Freemasons

   The Masonic Order—or Freemasonry—claims origins in Biblical times and an ancestry linking it with ‘operative’ masonry, the medieval guilds of masons who built the cathedrals. ‘Speculative’ Masonry apparently emerged in seventeenth-cen-tury England, as the crafts guilds disappeared. A decisive step in the development of modern Masonry was taken in 1717, when four London ‘lodges’ (or associations) of masons combined in a Grand Lodge under Anthony Sayer, who was given the title of Grand Master of England. Masonry soon spread across Western Europe and into the New World. Non-sectarian, yet revering a Supreme Being as artificer of the cosmos and reflecting contemporary ideals of the brotherhood of man in practical morality that put some stress on mutual aid, Masonry was suited to the Age of the Enlightenment, bringing intelligent men together without overmuch regard to class. Hostility from the Roman Church, while hardly impeding the movement’s growth, tended to bring out its more radical aspects. One aspect of Masonry lies in its fondness for quite complex but fairly transparent symbolism embodied in initiation rites and other rituals, in robes, badges and regalia, and in hierarchical structures within which individual members occupy a particular place until climbing higher.
   An air of mystery, even secrecy, veils Masonry. Doubtless attractive to members, this can cause unease in others, who feel excluded. Masons reply that though they have some secrets which they cherish, their attitudes and influence are wholly benign. That Masonry is not clandestine is evident in the sheer bulk of Freemasons’ Hall in Long Acre, London, in the emblazoning of masonic symbols on their premises in many other towns, in the role royalty openly plays in the movement, and in its munificent charitable work. Similarities can be seen between Masonry and the friendly societies, which in the nineteenth century often invoked ‘oriental’ (that is, Egyptian or Israelite) or medieval traditions in style and ceremonies to add dimensions to mutual-aid programmes. Masonry, however, still attracts hostility, perhaps especially on account of its male orientations, and the mounting pressure to oblige masons to declare membership (for example, in 1998 all judges were asked officially whether they were Masons) reflects suspicions that for them mutual aid translates into the less reputable forms of networking, ‘jobs for the boys’ and ‘closing ranks’ when a brother Mason is in difficulties.
   See also: Establishment, the
   Further reading
    Pick, F.L. and Knight, G.N. (1991) A Pocket History of Freemasonry, 8th edn, London: Muller.
   CHRISTOPHER SMITH

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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