What's a Mason?
This is the text of a booklet by the same name produced by The Masonic
Information Center, a division of the Masonic Service association. Its numerous
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"I think my grandfather was one, but I'm not sure what it
"Yeah, my dad and uncle both used to go to Masonic meetings I remember
Uncle Fred coming by to pick him up. But I don't know where they went or what
"I think they wear those funny hats."
"I remember when I went away to college, my father showed me his ring and
told me, if I ever needed help, I should look for a man with a ring like that
and tell him I was the daughter of a Mason, but he never told me much about
What's a Mason?
That's not a surprising question. Even though Masons (Freemasons) are members of
the largest and oldest fraternity in the world, and even though almost everyone
has a father or grandfather or uncle who was a Mason, many people aren't quite
certain just who Masons are.
The answer is simple. A Mason (or Freemason) is a member of a fraternity known
as Masonry (or Freemasonry). A fraternity is a group of men (just as a sorority
is a group of women) who join together because:
(We'll look at some of these things later.)
- There are things they want to do in the world.
- There are things they want to do "inside their own minds."
- They enjoy being together with men they like and respect.
Masonry (or Freemasonry) is the oldest fraternity in the world. No one knows
just how old it is because the actual origins have been lost in time. Probably,
it arose from the guilds of stonemasons who built the castles and cathedrals of
the Middle Ages. Possibly, they were influenced by the Knights Templar, a group
of Christian warrior monks formed in 1118 to help protect pilgrims making trips
to the Holy Land.
In 1717, Masonry created a formal organization in England when the first Grand
Lodge was formed. A Grand Lodge is the administrative body in charge of Masonry
in some geographical area. In the United States, there is a Grand Lodge in each
state. In Canada, there is a Grand Lodge in each province. Local organizations
of Masons are called lodges. There are lodges in most towns, and large cities
usually have several. There are about 13,200 lodges in the United States.
If Masonry started in Great Britain, how did it get to America?
In a time when travel was by horseback and sailing ship, Masonry spread with
amazing speed. By 1731, when Benjamin Franklin joined the fraternity, there were
already several lodges in the Colonies, and Masonry spread rapidly as America
expanded west. In addition to Franklin, many of the Founding Fathers -- men such
as George Washington, Paul Revere, Joseph Warren, and John Hancock -- were
Masons. Masons and Masonry played an important part in the Revolutionary War and
an even more important part in the Constitutional Convention and the debates
surrounding the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Many of those debates were
held in Masonic lodges.
What's a lodge?
The word "lodge" means both a group of Masons meeting in some place
and the room or building in which they meet. Masonic buildings are also
sometimes called "temples" because much of the symbolism Masonry uses
to teach its lessons comes from the building of King Solomon's Temple in the
Holy Land. The term "lodge" itself comes from the structures which the
stonemasons built against the sides of the cathedrals during construction. In
winter, when building had to stop, they lived in these lodges and worked at
While there is some variation in detail from state to state and country to
country, lodge rooms today are set up similar to the diagram on the following
If you've ever watched C-SPAN's coverage of the House of Commons in London,
you'll notice that the layout is about the same. Since Masonry came to America
from England, we still use the English floor plan and English titles for the
officers. The Worshipful Master of the Lodge sits in the East
("Worshipful" is an English term of respect which means the same thing
as "Honorable.") He is called the Master of the lodge for the same
reason that the leader of an orchestra is called the "Concert Master."
It's simply an older term for "Leader." In other organizations, he
would be called "President." The Senior and Junior Wardens are the
First and Second Vice-Presidents. The Deacons are messengers and the Stewards
have charge of refreshments.
Every lodge has an altar holding a "Volume of the Sacred Law." In the
United States and Canada, that is almost always a Bible.
What goes on in a lodge?
This is a good place to repeat what we said earlier about why men become Masons:
The Lodge is the center of those activities.
- There are things they want to do in the world.
- There are things they want to do "inside their own minds."
- They enjoy being together with men they like and respect.
Masonry Does Things in the World.
