What is Freemasonry?
Freemasonry is a fraternity whose members come together for the purposes of socializing, performing our antique ritual, and collectively contributing to the needs of others. But such a simple statement of what the fraternity actually does, really misses much of the texture and context of Freemasonry that has men continue to seek membership and actively participate in what, at first glance, might seem to be utterly trivial and hopelessly unfashionable.
We socialize because it is an innate human need. But Masonic sociability includes a mindfulness of all the social virtues, including moderation and forbearance; a commitment to regard each other as brothers as well as just friends; and recognition of our responsibilities as social beings. Our meetings always include a meal or some other refreshment taken together. Lodges and other Masonic groups frequently organize social gatherings, often including spouses and family as well. Indeed, if one so chooses, he could be kept constantly occupied with Masonic social activities. Participation in the fraternity definitely widens our circle of acquaintances to include men of different ages, ethnic groups, occupations, social positions, religions, and political persuasions, whom we might otherwise never have met, and among whom we frequently find close, lifelong friendships, despite those outward differences. Discussions of politics and religion are barred in our meetings, as they tend to inflame the passions and create un-necessary divisions rather than promote brotherhood. Moreover, the days have long since passed when men joined the fraternity in search of some advantageous business, social, or political connections, which they imagined the fraternity afforded. Some fault us for maintaining our traditional male-only membership. But especially in this day and age, when other such venues have all but disappeared, is it not valuable for men to have some place where they can get together with “the guys”, and participate in something a little more worthwhile than just hanging out in a sports bar? Our wives or girlfriends seem to think so, at any rate. So the Masonic fraternity provides some distinctive social outlets, which can supplement those found in organizations based on religious, educational, occupational, or athletic interests.
Our ritual, particularly the ceremonies of conferring the degrees of Freemasonry, is the glue that holds the fraternity together. Performance of Masonic ritual engages all the members of a lodge to some degree or other. These elaborate and antique ceremonies are performed entirely from memory, and require a significant amount of collective work and practice. We gladly do this to give as impressive an experience as possible to our candidates. It is the collective work toward this goal that creates the bonds among the brothers, and all the benefits of brotherhood that such bonds provide. The ritual itself is highly symbolic, incorporates moral lessons, and includes much of the lore and legend of Freemasonry. The ritual we use has existed in much like its current form for a quarter of a millennium, and in recognizably similar forms for longer than that. The legends of the fraternity contained in the ritual, and also contained in Masonic manuscripts that date to the late middle ages, point to an origin of the fraternity in Old Testament Biblical antiquity, although this is almost certainly wishful thinking. Our best evidence suggests that it grew out of organizations of stonemasons in existence since medieval times. But since there is no definitive record of Freemasonry’s origin, many interesting hypotheses have been proposed, not a few of which have left their mark on Masonic symbolism. There are some who are anxious about the word ritual as applied to our ceremonies, believing it to imply either worship or sorcery. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fraternity’s membership always has included clergy from many faiths and denominations, who have not found its ceremonies to be offensive to their religious beliefs.
Charity is one of the fundamental practices of the fraternity. That said, however, it does not mean that Freemasonry is a service organization, or an insurance or benefit society, like some other fraternal groups. Different Masonic groups support different, more narrowly focused needs. In the USA, our preferred beneficiaries are helpless innocents, such as children with burns, dyslexia, diabetes, blindness, physical or mental handicaps, and similar such afflictions. In New Jersey, our lodges are collectively the largest single contributor to the state blood bank. It also is possible to completely fill one’s time with Masonic charity activities, if one chooses. But Masonic charity is as much an individual as a group endeavor. The fraternity seeks to foster a spirit of charity among its members as one of the most significant social virtues that a man can possess, and as the entry point into a larger awareness of the principles of a moral life. As one Masonic writer put it some centuries ago, Freemasonry recalls to our minds the most solemn truths in the midst of the most innocent social pleasures.