How Freemasons Work

Photo courtesy of College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Florida
George Washington in traditional Masonic dress.

George Washington was one. So were Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere and Henry Ford. All of these illustrious and influential men were Freemasons (or Masons) -- privileged members of the world’s oldest and largest fraternity.

Though it boasts 5 million members worldwide, the Freemasons are an enigmatic society. Freemasons say they are nothing more than a brotherhood of like-minded individuals who meet regularly for spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. Conspiracy theorists see them as a secretive underground movement bent on world domination.

In this article, we’ll take a look inside the world of the Freemasons. We’ll discover where they originated, separate the truth from the conspiracy theories and find out what really goes on during their rituals.

Legends of Knights and Kings
Ask five different people for the origins of the Freemasons and you may get five different explanations. Some say they descended from the ancient Druids. Others link them to the Isis-Osiris cult in ancient Egypt. Still others claim they were an order of Jewish monks called the Essenes, who formed in the 2nd century B.C.

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According to some Masonic scholars, the Freemasons trace their roots to the building of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in 967 B.C., an event which was described in the biblical Book of Kings. In the story, the builders of the temple were the original stonemasons, and the forefathers of today’s Freemasons. The legend centers on the master builder—a man named Hiram Abiff—who claimed to know the secret of the temple. One day, three men kidnapped Abiff and threatened to kill him if he didn’t reveal that secret. When he refused to talk, Abiff was murdered. After learning of the killing, King Solomon ordered a group of Masons to search for Abiff’s body and bring back the secret of the temple. The men were unsuccessful, so the King established a new Masonic secret. His secret is believed to be the word “Mahabone,” meaning “the Grand Lodge door opened,” which is now the password used to enter the third degree of Masonry.

We'll look at the relationship between the Freemasons and the Knights Templar in the next section.


The Freemasons and the Knights Templar

A Knight Templar.
Public Domain
A Knight Templar

The Freemasons also have been connected with a mysterious order called the Knights Templar. These knights were monks who took up arms in 1118 A.D. in order to protect Christian pilgrims traveling from Jaffa (a port city in Israel) to Jerusalem. According to legend, the Knights Templar discovered the greatest treasure in history buried in the ruins of King Solomon’s temple. The Knights became rich—so rich, in fact, that they were the targets of envy and suspicion. In 1307, King Philip IV of France had all of the Knights Templar arrested so that he could take possession of their great wealth. What happened to the Knights after their imprisonment remains a mystery, but some say they went into hiding and continued their work in secret, only to reemerge in Europe during the 1700s as the modern Freemasons. (There is even a theory that the Knights, in their desire to seek vengeance on King Philip IV, had a hand in starting the French Revolution.)

These stories lend a dramatic flair to the Freemasons’ history, but a more credible explanation for the brotherhood’s birth can be found in the Middle Ages. At that time, Masons were stone workers hired by kings and churches in England, Scotland and France to build great castles and cathedrals. Two kinds of Masons existed at the time—those who worked with ordinary stone were called “rough masons.” Those who carved more intricate designs into softer stone, called “freestone,” were named “freestone masons” or “free masons” (the two words were later combined to form the title, “Freemason”). The Freemasons enjoyed a monopoly of sorts because of their special skill, and wanted to keep it that way. They established trade guilds to discuss their craft and fair wages. They founded lodges where they would eat and keep their tools. And they developed secret handshakes, code words and other signs to distinguish one another from the rough masons.


Modern Freemasonry

Public Domain
Masonic Lodge in Aylesbury, England.

By the 1700s, the Freemasons had evolved from a trade guild into an organization of men with a very distinct philosophy. They favored religious tolerance over the strict dictates of the Catholic Church, and they enjoyed intellectual discourse with their brothers. Freemasonry was becoming highly fashionable, and its membership was changing. While at first only “operative,” or working Masons could join the organization, aristocrats and artists, called “speculative” Freemasons, were starting to gain entry. They were turning the Freemasons into something of a gentleman’s club.

The modern Freemasons were born in 1717, when four Freemason lodges in London, England combined to form the first Grand Lodge, which had authority over all other lodges in that country. Grand Lodges soon followed in Ireland, Scotland and Italy, and by the 1730s they had popped up throughout Europe. In 1723, a Scottish Freemason named Dr. James Anderson wrote the “Constitutions of the Freemasons,” the first official set of bylaws and rituals for the group. Some men believed that the Freemason rituals held the secrets of the universe, passed down directly from God.