Masonry teaches that each person has a responsibility to make things better
in the world. Most individuals won't be the ones to find a cure for cancer, or
eliminate poverty, or help create world peace, but every man and woman and child
can do something to help others and to make things a little better. Masonry is
deeply involved with helping people -- it spends more than $1.4 million dollars
every day in the United States, just to make life a little easier. And the great
majority of that help goes to people who are not Masons. Some of these charities
are vast projects, like the Crippled Children's Hospitals and Burns Institutes
built by the Shriners. Also, Scottish Rite Masons maintain a nationwide network
of over 100 Childhood Language Disorders Clinics, Centers, and Programs. Each
helps children afflicted by such conditions as aphasia, dyslexia, stuttering,
and related learning or speech disorders. Some services are less noticeable,
like helping a widow pay her electric bill or buying coats and shoes for
disadvantaged children. And there's just about anything you can think of
in-between. But with projects large or small, the Masons of a lodge try to help
make the world a better place. The lodge gives them a way to combine with others
to do even more good.
Masonry does things "inside" the individual Mason.
"Grow or die" is a great law of all nature. Most people feel a need
for continued growth and development as individuals. They feel they are not as
honest or as charitable or as compassionate or as loving or as trusting as they
ought to be. Masonry reminds its members over and over again of the importance
of these qualities. It lets men associate with other men of honor and integrity
who believe that things like honesty and compassion and love and trust are
important. In some ways, Masonry is a support group for men who are trying to
make the right decisions. It's easier to practice these virtues when you know
that those around you think they are important, too, and won't laugh at you.
That's a major reason that Masons enjoy being together.
Masons enjoy each other's company.
It's good to spend time with people you can trust completely, and most Masons
find that in their lodge. While much of lodge activity is spent in works of
charity or in lessons in self-development, much is also spent in fellowship.
Lodges have picnics, camping trips, and many events for the whole family. Simply
put, a lodge is a place to spend time with friends.
For members only, two basic kinds of meetings take place in a lodge. The most
common is a simple business meeting. To open and close the meeting, there is a
ceremony whose purpose is to remind us of the virtues by which we are supposed
to live. Then there is a reading of the minutes; voting on petitions
(applications of men who want to join the fraternity); planning for charitable
functions, family events, and other lodge activities; and sharing information
about members (called "Brothers," as in most fraternities) who are ill
or have some sort of need. The other kind of meeting is one in which people join
the fraternity -- one at which the "degrees" are performed.
But every lodge serves more than its own members. Frequently, there are meetings
open to the public. Examples are Ladies' Nights, "Brother Bring a Friend
Nights," public installations of officers, Cornerstone Laying ceremonies,
and other special meetings supporting community events and dealing with topics
of local interest.
What's a degree?
A degree is a stage or level of membership. It's also the ceremony by which a
man attains that level of membership. There are three, called Entered
Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. As you can see, the names are taken
from the craft guilds. In the Middle Ages, when a person wanted to join a craft,
such as the gold smiths or the carpenters or the stonemasons, he was first
apprenticed. As an apprentice, he learned the tools and skills of the trade.
When he had proved his skills, he became a "Fellow of the Craft"
(today we would say "Journeyman"), and when he had exceptional
ability, he was known as a Master of the Craft.
The degrees are plays in which the candidate participates. Each degree uses
symbols to teach, just as plays did in the Middle Ages and as many theatrical
productions do today. (We'll talk about symbols a little later.)
The Masonic degrees teach the great lessons of life -- the importance of honor
and integrity, of being a person on whom others can rely, of being both trusting
and trustworthy, of realizing that you have a spiritual nature as well as a
physical or animal nature, of the importance of self-control, of knowing how to
love and be loved, of knowing how to keep confidential what others tell you so
that they can "open up" without fear.
Why is Masonry so "secretive"?
It really isn't "secretive," although it sometimes has that
reputation. Masons certainly don't make a secret of the fact that they are
members of the fraternity. We wear rings, lapel pins and tie tacks with Masonic
emblems like the Square and Compasses, the best known of Masonic signs which,
logically, recalls the fraternity's roots in stonemasonry. Masonic buildings are
clearly marked, and are usually listed in the phone book. Lodge activities are
not secret picnics and other events are even listed in the newspapers,
especially in smaller towns. Many lodges have answering machines which give the
upcoming lodge activities. But there are some Masonic secrets, and they fall
into two categories.
