Freemasons have a centuries-long history of mystery and sparking speculation about their existence and motives. Officially, the Freemasons are the oldest and largest fraternal order in the world. Unofficially, they’re a secret society that has helped shape modern society. So, who are the Freemasons, and what exactly do they do?

History of Freemasonry

Ancient Masonic symbol engraved in stone banner
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The earliest origins of the Freemasons are shrouded in mystery, but it’s believed that the fraternity began during the Middle Ages. The first documented reference to the Freemasons is in a poem from 1390, which was a copy of an earlier work. The group was originally a stonemason’s guild (hence the name Masons), but quickly evolved to consist of less stone laying and more secret meetings.

In 1717, four Masonic lodges formed the first Grand Lodge in England and started to keep more complete records of the fraternity’s history. From there, the fraternity spread throughout the world and included branches across Europe and the Americas. Today, there are upwards of 6 million Freemasons all over the world, with some 1 million in North America alone.

What do Freemasons do?

In short, Freemasons want to make their community a better place. Rather than focusing on building parks and community buildings (which they also do) Freemasons focus on bettering themselves as individuals first. They believe that with education and self-improvement, Masonic members will become better citizens and take on active roles in bettering their community. As with any other fraternity, Freemasonry is about camaraderie. It’s a way to network with like-minded people and make friendships that will last a lifetime.

Charitable donations

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One of the most important aspects of Freemasonry is charity. Masonic Lodges raise money for good causes in their respective communities. Masons spend roughly $2 million per day and more than $750 million annually towards philanthropic endeavors. They offer scholarships, open orphanages, build homeless shelters, donate to medical clinics, and generally support any community services that members agree are beneficial.

A secretive society

Over the years, the Freemasons have acquired a rather nefarious reputation for their secretive meetings, handshakes, symbols, and rituals. Of course, popular movies and books like “National Treasure” and “The Da Vinci Code” have enhanced that reputation, but the Freemasons’ secret meetings and rituals are merely a way to make members feel special and included. All of the actual work of the Freemasons, including donations and services, is public information.

Not a religion

Close up view of Freemason seal
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While there are certainly plenty of rituals and symbols, Freemasonry is not a religion. Although it’s required that all members believe in a higher power, talking about religion is frowned upon inside of Masonic temples. In fact, the Catholic Church first condemned Freemasonry in 1738 because it encouraged people of different religions to get together, become friends, and discuss ideas. Over the centuries the Church has issued more decrees denouncing the group, including one in 1983 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI), that stated "The Church's negative position on Masonic associations therefore remains unaltered since their principles has always been regarded as irreconcilable with the Church's doctrine." Pope John Paul II had Ratzinger's rule added to the Code of Canon Law.

Famous Freemasons

Many of the most influential men in history, including several Founding Fathers, have belonged to the fraternity of Freemasons.

Some famous members include:

  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Mark Twain
  • Booker T. Washington
  • Henry Ford
  • Winston Churchill
  • J. Edgar Hoover
  • The Reverend Jesse Jackson
  • Buzz Aldrin
  • Shaquille O'Neal

Current Freemasonry

Freemason Hall in London
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Masonic chapters are alive and well around the world, and thus are always actively seeking new members. Of course, one of the primary requirements—a holdover from its medieval origins—is that only men are permitted to join. Beyond that, to further their goals of bettering individuals and community, Freemasons look for people of "good repute."

Millions of people have been inducted into the global fraternity over the past 700-odd years, but there's likely no other group one could join where you could claim both Casanova and Colonel Sanders as "brothers."