Freemasonry as practised today is a world-wide Brotherhood based upon the tenets of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth (in modern parlance, Fellowship, Charity and the pursuit of high ideals). While its ritual is derived from the Old Testament, and particularly the history of the building 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 also served to obscure its origins, despite the best efforts of many Masonic historians to unravel them.
Many elements of Freemasonry derive from the practices of medieval Guilds, notably, of course, the stonemasons. 'Freemason' is generally taken to imply a Brother who, though probably not an operative stonemason, was nevertheless 'accepted' into a Masonic Lodge. Symbolism, uniform and modes of recognition all hark back to the days when it was important for genuine members of the Guild to recognise as well as support one another as they moved from place to place.
Each Lodge has its own Worshipful Master, and the Brethren progress from Entered Apprentice through to Master Mason, each 'degree' having its own ceremony and symbolism through which the candidate is instructed in moral and social virtues. Religion and politics are by long tradition excluded from Lodge discussions.
Modern Freemasonry probably began in Scotland; one John Boswell (an 'Accepted Mason') is recorded as a member of an Edinburgh Lodge in 1600. Elias Ashmole, founder of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, is the first known English Mason, joining in 1646. Four London Lodges founded the first Grand Lodge in 1717. Frederick, Prince of Wales was admitted in 1737. Many Royals and other famous men have been distinguished Masons since then, including Alexander Fleming, the Duke of Wellington, Rudyard Kipling (read "The Man who would be King"), the submariner Tommy Gould, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Davy Crocket, Tom Thumb, Oliver Hardy, John Wayne, Peter Sellers, Ernest Shackleton, J. Edgar Hoover, Jack Dempsey, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Gilbert (and Sullivan!), and Robert Burns.
In 1813 the 'Antient' and 'Modern' Grand Lodges in London amalgamated to form the United Grand Lodge of England. Two Shropshire Lodges pre-date this foundation: Salopian Lodge number 262 (a 'Modern' Lodge) was formed in 1788 and Salopian Lodge of Charity number 117 (one of the last 'Antient' Lodges) in 1810. Both still meet in Shrewsbury.
While the 18th century had seen a huge rise in the popularity of Freemasonry, the 19th saw it spread to every part of the globe. Masonry became particularly popular in the United States (George Washington was a Mason) and survived in the most unlikely places and situations. The 20th century has seen the veil of secrecy drawn tight around the Craft, notably under persecution by the Nazis and under Communism, but in recent times this veil has been lifted. 'Openness' is the new buzzword at the United Grand Lodge of England, which is keen to stress the good work done for Masons and non-Masons alike by its more than 600,000 members
Freemasonry today is thus a world-wide Brotherhood, dedicated to the maintenance of its traditions, its pursuit of a moral lifestyle - and to the enjoyment of good company among like-minded Brethren.