The first are the ways in which a man can identify himself as a Mason -- grips
and passwords. We keep those private for obvious reasons. It is not at all
unknown for unscrupulous people to try to pass themselves off as Masons in order
to get assistance under false pretenses.
The second group is harder to describe, but they are the ones Masons usually
mean if we talk about "Masonic secrets." They are secrets because they
literally can't be talked about, can't be put into words. They are the changes
that happen to a man when he really accepts responsibility for his own life and,
at the same time, truly decides that his real happiness is in helping others.
It's a wonderful feeling, but it's something you simply can't explain to another
person. That's why we sometimes say that Masonic secrets cannot ( rather than
"may not") be told. Try telling someone exactly what you feel when you
see a beautiful sunset, or when you hear music, like the national anthem, which
suddenly stirs old memories, and you'll understand what we mean.
"Secret societies" became very popular in America in the late 1800s
and early 1900s. There were literally hundreds of them, and most people belonged
to two or three. Many of them were modeled on Masonry, and made a great point of
having many "secrets." And Masonry got ranked with them. But if
Masonry is a secret society, it's the worst-kept secret in town.
Is Masonry a religion?
The answer to that question is simple. No.
We do use ritual in the meetings, and because there is always an altar or table
with the Volume of the Sacred Law open if a lodge is meeting, some people have
confused Masonry with a religion, but it is not. That does not mean that
religion plays no part in Masonry -- it plays a very important part. A person
who wants to become a Mason must have a belief in God. No atheist can ever
become a Mason. Meetings open with prayer, and a Mason is taught, as one of the
first lessons of Masonry, that one should pray for divine counsel and guidance
before starting an important undertaking. But that does not make Masonry a
Sometimes people confuse Masonry with a religion because we call some Masonic
buildings "temples." But we use the word in the same sense that
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called the Supreme Court a "Temple of
Justice" and because a Masonic lodge is a symbol of the Temple of Solomon.
Neither Masonry nor the Supreme Court is a religion just because its members
meet in a "temple."
In some ways, the relationship between Masonry and religion is like the
relationship between the Parent-Teacher Association (the P.T.A.) and education.
Members of the P.T.A. believe in the importance of education. They support it.
They assert that no man or woman can be a complete and whole individual or live
up to his or her full potential without education. They encourage students to
stay in school and parents to be involved with the education of their children.
They may give scholarships. They encourage their members to get involved with
and support their individual schools.
But there are some things P.T.A.s do not do. They don't teach. They don't tell
people which school to attend. They don't try to tell people what they should
study or what their major should be.
In much the same way, Masons believe in the importance of religion. Masonry
encourages every Mason to be active in the religion and church of his own
choice. Masonry teaches that, without religion, a man is alone and lost, and
that without religion, he can never reach his full potential.
But Freemasonry does not tell a person which religion he should practice or how
he should practice it. That is between the individual and God. That is the
function of his house of worship, not his fraternity. And Masonry is a
fraternity, not a religion.
What is a Masonic Bible?
Bibles are popular gifts among Masons, frequently given to a man when he joins
the lodge or at other special events. A Masonic Bible is the same book anyone
thinks of as a Bible (it's usually the King James translation) with a special
page in the front on which to write the name of the person who is receiving it
and the occasion on which it is given. Sometimes there is a special index or
information section which shows the person where in the Bible to find the
passages which are quoted in the Masonic ritual.
If Masonry isn't a religion, why does it use ritual?
Many of us may think of religion when we think of ritual, but ritual is used in
every aspect of life. It's so much a part of us that we just don't notice it.
Ritual simply means that some things are done more or less the same way each
Almost all school assemblies, for example, start with the principal or some
other official calling for the attention of the group. Then the group is led in
the Pledge of Allegiance. A school choir or the entire group may sing the school
song. That's a ritual.
Almost all business meetings of every sort call the group to order, have a
reading of the minutes of the last meeting, deal with old business, then with
new business. That's a ritual. Most groups use Robert's Rules of Order
to conduct a meeting. That's probably the best-known book of ritual in the
There are social rituals which tell us how to meet people (we shake hands), how
to join a conversation (we wait for a pause, and then speak), how to buy tickets
to a concert (we wait in line and don't push in ahead of those who were there
first). There are literally hundreds of examples, and they are all rituals.
