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Freemasonry, or Masonry, refers to any of a number of fraternal organizations that trace their origins to local guilds of stonemasons.

Not specifically a religion, the Masons have taken on several of the characteristics of an esoteric religion, although its members generally hold memberships in other established religions.

There is no clear line of progression by which the trade guilds became the Masonic Lodges of today. However, a Masonic poem from 1425 portrays a mythologized history of the craft and of oaths of fidelity that are to be taken upon joining. Ceremonial regalia associated with masonic guilds were in evidence during this time period, as well.

Masons were heavily involved in the construction of cathedrals during the Middle Ages. With the decline in cathedral building, some guilds of working masons began to accept honorary members in order to bolster their declining membership. It appears that these were the lodges that first demonstrated the use of the symbols that characterize Freemasonry today.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, several of these lodges had adopted the rituals and trappings of ancient religious orders, and of chivalric brotherhoods.

As the masonic guilds evolved into the Masonic Lodges, there was an interrelationship between the Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism, which share a number of rituals and symbology.

The Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel) in Scotland may have been the first Masonic Lodge. The first Grand Lodge was founded in England in 1717. This was the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster, which later became the Grand Lodge of England, which was an association of four existing London lodges. In 1751, a rival lodge, the Antient Grand Lodge of England, was formed, which is now the Ancient Grand Lodge of England.

The first Masonic lodges in North America were established in Pennsylvania in the early 18th century. After the American Revolution, Grand lodges were established in each American state.

Prince Hall Freemasonry came about because early American lodges refused to admit African-Americans. In 1775, An African-American by the name of Prince Hall was initiated into a British military lodge with a warrant from the Grand Lodge of Ireland, and fifteen member African-Americans were given the authority to meet as a lodge, but not to initiate new Masons. African Lodge was formed in 1784. Eventually, Prince Hall lodges were formed throughout the country. Today, most US Grand Lodges recognize their Prince Hall counterparts, which are now open to all men, regardless of race.

The Masonic Lodge is the organizational focus of Freemasonry. Lodges meet to conduct usual business, as well as to perform ceremonies to confer a Masonic degree, or to receive a lecture on some aspect of Masonic ritual or tradition.

Masonic rituals are largely made up of degree ceremonies. Candidates are initiated into the entry-level degree known as Entered Apprentice. Later, they may progress to the degree of Fellowcraft. Finally, they will be raised to the Master Mason degree. During these ceremonies, the candidate is provided with passwords, signs, and secret handshakes known as grips, which are specific to each degree achieved.

Another ceremony is held for the installation of the Master and officers of the Lodge. Some Masonic jurisdictions recognize Installed Master as a separate rank, with its own secrets.

Besides the local Masonic Lodges, there are also special Lodges, where Masons meet to celebrate events or for Masonic research.

Once a Mason has achieved the Master Mason degree, he is entitled to advance through other degrees, which are administered separately. As each Masonic jurisdiction is independent, procedures can be expected to vary.

Most Masonic Lodges require candidates to declare a belief in a supreme being, and some jurisdictions may require members to belong to a specific religion or denomination. The Swedish Rite, for example, only accepts Christians.

During his initiation, a candidate is required to swear, on a Bible or other sacred text, to fulfill the obligations of a Mason, one of them being to keep the secrets of their degree from members of lower degrees and from those who are not Masons. They also swear to assist fellow Masons in distress.

Some Masons explore the ritualistic aspects of the craft, while others involve themselves solely in the social or charitable works of the Masons.

Blue Lodge Freemasonry offers only the three traditional degrees, plus the rank of past or installed master. The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite includes a system of thirty-three degrees, including the three Blue Lodge degrees, which are administered at the local or national levels. The York Rite administers three orders, the Royal Arch, Cryptic Masonry, and Knights Templar.



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