"Definitions" of Freemasonry
There is no single, "official" definition of Freemasonry. In fact, there is no single or "official" leader or ruling body of Freemasonry. In the United States, in each state there are one or more Grand Lodges, each of which can define Freemasonry any way it wishes, and the same is true in most countries in the world. Many Grand Lodges do not even define Freemasonry, but allow each of their members to define Freemasonry any way they wish.
Here is a definition of Freemasonry that I think is appropriate:
Freemasonry is an organization whose goals include:
Helping its members improve themselves through education and improved knowledge of themselves and others.
Brotherhood of all people and tolerance of differences among people.
Support of democracy, freedom, individual rights, and the dignity of all people.
Mutual assistance, including helping fellow members' families.
Charity and assistance to the community, especially those in need.
Click on the following to see links to several webpages that attempt to answer the question, "What is Freemasonry?"
Some Masonic writers and researchers have written their own definitions of Freemasonry, as follows.
William Preston said Freemasonry’s role is spreading knowledge. Masons should study and learn more about all subjects. Another idea is that Freemasonry's purpose is the perfection of humanity by organizing the moral sentiments of mankind, improving law and government. George Oliver felt Freemasonry is best understood in relation to the philosophy of religion, as a means for us to know God and his works, by handing down tradition. Albert Pike said that Freemasonry is a method of studying basic principles and its goal is to reveal and give us possession of the universal principle by which we may master the universe, the Absolute. We should study the allegories and symbols of Freemasonry until they reveal the light to each of us individually.
Roscoe Pound and others in the early 1900's talked about a modern approach, that Freemasonry's goal is to preserve, develop, and transmit to posterity the civilization passed on to us, by insisting on the universality of mankind and the transmission of an immemorial tradition of human solidarity. William E. Hammond talked of moral discipline, where Masonry produces the finest type of character and culture through fellowship and mutual helpfulness. Joseph Fort Newton said Freemasonry is a form of public service and public mindedness. We have a social duty to help our neighbors by work in our communities, to promote the freedoms of the mind unhampered by dictation by anyone, with education for all to maintain democracy, and to unite people in common service for mankind.
Allen E. Roberts and Albert Mackey said Masonry is a system of ethics and brotherhood, making men better not just to themselves but to each other. It teaches the meaning of life and death, with the search for the lost word, the attempt to find God's truth in our lives. We should act towards others as we want them to act towards us, with faith in the social, eternal, and intellectual progress of mankind.
Arthur E. Waite and W.L. Wilmshurst wrote about Masonry as essentially a spiritual activity. Waite described it as the mysticism of a first-hand experience with God, with symbols for those who are not yet capable of understanding. Wilmshurst talked of spiritual life as the meaning of the Masonic ritual and symbols, all leading toward a path of life higher than we normally tread, an inner world where the ancient mysteries of our being are to be learned. J.S.M. Ward described Freemasonry as combining ideals -- political, social, ritualistic, archeological (historical) and mystical into the "great" idea. W. Kirk MacNulty described Freemasonry as a method to learn more about our own minds, and to transform our being to a higher plane where we are reborn in a higher state. He used recent understanding of the psychological needs of all people to explain the role of Freemasonry in the life of every Mason.
H.L. Haywood said Freemasonry is a system of ethics, showing each man the way toward a new birth of his nature as symbolized in the Hiram Abif drama, bringing divine power to bear on each individual. The great teachings of Freemasonry are equality, which is synonymous with Masonry, meaning the equal right of all people to use our own minds and abilities; liberty, meaning the unhindered full exercise of our nature and mind; and the right of people to govern themselves, even if they sometimes make mistakes. He was optimistic about the human ability to improve through education, to enrich human life with the human family living happily together.
Henry Wilson Coil, in Coil's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, (Macoy Publishing, Richmond, Virginia, 1961, revised edition 1995, pages 164-165) listed definitions of Freemasonry in different categories:
Definition of Freemasonry in all times and places
Freemasonry is an oath-bound fraternal order of men; deriving from the medieval fraternity of operative Freemasons; adhering to many of their Ancient Charges, laws, customs, and legends; loyal to the civil government under which it exists; inculcating moral and social virtues by symbolic application of the working tools of the stonemasons and by allegories, lectures, and charges; the members of which are obligated to observe principles of brotherly love, equality, mutual aid and assistance, secrecy, and confidence; have secret modes of recognizing one another as Masons when abroad in the world; and meet in lodges, each governed somewhat autocratically by a Master, assisted by Wardens, where petitioners, after particular enquiry into their mental, moral and physical qualifications, are formally admitted into the Society in secret ceremonies based in part on old legends of the Craft.
Every Masonic lodge in existence or that ever has existed, so far as known, answers that description; no other order that exists or ever has existed does so.
Definition of Modern Craft Masonry, supplementing the above definition
In modern times, the Fraternity has spread over the civilized portions of the globe and has experienced some mutations in its organization, doctrine, and practices, so that lodges have come to be subordinate to, or constituent of, Grand Lodges presided over by Grand Masters, each sovereign within a given nation, state, or other political subdivision, and there is generally, though not universally, inculcated in, and demanded of the candidate, who ordinarily seeks admission of his own free will and accord, a belief in a Supreme Being and, less generally, in immortality of the soul, the Holy Bible or other Volume of Sacred Law being displayed in the lodge and used for the obligation of the candidate during his course through the three degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason, the last including the legend of King Solomon's Temple and Hiram Abif, though additional degrees and ceremonies are not found objectionable in some jurisdictions.
Definition of Freemasonry in its broadest sense:
Freemasonry, in its broadest and most comprehensive sense, is a system of morality and social ethics, and a philosophy of life, all of simple and fundamental character, incorporating a broad humanitarianism and, though treating life as a practical experience, subordinates the material to the spiritual; it is of no sect but finding truth in all; it is moral but not pharisaic; it demands sanity rather than sanctity; it is tolerant but not supine; it seeks truth but does not define truth; it urges it votaries to think but does not tell them what to think; it despises ignorance but does not proscribe the ignorant; it fosters education but proposes no curriculum; it espouses political liberty and the dignity of man but has no platform or propaganda; it believes in the nobility and usefulness of life; it is modest and not militant; it is moderate, universal, and so liberal as to permit each individual to form and express his own opinion, even as to what Freemasonry is or ought to be, and invites him to improve it if he can.
Freemasonry is a Fraternity composed of moral men of legal age who believe in God and, of their own free will, receive in lodges degrees which depict a system of morality that, as they grow in maturity, teaches them to be tolerant of the beliefs of others, to be patriotic, law-abiding, temperate in all things, to aid the unfortunate, to practice Brotherly Love, and to faithfully accept and discharge solemn obligations..
It is governed by a Grand Lodge which is composed of Grand Officers and representatives of all of the regular lodges within its Jurisdiction, and selects a Grand Master periodically to rule over the organization within the framework of the Constitutions of Freemasonry as adapted for its particular needs.
In short, Freemasonry is a way of life. As an organization, its purpose is to make good men better.
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