Although the Freemasons were very pleased with the society they had created, not everyone shared their enthusiasm. Both the government and the church were suspicious of the organization’s secrecy and liberal religious beliefs. In 1737, King Louis XV banned the Freemasons in France. A year later, Pope Clement XII forbade Catholics from becoming Freemasons on penalty of excommunication, and the Portuguese government made Freemasonry punishable by death.

The Freemasons refer to themselves as a "brotherhood," and for good reason -- women are not allowed to join. Women were excluded from the group in the 1700s, in part because the Freemasons were afraid the fairer sex would distract them from the tasks at hand and would reveal their secrets. There are a few incidences in which women were admitted, such as Elizabeth Aldworth, who in the early 1700s was inducted into a lodge in England after she was caught eavesdropping on a meeting. Today, there are a few women's groups that are connected to the Freemasons, such as the Order of the Eastern Star.

In the next section we'll learn about the Freemason's arrival in the new world and the development of new Freemason lodges in America after the Revolution.


American Freemasons

With all of the controversy surrounding the Freemasons in Europe, it was no surprise that they would want to seek out friendlier shores. In the 1700s, the Freemasons came to America with other colonists and set up lodges in Boston and Philadelphia (although they remained under the control of an English Provincial Grand Master). In 1731, Benjamin Franklin joined the Philadelphia lodge, and he became its Master three years later. George Washington was initiated as a Freemason in 1752.

As the fledgling nation was preparing to throw off the shackles of British rule, the Freemasons were reportedly stirring the fire of revolt. A story exists that Freemasons were among the dozens of men who, dressed as Native Americans, boarded three British ships in Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773 and dumped hundreds of crates of tea into the water, setting off the American Revolution. Whether Freemasons actually were involved in the Boston Tea Party is a matter of some speculation, but there is no doubt that they were among the signers of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

After the Revolution, the American Freemason lodges broke from their British forebears and reorganized under state Grand Lodges. Although these lodges were never centralized under any formal authority, they recognized each other as mutual fraternities. Two different forms of Masonry came to exist in America—the Scottish Rite (following English traditions), and the York Rite (following French traditions).

At the turn of the 20th century, the Freemasons were 860,000 members strong. By the 1930s, there were more than two million Masons in the United States, and their numbers continued to grow.


The Question of Religion and the Brotherhood

Many people wonder whether the Freemasons are a religious organization. Although they claim to be no more religious than any Rotary Club or other social organization, their rituals do have strong spiritual overtones.

The Shriners
In 1870, a new organization formed out of the Freemasons, which was called "The Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine," or the "Shriners." To become a Shriner, a man must first rise to the Third Degree (Mastor Mason) in the Blue Lodge. After becoming a Master Mason, a man can belong to any Masonic group that has Blue Lodge Masonry as a prerequisite. The Shriners are known for their:
  • signature red fezzes - a tribute to the organization’s Arabic heritage
  • fun attitude - they are often clowns in circuses and parades
  • great philanthropy - Shriners hospitals around the country provide free care to children

People of all religions are free to join the Freemasons, and religion is never overtly discussed during meetings. However, every member must profess a belief in a universal Supreme Being, whom the Freemasons refer to as the "Great Architect of the Universe." As is the case with most religions, Masons are expected to be morally upright individuals. Members swear oaths to the Book of the Sacred Law, which, depending on the Lodge, can be the Jewish Old Testament, the Christian New Testament or even the Islamic Koran.

Entering the Brotherhood
Given the clandestine nature of the Freemasons, it's not surprising that they give careful consideration before admitting new members. To join, a man must fill out a petition and obtain two sponsors within the Lodge. He will then be voted in by secret ballot. Potential new members are asked whether they believe in God, and they must answer "yes" to be admitted. Although they don't have to be wealthy, members must have enough money to pay membership fees and to make the regular charitable donations that are expected of all Freemasons.

New Freemasons start out as Entered Apprentices. During the initiation ceremony, the Freemasons recount the building of King Solomon's Temple and the murder of Hiram Abiff. The new member is blindfolded and confronted by three men, who order him to reveal the Freemasons' secrets. He swears he will not tell, and then pretends to die and be resurrected into Masonry.

Freemasons must then rise through two more degrees, Freecraft Mason and Master Mason, after they have become proficient in the lessons of the previous degree. As a member rises through the degrees, he becomes privy to more and more of the Freemasons' secrets.

Photo courtesy of Jahrundert
Freemason initiation ceremony, 18th century.

After completing the Master Mason degree, a member can reach the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch, at which time the name of the Great Architect of the Universe is finally revealed to him. The name is reportedly Jahbulon—Jah for Jahweh, the God of the Hebrews; Bul for Baal, the ancient Canaanite fertility god who was considered evil for competing with Jahweh for the Israelites' allegiance; and On for Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of the underworld.

