(Adapted from the Grand Lodge of Texas Web site)
Freemasonry is a fraternity. Its membership is restricted to men, but there is no hazing as is found in some college fraternities. The Masonic Order is a serious group. It exists to take good men and help them to become better men. Thus, it is not a reform society. It does not exist to reform criminals, nor would such persons benefit from its teachings.
Variously known as Freemasonry, Masonry or The Craft, the beginnings of our fraternity are lost to history. Although Masonry is believed to be the oldest surviving fraternal organization in the world, the exact date of its founding is uncertain. In its current form, however, Freemasonry can be easily traced to sixteenth-century Scotland, although the first Masonic governing body was not founded until 1717 in London. The oldest Masonic document, the Regius poem, is dated around 1390 A.D. Sometime between 1390 and 1717, lodges of operative masons began to accept as members men who did not work in the building trade. Eventually whole lodges composed of such persons arose, leading to a transition from lodges being composed of stone masons (i.e., operative masons) to lodges being composed of men from other occupations (i.e., speculative masons), who gathered and shared a ritual replete with allusions to carpentry, architecture, and stone masonry.
In 1717, four of these lodges in England met and formed the first Grand Lodge. A Grand Lodge is a Masonic body having jurisdiction over the lodges within a certain geographical area. Each state in the United States, for instance, has its own Grand Lodge, as does the District of Columbia.
From its early days, Freemasonry required of its adherents a belief in God and in life after death, as it still does today. It asks no one to expound upon the particulars of his understanding of those two beliefs. Masonry is not a religion, and there is nothing in Freemasonry to interfere with a man's religious life. Persons of all faiths are a part of the worldwide Masonic fraternity. In addition, partisan or sectarian topics, such as religious or political views that might cause friction within the fraternity, are not allowed to be discussed when a lodge is in session.
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