is 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:
There are things they want to do in the
There are things they want to do "inside
their own minds."
They enjoy being together with men they like
(We'll look at some of these things later.)
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
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 and the District of Columbia. 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.
Masonry started in Great Britain, how did it get
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
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.
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 floorplan 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
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:
There are things they want to do in the
There are things they want to do "inside
their own minds."
They enjoy being together with men they like
The Lodge is the center of these activities.
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
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.
does things "inside"
the individual Mason
"Grow or die" is a great law of all nature. Most
people feel a need for continued growth as
individuals. They feel they are not as honest or
as charitable or as compassionate or as loving
or as trusting or as well-informed as they ought
to be. Masonry reminds its members over and over
again of the importance of these qualities and
education. It lets men associate with other men
of honor and integrity who believe that things
like honesty, compassion, love, trust, and
knowledge 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.
enjoy each others 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
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.
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.
Masonry so "Secretive"?
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 clasps with Masonic emblems like the Square
and Compasses, the best known of Masonic signs
which, logically, recall the fraternity's early
symbolic 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
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
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.
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." Freemasonry got ranked
with them. But if Masonry is a secret society,
it's the worst-kept secret in the world.
Masonry a religion?
simple answer is NO
We do use ritual in 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 "religion."
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
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 to 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
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
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.
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
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 world.
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
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
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. For example, the gavel
teaches the importance of self-control and
self-discipline. The hour-glass teaches us that
time is always passing, and we should not put
off important decisions.
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 started there.
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.
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 legal ways.
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.
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;
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.
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 with and care about others, to trust
each other, and to place ultimate trust in God.
No one should be "talked into" making such a
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
So, What's a Mason?
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 Century and Grand
Chaplain, Grand Lodge of Iowa, 1911-1913.
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 virtue.
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 fellowman.
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
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 little child.
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 without
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 be.
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
When he knows how to pray, how to love, how to
When he has kept faith with himself, with his
fellowman, 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.
The above document is reproduced here with the
permission of the Masonic Service Association of
This document, in pamphlet form, is available
from the Masonic Information Center.
The Masonic Information Center is a division of
The Masonic Service Association. The Center was
founded in 1993 by a grant from John J.
Robinson, well-known author, speaker, and Mason.
Its purpose is to provide information on
Freemasonry to Masons and non-Masons alike and
to respond to critics of Freemasonry. The Center
is directed by a Steer Committee of
distinguished Masons geographically
representative of the Craft throughout the
United States and Canada.
obtain copies of "What's A Mason?" write:
Masonic Information Center
8120 Fenton Street
Silver Spring, MD 20910-4785
(301) 588-4010 Fax: (301) 608-3457