Freemasonry, the teachings and practices of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons, is perhaps better defined by what it is not. There are many different Masonic orders worldwide, and much confusion has arisen in the popular mind as to who Freemasons are, what they believe, and what they do in lodge meetings. Freemasonry is not a religion, nor does it teach a specific theological creed or impose a specific dogma; Freemasons are encouraged to explore such issues for themselves. Freemasonry is not a political organisation and will abstain from direct involvement in political matters and from commenting on them. Freemasonry is more a system of morality that is taught by using allegory, and based on symbols. This may be because it is known from existing records that, in earlier times, stonemasons taught new members morality without infringing on religious matters. In educating their members in medieval times, they performed ritual ‘plays’ based on legends of the origins of the craft of stone masonry.
The actual origins of Freemasonry is a complex topic that has been researched by Masonic scholars for years and, according to the Grand Lodge of England’s website: “…the honest answers to the questions when, where and why Freemasonry originated are that we simply do not know. Early evidence for Freemasonry is very meagre and not enough has yet been discovered – if indeed it even exists – to prove any theory. The general agreement amongst serious Masonic historians and researchers is that Freemasonry has arisen, either directly or indirectly, from the medieval stonemasons (or operative masons) who built great cathedrals and castles.” The early medieval craft guilds are thus worthy of further study in this regard. Other legends central to Freemasonry, such as that of Hiram Abiff, are related to particular sites like Rosslyn Chapel and its symbolism, for instance.
The official beginning of the Grand Lodge of England was in 1717; the Grand Lodge of Ireland, about 1725, followed by the Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1736, and many others after that. However, there is certainly evidence of operative Scottish lodges before 1717, as exemplified by the interesting research of Prof. David Stevenson of St. Andrews and others. Masonic historians themselves are researching this complex topic and, in the coming years, may find more documents and information about this subject. One of the major worldwide Masonic research lodges is the Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076, founded in London in 1886, for the purpose of further research, study, and discussion of Masonic antiquities, history and doctrine. Many other Masonic research lodges also exist worldwide. Another important contemporary centre for further serious study and research is the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre in London.
The three principles of Freemasonry are Brotherly Love, Relief (Charity) and Truth. In lodges today, supporting charitable organisations in the local community is seen as very important. A Freemason is encouraged, according to literature from the Grand Lodge of England, “to do his duty first to his God (by whatever name he is known) through his faith and religious practice, and then, without detriment to his family and those dependent on him, to his neighbour through charity and service”.
Freemasons state that Freemasonry is not a ‘secret society’, but a society with secrets. They say that, as Freemasons are not required to keep their membership a secret, as they can tell anyone they wish, and that members of the public can now tour many lodges and find Masonic books in public libraries, that it is not a secret society per se; rather, it is like many other community organizations. In recent years, Masonic lodges have tried to be more open to the public, for example by being available for media interviews. Some tension has arisen in recent times over a number of issues including alleged influence in the police and judiciary, the exclusion of women from membership of most Masonic orders, and the smaller number of men from ethnic minorities admitted. To their credit, the Grand Lodge of England (among others) has responded since the mid-1980s with a more open policy to the public about its beliefs and policies, in an effort to answer some of these questions directly.
The debates will no doubt continue, and further research is being done by Masonic scholars, academics in related disciplines, and members of the public, to shed more light on Freemasonry, a fascinating subject of interest to many today.
Dr Karen Ralls
- Ralls, K., Gothic Cathedrals: History, Art, Places and Symbolism, Ibis/RedWheelWeiser, FL, 2015 (has medieval-related Guild, geometry, and architectural material, and has an extensive bibliography for both academic and general interest sources & appendices)
- Ralls, K., Medieval Mysteries: History, Places and Symbolism, Ibis/RedWheelWeiser, FL, 2014 (has much medieval Guild, geometry, Rosslyn, and related material, extensive bibliographic references sections, for both academic and general interest categories, and Appendices)
- Ralls, K., The Knights Templar Encyclopedia, Career Press, NJ, 2007 (has medieval Guilds, Grail, geometry, Rosslyn Chapel, and related material)
- Ralls, K., The Templars & the Grail: Knights of the Quest, Quest Books, Chicago, USA, May 2003
- Ralls, K., & Robertson, I., The Quest for the Celtic Key, Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2002;
general, academic, and Masonic books about Freemasonry…
- Coil, H.W., Coil’s Masonic Encyclopedia, Macoy Publishing: New York, 1961
- Collected Prestonian Lectures, Three volumes, London 1984-1988. Vol I: 1925-1960 [Ed] Harry Carr; Vol II: 1961-1974 [Ed] Cyril Batham; Vol III: 1975-1987 [Ed] Rev Neville Barker Cryer
- Cooper, R.L.D., An Account of the Chapel of Roslin, Grand Lodge of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2000;
- Hamill, J., The Craft: A History of English Freemasonry, Crucible: London, 1986
- Hamill, J., and Gilbert, R. [Eds.], Freemasonry: A Celebration of the Craft, Angus Books, London, 2004 (Forward by HRH The Duke of Kent)
- Horne, A, King Solomon’s Temple in Masonic Tradition, Wellingborough, 1972
- Knoop, D., and Jones, GP, & Hamer, D., The Early Masonic Catechisms, Second edition, ed. by Harry Carr, London, 1963
- Lomas, R , The Invisible College: The Royal Society, Freemasonry, And the Birth of Modern Science, 2002;
- MacNulty, W. Kirk, Freemasonry: A Journey through Ritual and Symbol, London, 1991
- Stevenson, D., The Origins of Freemasonry, Cambridge Univ. Press: Cambridge, 1990
- Stevenson, D, The First Freemasons: Scotland’s Early Lodges and their Members, Aberdeen University Press, 1988;
Illustrated lectures and more detailed seminars
by Dr Karen Ralls can be arranged.
Please contact Ancient Quest for details.
Ancient Quest, and Dr. Karen Ralls, do not necessarily agree with, or endorse, material in the publications noted above, but provide this list as a general introduction to learning more about this topic.