Freemasonry is the oldest and largest, and most widely known fraternity in the world. But throughout history, its structure and teachings have remained a mystery to many, and myths and misconceptions about the fraternity have arisen.
Exactly when Freemasonry began is not known for certain, but many historians trace the beginnings of Masonry to the middle ages, when stonemasons and other craftsman traveled throughout Europe. These men were known as free mason, because, unlike bondsman, these free masons would gather in shelter houses, or lodges, and eventually organized themselves into Masonic guilds, using the secrets of their craft to identify themselves as masons. The square and compass - the tools of the mason's trade became the symbol of their brotherhood, and of moral truths which they convey.
When the need for such buildings declined, "Speculative" or "Symbolic" Masonry evolved, using the customs and tools of the craft to convey moral truths. The growing organization attracted men of integrity and good will, and the Masonic guilds began to accept members who were not masons, calling them "accepted masons." The fraternity finally became known in some jurisdictions as "Ancient Free and Accepted Masons" and in other jurisdictions as "Free Accepted Masons" There are over 13,000 lodges in the United States. In Illinois the fraternity is known as "Ancient Free and Accepted Masons."
Today, Freemasonry is composed of men bound together, not by trade, but by their desire to be fraternal brothers. The tools of those early builders have remained as symbols to help Masons understand and remember the teachings of the fraternity.
The organizational unit of Masonry is the Blue Lodge or Craft Lodge. When a man has been accepted for membership, he proceeds through three degrees called Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and finally Master Mason, which is the highest degree that the teaching of Masonry are first presented.
Lodges organized to form a Grand Lodge, which governs Lodges in specified territory. In most of North America, each state or province is governed by its own Grand Lodge. While the Various Grand Lodges are bound together by tradition and customs, each is sovereign and autonomous in its own jurisdiction. There is no central governing body for any group of grand lodges or for Masonry as a whole. Today the majority of all Grand Lodges gather for an annual Masonic Conference where they discuss issues of interest to the individual jurisdictions.
The Fraternity utilizes certain rituals, symbols and signs of recognition that are not made public, but Masonry is not a secret society. Its only secrets are its methods of recognition and symbolic instructions. It does not hide its existence, and many Masons proudly wear Masonic rings, tie clips, or Lapel pins. Its buildings are known to all, and its meeting times are well published.
Through the improvements and strengthening of the individual’s character, Masonry seeks to improve the community and make good men better through belief in the Brotherhood of Men.