Freemasonry refers to the principles, institutions, and practices of the fraternal order of the Free and Accepted Masons. The largest world-wide society, freemasonry is an organisation of men based on the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, using builders' tools as symbols to teach basic moral truths generally accepted by persons of goodwill. It is religious in that a belief in God is the prime requirement for membership, but it is non-sectarian in that no religious test is used. The purpose of freemasonry is to enable men to meet in harmony, to promote friendship, and to be charitable. Its basic ideals are that all persons are the children of one God, that all persons are related to each other, and that the best way to worship God is to be of service to people.

The basic unit of freemasonry is the lodge, which exists under a charter issued by a grand lodge exercising administrative powers. The lodges are linked together informally by a system of mutual recognition between lodges that meet the Masonic requirements. The lodge confers three degrees: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason. Additional degrees are conferred by two groups of advanced freemasonry: the York Rite, which awards 12 degrees, and the Scottish Rite, which awards 30 higher degrees. In the United States and Canada members have formed a large number of groups to enable them to expand their social and charitable activities. The best known of these groups is the Shriners, who hold festive parades and support hospitals for crippled and burned children. There are also the Order of the Eastern Star for Master Masons and their wives; the Order of De Molay for boys; and the Order of Job's Daughters and the Order of Rainbow for girls.

Many legendary theories exist concerning the origin of freemasonry, but it is generally believed that it evolved from the medieval guilds of the stonemasons. Its present organisational form began on June 24, 1717, when a grand lodge was formed in London. Since that time lodges have spread all over the world with local grand lodges formed whenever enough lodges exist in an area. Lodges first appeared in America in Philadelphia (1730) and Boston (1733).

At various times and places freemasonry has met religious and political opposition. Religious opponents, especially the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, have traditionally claimed that freemasonry is a religion and is a secret organisation. A papal ban on Roman Catholic membership in Masonic lodges was reaffirmed in 1983.

Freemasons hold that the organisation is religious but not a religion, and that it is not a secret organisation since it works openly in the community. Freemasonry has always been suppressed in totalitarian states.

There are approximately 4.8 million Freemasons in regular lodges scattered around the world. Of this number, more than 3 million are to be found in the United States, where there are numerous distinct Masonic groups. Many notable men in history have been Freemasons, including Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, Henry Ford, Rudyard Kipling, Douglas MacArthur, Will Rogers, and George Washington and a number of other presidents of the United States -- Grolier Multimedia Encyclopaedia, 1998.

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