Masonry uses a ritual because it's an effective way to teach important ideas --
the values we've talked about earlier. And it reminds us where we are, just as
the ritual of a business meeting reminds people where they are and what they are
supposed to be doing.
Masonry's ritual is very rich because it is so old. It has developed over
centuries to contain some beautiful language and ideas expressed in symbols. But
there's nothing unusual in using ritual. All of us do it every day.
Why does Masonry use symbols?
Everyone uses symbols every day, just as we do ritual. We use them because they
communicate quickly. When you see a stop sign , you know what it means, even if
you can't read the word "stop." The circle and line mean
"don't" or "not allowed." In fact, using symbols is probably
the oldest way of communication and the oldest way of teaching.
Masonry uses symbols for the same reason. Some form of the "Square and
Compasses" is the most widely used and known symbol of Masonry. In one way,
this symbol is a kind of trademark for the fraternity, as the "golden
arches" are for McDonald's. When you see the Square and Compasses on a
building, you know that Masons meet there.
And like all symbols, they have a meaning.
The Square symbolizes things of the earth, and it also symbolizes honor,
integrity, truthfulness, and the other ways we should relate to this world and
the people in it. The Compasses symbolize things of the spirit, and the
importance of a well-developed spiritual life, and also the importance of
self-control -- of keeping ourselves within bounds. The G stands for Geometry,
the science which the ancients believed most revealed the glory of God and His
works in the heavens, and it also stands for God, Who must be at the center of
all our thoughts and of all our efforts.
The meanings of most of the other Masonic symbols are obvious. The gavel teaches
the importance of self-control and self-discipline. The hourglass teaches us
that time is always passing, and we should not put off important decisions.
So, is Masonry education?
Yes. In a very real sense, education is at the center of Masonry. We have
stressed its importance for a very long time. Back in the Middle Ages, schools
were held in the lodges of stonemasons. You have to know a lot to build a
cathedral -- geometry, and structural engineering, and mathematics, just for a
start. And that education was not very widely available. All the formal schools
and colleges trained people for careers in the church, or in law or medicine.
And you had to be a member of the social upper classes to go to those schools.
Stonemasons did not come from the aristocracy. And so the lodges had to teach
the necessary skills and information. Freemasonry's dedication to education
It has continued. Masons started some of the first public schools in both Europe
and America. We supported legislation to make education universal. In the 1800s
Masons as a group lobbied for the establishment of state supported education and
federal land grant colleges. Today we give millions of dollars in scholarships
each year. We encourage our members to give volunteer time to their local
schools, buy classroom supplies for teachers, help with literacy programs, and
do everything they can to help assure that each person, adult or child, has the
best educational opportunities possible.
And Masonry supports continuing education and intellectual growth for its
members, insisting that learning more about many things is important for anyone
who wants to keep mentally alert and young.
What does Masonry teach?
Masonry teaches some important principles. There's nothing very surprising in
the list. Masonry teaches that:
Since God is the Creator, all men and women are the children of God.
Because of that, all men and women are brothers and sisters, entitled to
dignity, respect for their opinions, and consideration of their feelings.
Each person must take responsibility for his/her own life and actions.
Neither wealth nor poverty, education nor ignorance, health nor sickness excuses
any person from doing the best he or she can do or being the best person
possible under the circumstances.
No one has the right to tell another person what he or she must think or
believe. Each man and woman has an absolute right to intellectual,
spiritual, economic, and political freedom. This is a right given by God, not by
man. All tyranny, in every form, is illegitimate.
Each person must learn and practice self-control. Each person must make
sure his spiritual nature triumphs over his animal nature. Another way to say
the same thing is that even when we are tempted to anger, we must not be
violent. Even when we are tempted to selfishness, we must be charitable. Even
when we want to "write someone off," we must remember that he or she
is a human and entitled to our respect. Even when we want to give up, we must go
on. Even when we are hated, we must return love, or, at a minimum, we must not
hate back. It isn't easy!
Faith must be in the center of our lives. We find that faith in our
houses of worship, not in Freemasonry, but Masonry constantly teaches that a
person's faith, whatever it may be, is central to a good life.