Freemasons at each level swear never to reveal the Freemasons' secrets. The punishments for doing so become progressively more severe with each successive level. An Apprentice Mason's tongue is torn out; a Freecraft Mason's heart is torn out; a Master Mason's bowels are burned; and a Royal Arch has the top of his skull sliced off (many Masons dispute this claim, however, saying that their rites are nowhere near this sinister).

Although most Freemasons never progress past level three, most sources agree that there are 33 degrees in total. The York Rite includes only the first 13 of these levels, and they differ from the Scottish Rite. They may also differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction:

33 Degrees of the Freemasons
1. Entered Apprentice 12. Grand Master Architect 23. Chief of the Tabernacle
2. Fellow Craft 13. Royal Arch of Enoch 24. Prince of the Tabernacle
3. Master Mason 14. Scottish Knight of Perfection 25. King of the Brazen Serpent
4. Secret Master 15. Knight of the Sword, or of the East 26. Prince of Mercy
5. Perfect Master 16. Prince of Jerusalem 27. Commander of the Temple
6. Intimate Secretary 17. Knight of the East and West 28. Knight of the Sun
7. Provost and Judge 18. Knight of the Pelican and Eagle and Sovereign Prince Rose Croix of Heredom 29. Knight of St. Andrew
8. Intendant of the Building 19. Grand Pontiff 30. Grand Elected Knight Kadosh, Knight of the Black and White Eagle
9. Elect of Nine 20. Venerable Grand Master 31. Grand Inspector Inquisitor Commander
10. Elect of Fifteen 21. Patriarch Noachite 32. Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret
11. Sublime Elect 22. Prince of Libanus 33. Grand Inspector General


Masonic Traditions

Photo courtesy of Raleigh Lodge 770-Memphis
An inside look at a Masonic Lodge

The foundations of Freemasonry are the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Members are expected to believe in God, engage in morality, practice philanthropy and abide by the laws of the country in which they live. Although the purpose of their meetings is for intellectual discussion, any mention of politics or religion is prohibited.

The Freemasons are composed of groups called Lodges, which swear their allegiance to a Grand Lodge or Grand Orient (there is usually one in each state). Each Lodge must be officially chartered by the Grand Lodge, and receive a name, number and title. Individual Lodges maintain their own set of bylaws. Members of each Lodge have their own secret passwords, handshakes and signs to recognize one another.

Officers of the Lodge include a Master (referred to as "Worshipful Master"), a Senior Warden (who helps the Master with his duties and takes over when the Master is away), a Junior Warden (who ensures that visiting Masons have the correct credentials), a Treasurer (who collects dues and pays the Lodge's bills), a Secretary (who records meeting minutes and handles other administrative duties), a Senior Deacon (who guides visitors and new members into the Lodge), and a Junior Deacon (who serves as messenger of the lodge). Depending on the Lodge, there also may be an Inner Guard (who guards the door), Chaplain (who leads prayers), Director of Ceremonies (who ensures that the rituals are being performed appropriately), and Organist. The Master, who is elected via ballot vote, must ensure that the Lodge is abiding by its bylaws.

The icons of Freemasonry are highly symbolic. The primary symbol is the square and compass surrounding the letter "G." The G represents God (or, alternately the sacred geometry of the original operative Masons), the square encourages members to square their actions with all men, and the compass stands for creating boundaries in life. The Freemasons wear a distinctive apron decorated with these emblems of the organization.

The Freemasons have been confused with many mysterious sects over the years, from witches to the Rosicrucians (a spiritual group that arose during the 17th century). But perhaps the strongest association that has been made was with a secret society called the Illuminati. Founded by German professor Adam Weishaupt during the 1700s, the Illuminati believed that both religions and governments were corrupt. They wanted to abolish both institutions to create a New World Order. To accomplish this mission, Weishaupt joined up with the Freemasons in Bavaria. Although the two groups shared liberal religious views, the Freemasons did not support Weishaupt's radical plot. Eventually, the Bavarian government forced the Illuminati to disband, but members reportedly carried on as part of other organizations, and some believe they continue to pursue their mission with the Freemasons today.


Anti-Masonic Fervor

Given the secretive nature of the Freemasons, it's no surprise that numerous conspiracy theories about the group have emerged over the years. Theorists have accused the Masons of everything from satanic worship to playing a role in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Some claim that the lower ranks of the organization are just a front for the highest-order Freemasons, who they say are involved in plots to control the world's governments and financial institutions.

