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Freemasonry explained: a guide to the secretive society

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When did it begin, is it a religion, and are its members’ identities kept secret?

 

Masonic square and compasses symbol

 

When did Freemasonry begin?

The first grand lodge, established to govern Freemasonry in England and Wales, was formed in 1717, during a meeting at a pub in the City of London called the Goose and Gridiron. At that time there were four lodges in the city. But in Scotland, a masonic lodge in Edinburgh has records to show that it has been in existence since at least 1599. During the early 18th century, Freemasonry spread quickly to Europe and the colonies.

 

Why are they so secretive?

Freemasonry’s guiding metaphor is the craft of stonemasonry: it models itself upon the fraternities of medieval stonemasons who would use secret words and symbols to recognise each others’ legitimacy, and so protect their work from outsiders. During some periods of history, Freemasons have been persecuted – by the Nazis, for example – and have needed to go underground to survive. But there are persistent suspicions that Freemasons also  in order to conceal the way in which they can assist each other in business and the workplace.

 

Is there any substance to these claims?

Such rumours are very rarely substantiated, and masons are expected to swear an oath that they will not be involved in “any act that may have a tendency to subvert the peace and good order of society, by paying due obedience to the laws of any state”. But parliament’s home affairs select committee heard that in 1995, the Lancashire police authority was obliged to pay £70,000 to a father and son who were assaulted and then arrested and prosecuted after stumbling on a masonic dinner being hosted by a lodge dominated by police officers. The committee heard that a police officer who investigated the fracas was a mason, as was the manager of the hotel where the dinner took place.

 

Is Freemasonry a religion?

No, it is a secular movement, although new members are expected to acknowledge a belief in a God-like superior being, often called the Grand or Great Architect of the Universe. Anyone believing in a single deity may be admitted. Rudyard Kipling, who was a member of a masonic lodge in Lahore, wrote a number of poems about his fellow masons who were Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews. In theory, all discussion of religion and politics is prohibited within lodges.

 

Are the identities of all Freemasons kept secret?

No, individual masons can declare themselves if they wish, and the names of senior officers of the brotherhood in England and Wales can be found in a masonic year book. The grand master is the Duke of Kent. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is a member of a navy lodge. Others who have declared their membership in recent years include the Rev Jesse Jackson, the former astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and musician Rick Wakeman. However, a great many masons do not disclose their membership outside the brotherhood.

 

A civil conversation…

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