Freemasonry, largest and most widely established fraternal order in the world. The masons' guilds were originally restricted to stonecutters, but with the completion of the building of the cathedrals in the 17th century, and especially in England during the Reformation, they admitted as members men of wealth or social status. The guilds thus became societies devoted to general ideals, such as fraternity, equality, and peace, and their meetings became social rather than business occasions. Four or more such guilds, called lodges, united in London on June 24, 1717, to form a grand lodge for London and Westminster, which, within six years, became the Grand Lodge of England. This body is the "mother" grand lodge of Freemasons in the world, and from it all recognized grand lodges have been derived. The Grand Lodge of All England was formed at York in 1725, that of Ireland at least by June of the same year, and of Scotland, in 1736. The York body came under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge at London later in the century.
As a result of the patronage of the order by members of the nobility, the rising British mercantile class looked upon Freemasonry as an adjunct to social success, and the order became popular. The Masonic ideals of religious toleration and the basic equality of all people were in keeping with the growing spirit of liberalism during the 18th century. One of the basic tenets of the Masonic orders throughout the English-speaking world has been that religion is the concern solely of the individual. Opposition on the part of the Roman Catholic church has been chiefly on the grounds that Freemasonry, with its binding principles and religious nature, has usurped the prerogatives of the church. As a result, the Freemasons have never been permitted in some strictly Roman Catholic countries, such as Spain. In France, however, following the atheistic and Protestant trend of the French Revolution, the order flourished.
II FUNCTIONS In most English-speaking countries, the charitable and protective features of the fraternity have been responsible for the establishment of Masonic homes for the care of dependent aged Masons and their widows and orphanages and schools for the children of members. The Mason is instructed that his fraternal obligations involving aid to members are to be subordinated to the duty he owes to God, his country, and his family, with full recognition of the duty he owes to humanity. The Masonic fraternity differs radically from the other private benevolent societies, and from the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the next largest private, international, fraternal association, in that the relief or charity extended among members is purely voluntary, dependent on the need in each individual case. It is in no way part of a contract or other understanding that the distress of a brother shall call for specific financial recognition or care. Freemasonry is essentially an educational society, attempting to teach its members a moral philosophy of life.
III FREEMASONS IN AMERICA The earliest of the U.S. lodges, founded by authority of the Grand Lodge of England, were the First Lodge of Boston, established in 1733, and one in Philadelphia, established about the same time. By the time of the American Revolution, about 150 lodges existed in colonial America. American Freemasons today make up about three-fourths of the total number of all members throughout the world; world membership exceeds 6 million.
IV MAJOR SYSTEMS Scores of Masonic rites have sprung up since the 17th century, but only five of any great consequence survive today. Two Masonic systems are called the York Rite and the Scottish Rite. Neither has any connection, historically or otherwise, with York, England, or Scotland. The York Rite was formed in the late 18th century and is called Capitular and the members Royal Arch Masons (4 degrees); the next step is Cryptic and the members Royal and Select Masons (3 degrees); and the final step is Chivalric and the members Knights Templar (3 orders).The Scottish Rite was formed in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1801 (33 degrees including three Symbolic Lodge Degrees).
In many other groups, loosely attached in some way to the York Rite, members are usually selected but sometimes are elected. They are interested in special aspects of Masonry, including Masonic research. One might say they are offshoots of the main stem. Among them are the Royal Order of Scotland, the Allied Masonic Degrees, the Red Cross of Constantine, the Masonic Rosicrucian Society (SRICF), the Rite of Strict Observance (CBCS), the Grand College of Rites, Knight Masons, Order of Corks, the York Cross of Honour, the Blue Friars, and the Holy Royal Arch Knights Templar Priests. There are also what might be called "fun degrees," such as the Shrine, the Grotto, and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon, many of which are of considerable size. In addition some very small groups cater to students of special aspects of the Craft.
For other Mason-affiliated organizations, see Eastern Star, Order of the.
Anti-Masonic sentiment occurred chiefly in two ways since the founding of the order. The first, religious, is the opposition of the Roman Catholic church, although Freemasonry does not bar Catholics and a great many belong to lodges in Latin America and the Philippines. The second is political. For about a decade following the abduction from Batavia, New York, in 1821, of William Morgan, a Freemason who had threatened to publish Masonic secrets and who was commonly thought to have been kidnapped by the Masons, a general outcry was that many Masonic lodges had to be abandoned throughout the eastern and middle states. In the northern states the Anti-Masonic Party was formed; for a few years it was practically the only opponent to the Democratic Party. In 1832 the Anti-Masonic Party nominated a lawyer, William Wirt, as its candidate for the presidency, but he was defeated by Andrew Jackson, who supported Masonry. Ironically, Wirt himself was a Mason. After that date the Freemasons encountered little political opposition in the U.S. or elsewhere, until the rise to power of the National Socialists in Germany in 1933. In that year Hitler charged the Masons with responsibility for various subversive activities, including all the incidents leading to World War I, and decreed the dissolution of all Masonic bodies in Germany.