Famous Freemasons
Some of the most powerful and influential men in history have been Freemasons. Here are just a few of them:
  • George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan (conferred title of "Honorary Scottish Rite Mason") - U.S. Presidents
  • Benjamin Franklin - United States founding father and inventor
  • Paul Revere - American patriot
  • Winston Churchill - British Prime Minister
  • John Jacob Astor - Financier
  • Henry Ford, Walter P. Chrysler, Ransom E. Olds - Car manufacturers
  • James C. Penney - Founder of JC Penney department stores
  • David Sarnoff - Radio and TV executive
  • Louis B. Meyer, Darryl F. Zanuck - Film studio heads
  • W.C. Fields, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Clark Gable, Oliver Hardy, John Wayne - Actors
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, John Philip Sousa, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohen - Composers
  • Harry Houdini - Magician
  • Charles Lindbergh - Aviator
  • John Glenn - Astronaut

Throughout their history, the Freemasons have been the object of suspicion. They were thought to have provoked both the French and American Revolutions (in conjunction with the Illuminati), and were accused of having committed several murders.

Anti-Masonic fervor reached its peak in the United States in 1826, when a former Freemason named William Morgan wrote a book entitled "Freemasonry Exposed." The book reportedly revealed many secrets about the group. In response, three Freemasons abducted Morgan and took him to the Canadian border. What happened next is a matter of debate. One story tells the abductors drowned Morgan in the Niagara River. Another claims he escaped across the border to live the remainder of his life in Canada. Despite the lack of clear evidence in the case, the event sparked great anger against the Freemasons, whom many Americans viewed as murderers. A national anti-Masonic movement took root, complete with its own newspapers and political party. The Freemasons suffered great membership losses as a result. The number of Lodges in New York dropped from 480 in 1825 to 75 just 10 years later. A similar decline in membership echoed throughout the country. It wasn't until the nation became preoccupied with the Civil War that the Freemasons once again began to gain popularity.

In reality, there is no real factual basis to any of the conspiracy theories against the Freemasons—from the suggestion that the Masons designed the Washington, D.C. street grid in the shape of a pentagram (a sign of the occult), to the idea that they were somehow involved with the Jack the Ripper murders in 19th century London. But as long as the Freemasons continue to cloak themselves in a veil of secrecy, the questions -- and accusations -- about them will likely continue.

For lots more information on Freemasons and other related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Freemasons FAQ

How do you become a freemason?
To join, a man must fill out a petition and obtain two sponsors within the Lodge. He will then be voted in by secret ballot. Potential new members are asked whether they believe in God, and they must answer "yes" to be admitted. Although they don't have to be wealthy, members must have enough money to pay membership fees and to make the regular charitable donations that are expected of all Freemasons.
What is the religion of the Freemasons?
People of all religions are free to join the Freemasons, and religion is never overtly discussed during meetings. However, every member must profess a belief in a universal Supreme Being, whom the Freemasons refer to as the "Great Architect of the Universe."
What does the 'G' in the Masonic symbol stand for?
The icons of Freemasonry are highly symbolic. The primary symbol is the square and compass surrounding the letter "G." The G represents God (or, alternately the sacred geometry of the original operative Masons), the square encourages members to square their actions with all men and the compass stands for creating boundaries in life.
Can anyone be a Freemason?
The Freemasons refer to themselves as a "brotherhood." Women are not allowed to join.
Who is the highest ranking Freemason?
Master Mason

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Ridley, Jasper. "The Freemasons." New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001.
  • Knight, Stephen. "The Brotherhood: The Secret World of the Freemasons." London: Dorset Press, 1984.
  • Preston Campbell-Everden, William. "Freemasonry and its Etiquette." New York: Grammercy Books, 2001 edition.
  • Leadbeater, C. W. "Freemasonry and its Ancient Mystic Rites". New York: Grammercy Books, 1998 edition.
  • Rich, Paul. "Female Freemasons: Gender, Democracy and Fraternalism." Journal of American Culture, Spring 1997, 20, pg. 105.
  • Carroll, Robert Todd. "The Skeptic's Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions."
    Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003.
  • Lovgren, Stefan. "'National Treasure': Freemasons, Fact, and Fiction." National Geographic News, November 19, 2004. 11/1119_041119_national_treasure.html
  • Tolson, Jay. "Inside the Masons." US News, September 5, 2005.
  • Freemasonry Primer
  • Morgan, David and Sally M. Promey. "The Visual Culture of American Religions." Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • Schultz, Nancy Lusignan. "Enemies Real & Imagined in American Culture." West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1999.
  • Berkun, Michael. "A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America." Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 2003.
  • "Secret History of Freemasons," Discovery Channel, February 11, 2007.