread all over the world with local grand lodges formed whenever enough lodges exist in an area.
At various times and places freemasonry has met religious and political opposition. Religious opponents, especially the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, have traditionally claimed that freemasonry is a religion and is a secret organization. A papal ban on Roman Catholic membership in Masonic lodges was rescinded in 1983.
Many masons of the middle of the 17th century, such as Robert Moray and Elias Ashmole, were diligent students of occult science. and Sir Christopher Wren was a student of hermetic art.
Freemasons hold that the organization is religious but not a religion, and that it is not a secret organization since it works openly in the community. Freemasonry has always been suppressed in totalitarian states. There are approximately 4.8 million Freemasons in regular lodges scattered around the world. Many notable men in history have been Freemasons, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Christopher Wren, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford, Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, George Washington and various other American presidents.
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Sources: (1) Dictionary of the Occult, Caxton Publishing; (2) Spence, Lewis, An Encyclopedia of Occultism, Carol Publishing Group; (3) Zolar, Encyclopedia of Ancient and Forbidden Knowledge, Souvenir Press Ltd; (4) The Encyclopaedia Britannica Eleventh Edition Handy Volume Edition, Oxford University Press.
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