Each person has a responsibly to be a good citizen, obeying the law.
That doesn't mean we can't try to change things, but change must take place in
It is important to work to make this world better for all who live in it.
Masonry teaches the importance of doing good, not because it assures a person's
entrance into heaven -- that's a question for a religion, not a fraternity --
but because we have a duty to all other men and women to make their lives as
fulfilling as they can be.
Honor and integrity are essential to life. Life, without honor and
integrity, is without meaning.
What are the requirements for membership?
The person who wants to join Masonry must be a man (it's a fraternity), sound in
body and mind, who believes in God, is at least the minimum age required by
Masonry in his state, and has a good reputation. (Incidentally, the "sound
in body" requirement -- which comes from the stonemasons of the Middle Ages
-- doesn't mean that a physically challenged man cannot be a Mason; many are).
Those are the only "formal" requirements. But there are others, not so
formal. He should believe in helping others. He should believe there is more to
life than pleasure and money. He should be willing to respect the opinions of
others. And he should want to grow and develop as a human being.
How does a man become a Mason?
Some men are surprised that no one has ever asked them to become a Mason. They
may even feel that the Masons in their town don't think they are "good
enough" to join. But it doesn't work that way. For hundreds of years,
Masons have been forbidden to ask others to join the fraternity. We can talk to
friends about Masonry, we can tell them about what Masonry does. We can tell
them why we enjoy it. But we can't ask, much less pressure anyone to join.
There's a good reason for that. It isn't that we're trying to be exclusive. But
becoming a Mason is a very serious thing. Joining Masonry is making a permanent
life commitment to live in certain ways. We've listed most of them above -- to
live with honor and integrity, to be willing to share and care about others, to
trust each other, and to place ultimate trust in God. No one should be
"talked into" making such a decision.
So, when a man decides he wants to be a Mason, he asks a Mason for a petition or
application. He fills it out and gives it to the Mason, and that Mason takes it
to the local lodge. The Master of the lodge will appoint a committee to visit
with the man and his family, find out a little about him and why he wants to be
a Mason, tell him and his family about Masonry, and answer their questions. The
committee reports to the lodge, and the lodge votes on the petition. If the vote
is affirmative -- and it usually is -- the lodge will contact the man to set the
date for the Entered Apprentice Degree. When the person has completed all three
degrees, he is a Master Mason and a full member of the fraternity.
So, what's a Mason?
A Mason is a man who has decided that he likes to feel good about himself and
others. He cares about the future as well as the past, and does what he can,
both alone and with others, to make the future good for everyone.
Many men over many generations have answered the question, "What is a
Mason?" One of the most eloquent was written by the Reverend Joseph Fort
Newton, an internationally honored minister of the first half of the 20th
When is a man a Mason?
When he can look out over the rivers, the hills, and the far
horizon with a profound sense of his own littleness in the vast scheme of
things, and yet have faith, hope, and courage which is the root of every
When he knows that down in his heart every man is as noble, as vile, as
divine, as diabolic, and as lonely as himself, and seeks to know, to forgive,
and to love his fellow man.
When he knows how to sympathize with men in their sorrows, yea, even in their
sins knowing that each man fights a hard fight against many odds.
When he has learned how to make friends and to keep them, and above all how to
keep friends with himself When he loves flowers, can hunt birds without a gun,
and feels the thrill of an old forgotten joy when he hears the laugh of a
When he can be happy and high-minded amid the meaner drudgeries of life.
When star-crowned trees and the glint of sunlight on flowing waters, subdue
him like the thought of one much loved and long dead.
When no voice of distress reaches his ears in vain, and no hand seeks his aid
When he finds good in every faith that helps any man to lay hold of divine
things and sees majestic meanings in life, whatever the name of that faith may
When he can look into a wayside puddle and see something beyond mud, and into
the face of the most forlorn fellow mortal and see something beyond sin.
When he knows how to pray, how to love, how to hope.
When he has kept faith with himself with his fellow man, and with his God; in
his hand a sword for evil, in his heart a bit of a song -- glad to live, but
not afraid to die!
Such a man has found the only real secret of Masonry, and the one which it is
trying to give to all the world.