Freemasonry as practised today is a world-wide Brotherhood based upon the tenets of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. While its ritual is derived from the Old Testament and in particular the history of King Solomon’s Temple, Freemasonry is largely non-denominational and not - in its present form at least - much more than four centuries old. The secrecy which has surrounded its ceremonies has served to obscure its origins, despite the attempts of many Masonic historians to unravel the earliest beginnings of the Craft.
Many elements of Masonry derive from the practices of the medieval masonic guild. The name “Freemason” is generally taken to imply a Brother who, though probably not an operative mason, is accepted into a masonic “Lodge”. Symbolism, uniform and modes of recognition all hark back to the days when it was necessary for genuine members of the guild to recognise and support one another as they moved around from place to place. Each Lodge has its own Worshipful Master, elected to serve for a year, and the members of the Lodge progress from the rank of Entered Apprentice towards that of Master Mason, each “Degree” having its own ceremony and symbolism through which the candidate is educated in moral and social virtues.
Modern Freemasonry probably began in Scotland; one John Boswell (a non-stonemason) was recorded as a member of an Edinburgh Lodge in 1600. The first known Freemason in England was Elias Ashmole, who founded Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. He joined in 1646. Membership of the Craft became increasingly fashionable throughout the seventeenth century, and the first Grand Lodge was formed in 1717 by four London Lodges. Frederick, Prince of Wales, was admitted to the Brotherhood in 1737 - the year before the Pope issued the first Papal Bull condemning Freemasonry - and was later followed by other royalty and nobility. Freemasonry among the Royal family today is no longer so common; however Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is Grand Patroness, and the Duke of Kent Grand Master.
The eighteenth century was marked not only by a huge growth in the popularity of Freemasonry and its spread to other areas of the globe, but also by the formalisation of the ceremonies and structure of the Craft. Rival Grand Lodges debated the merits of different beliefs before their Union in 1813, when the “Antients” and the “Moderns” buried their differences to form the United Grand Lodge. Visitors to this page will note that Salopian Lodge of Charity, with a charter dating from 1810, followed the practices of the “Antients” when first established, and remembers its origins to this day, being a member of the Association of Atholl Lodges, so named after the Duke of Atholl, Grand Master of the Antients.
The nineteenth century saw Freemasonry spread to every corner of the globe; the twentieth into every walk of life. Persecution of Masons - notably by the Nazis - contributed to a wall of silence from which the Craft in some countries is only now beginning to emerge. In England and Wales ‘openness’ is the new buzzword, and United Grand Lodge is keen to stress the good work of its more than 600,000 members, whose charitable work raises millions of pounds towards needy - and non-Masonic - causes, as well as providing support for Brethren in trouble. For more information, including a more detailed (and eloquent) description of Freemasonry, visit the web site of the United Grand Lodge of England (see Masonic Links).
As to Masonic ‘secrets’, Masons wish the outside world to respect what they consider to be a private matter. There is nothing sinister in these traditional modes of recognition and symbols, the use of the former being restricted to use within the Lodge room. Abuse of Masonry is against both the spirit and the Constitution of the Craft, and results in expulsion. Most Masons are quite content to be known as such if membership is not likely to be held against them by their employers! This is quite the opposite situation to that which we read in the newspapers from time to time ... Thus Freemasonry today is a world-wide Brotherhood, dedicated to the maintenance of its traditions, its pursuit of a moral lifestyle, mutual support, its charitable work and the pleasure of association with like-minded Brethren.