Freemasonry is a fraternal organisation that arose from obscure origins in the late 16th to early 17th century. Freemasonry now exists in various forms all over the world, with a membership estimated at around six million, including approximately 150,000 under the jurisdictions of the Grand Lodge of Scotland and The Grand Lodge of Ireland, over a quarter of a million under the jurisdiction of the United Grand Lodge of England and just under two million in the United States. The fraternity is administratively organized into independent Grand Lodges or sometimes Orients, each of which governs its own jurisdiction, which consists of subordinate (or constituent) Lodges. The various Grand Lodges recognize each other, or not, based upon adherence to landmarks (a Grand Lodge will usually deem other Grand Lodges who share common landmarks to be regular, and those that do not to be “irregular” or “clandestine”). There are also appendant bodies, which are organizations related to the main branch of Freemasonry, but with their own independent administration. The origins and early development of Freemasonry are a matter of some debate and conjecture. There is evidence to suggest that there were Masonic lodges in existence in Scotland as early as the late 16th century. There are clear references to the existence of lodges in England by the mid-17th century. A Lodge (often termed a Private Lodge or Constituent Lodge in Masonic constitutions) is the basic organizational unit of Freemasonry. Every new Lodge must have a Warrant or Charter issued by a Grand Lodge, authorizing it to meet and work. Except for the very few “time immemorial” Lodges pre-dating the formation of a Grand Lodge, masons who meet as a Lodge without displaying this document (for example, in prisoner-of-war camps) are deemed “Clandestine” and irregular. A Lodge must hold regular meetings at a fixed place and published dates. It will elect, initiate and promote its members and officers; it will build up and manage its property and assets, including its minutes and records; and it may own, occupy or share its premises. Like any organization, it will have formal business to manage its meetings and proceedings, annual general meetings and committees, charity funds, correspondence and reports, membership and subscriptions, accounts and tax returns, special events and catering, and so forth. The balance of activities is individual to each Lodge, and under their common constitutions and forms of procedure, Lodges evolve very distinctive traditions. A man can only be initiated, or made a Mason, in a Lodge, of which he may often remain a subscribing member for life. There is no degree in Freemasonry higher than that of Master Mason, the Third Degree. There are, however, a number of organizations that require being a Master Mason as a prerequisite for membership. Candidates for regular Freemasonry are required to declare a belief in a Supreme Being. However, the candidate is not asked to expand on, or explain, his interpretation of Supreme Being. The three degrees of Craft or Blue Lodge Freemasonry are Entered Apprentice – the degree of an Initiate, which makes one a Freemason; Fellow Craft – an intermediate degree, involved with learning; and Master Mason – the “third degree”, a necessity for participation in most aspects of Masonry. Generally, to be accepted for initiation as a regular Freemason, a candidate must
- Be a man who comes of his own free will.
- Believe in a Supreme Being (the form of which is left to open interpretation by the candidate).
- Be at least the minimum age (of 18–25 years old depending on the jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions the son of a Mason, known as a “Lewis,” may join at an earlier age than others).
- Be of good morals, and of good reputation.
- Be of sound mind and body (lodges had in the past denied membership to a man because of a physical disability; however, now, if a potential candidate says a disability will not cause problems, it will not be held against him).
- Be freeborn (or “born free”, i.e., not born a slave or bondsman). As with the previous, this is entirely an historical holdover, and can be interpreted in the same manner as it is in the context of being entitled to write a will. Some jurisdictions have removed this requirement.
- Be capable of furnishing character references, as well as one or two references from current Masons, depending on jurisdiction.
Regular Freemasonry has in its core ritual a formal obligation: to be quiet and peaceable citizens, true to the lawful government of the country in which they live, and not to countenance disloyalty or rebellion. Conspiracy theorists have long associated Freemasonry with the New World Order and the Illuminati, and state that Freemasonry as an organization is either bent on world domination or already secretly in control of world politics. Historically, Freemasonry has attracted criticism – and suppression – from both the political extreme right (e.g. Nazi Germany) and the extreme left (e.g. the former Communist states in Eastern Europe). In some countries anti-Masonry is often related to anti-Semitism 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, anti-semitism 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.”
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