Executive summary: No. Whilst there are millions of freemasons across the world being guided by similar teachings and principes, they comprise numerous distinct groups with only loose or no associations between them, and no common leadership or political stance.
History of freemasonry: Being a stonemason is a very specific skill which requires meticulous leanring and devotion to your craft over many years. In England and Scotland in the 1300s larger, grander buildings began being designed and erected in stone, and stonemasons would be required to travel from far and wide to provide their services. Anyone can claim to have reached a certain level of skill, so how to trust them? You could, as stonemasons did then, establish societies to teach the craft, establish ranks based on experience, teachings and skill and then protect it from outsiders (or fakers) by secret symbols, words and handshakes.
Over time these stonemason societies taught wider lessons to their members, on how to lead a good life, help your fellow men and society as a whole. The concepts of patience, fraternity, good behaviour and meticulous attention to tasks before you, would not only create good buildings, but better families, police services, hospitals, communities and a better world for everyone. Non stonemasons joined and by the late 1500s there are minutes of freemasons lodges in Scotland meeting regularly, with much the same business being dealt with then as lodges deal with today.
By the 1700s, the first Grand Lodge appeared in London, to oversee a group of lodges and try to make them a cohesive whole. The United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) in London is still the governing body of freemasons in England today. But there are other Grand Lodges in Scotland, Ireland and now most countries in the world – thanks to rapid expansion during the colonial era.
In the USA, for example, there are at least three distinct groupings of freemasons – the York Rite, Scottish Rite and Prince Hall Freemasonry (an African American focused group of lodges). In Scotland there are two governing bodies, the Grand Lodge and the Supreme Grand Lodge Royal Arch Chapter. And within and appended to each body or grouping there are many, many appended bodies or related groups. See, for example, the following diagram of such groups in England alone.
How many freemasons are there? Overall UGLE estimate there are around 6 Million freemasons worldwide. Whilst these societies share a common origin, and their teachings and goals have much commonality, there is no cohesive overall structure combining them. They function in most respects independently; albeit some countries have links with Grand lodges in other countries and will from time to time visit each other and share information or give talks.
Across the world numbers are declining, as principles like patience and modesty struggle to appeal to a new internet generation. In England, around 100 lodges close every year and membership has decreased by nearly 25% in 10 years – source.
Do they use the lodge to make business deals or promote religious and political messages? One of the general principles of most Masonic lodges is that you should not use your position as a freemason to gain advantage in business (see for exampe these rules provided to freemasons in Nottinghamshire). Commercial business cannot be discussed at meetings. Nor should you use the lodge to promote religion or politics (see for example this guidance from the Grand Lodge of Gloucestershire).
Although ‘brothers’ are required to believe in a supreme being, it can in most cases be a god of any religion (see, by way of an example, this guidance for freemasons in North America). Where the minutes of freemasons’ lodge meetings have been leaked, they demonstrate how uncontroversial freemasons’ meetings are; discussing attendance, charity donations, new members, new ranks for existing members, accounts, building maintenance and lectures on subjects of academic interest or on how to live a good life. For example, see these minutes from the West Lancashire freemasons’ meeting in 2018.
So whilst there will inevitably be cases where two men who know each other through their masonic membership, and this results in a favour or a business deal, the membership of a masonic lodge is coincidental. They could just as easily have made the same deal after meeting at a golf club or gardening association.
Why is it often reported that freemasons are controlling organisations? There are some times when a common characteristic among local masons can give the impression that they are acting in unison.
For exampe, it was noted by Steve White, when he retired as chair of the Police Federation in England, that efforts to change the makeup of recruitment to recruit less white men had been difficult to implement because of resistance from current police staff; and many of those who were against these proposals were freemasons.
Given that freemasons are (in England) almost entirely male (4,700 female / 200,000 male – source), and mainly white, it may be no surprise that these individuals were typically against changes which could negatively impact job opportunities for white men. There is nothing to suggest that individual police staff were influenced against the proposals because of their position as freemasons.
Firstly, freemasonry is a society with secrets. It’s origins required this (see above) and the method of learning by moving through stages with lessons over your lifetime dictates these lessons are not simply available to all from the beginning; or they would lose their value.
It used to be much more open, and in the 17th and 18th Centuries lodges would often march publicly in their ful regalia. Such sights are rarely seen today. Even until World War II member’s funerals would be attended by a formal funeral parade in the nearby town – for example see here. But masons began being persecuted across Europe and in Nazi Germany they were asked to leave their lodges or placed in concentration camps. Although there is no prohibition on declaring yourself as a freemason, it became something people kept private. And secrecy leaves a void which people’s imagination fills.
Some of the speculation and rumours are also linked to what are called ‘appendant societies’. There are groups, as listed in the diagram above, who are not run by the freemasons or linked to the UGLE or other governing bodies, but who derive their membership from freemasons, or Master Masons (senior freemasons). Some are merely groups which link masons with particular interests, or are specific to christianity, but there are others which are more likely to give rise to concern.
For example, the Royal Order of Jesters is a US organisation which allows only very senior masons to join by invitation only. In a 2020 legal case it was said that members were trafficking prostitutes and strippers from other states to attend the association’s parties in Florida.
In England, the Society of Resicrucians (which exists by other names worldwide) is a group made up of only male Master Masons from UGLE lodges. The societies’ stated aims are to work out the great problems of life and discover the screts of nature. If we look at internal documents (see below) they show candidates obtain a ‘cosmic initiation’ and are told they are not really in control of their body. There is also a heavy pseudo-science aspect and rituals which mimic what many would consider the occult. Some commentators believe it is akin to occult pactice itself.
Image credit: Cheryl Empey