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Fraternity

Whenever we receive email that refers to Freemasonry as a cult, a religion or something else which it is not, we've regularly replied: "Freemasonry is a fraternity!" thinking that this simple answer would provide a better frame of reference for further discussion. It was not until we received a follow-up email asking, "What's a fraternity?" we realized that our explanation - although understandable by a majority - might be meaningless to some. This page is created for those who are be unfamiliar with the term or whose understanding might not be as full as they'd like.

The word "fraternity" comes from the Middle English word 'fraternity' which derives from Medieval Latin 'fraternalis' which came from the Latin word 'fraternus' (brotherly) and 'frater' (BROTHER). Webster's New World Dictionary defines it as:

1. the state or quality of being brothers; fraternal relationship or spirit; brotherliness
2. a group of men (or, rarely, women) joined together by common interests, for fellowship, etc.; specif., a Greek-letter college organization
3. a group of people with the same beliefs, interests, work, etc. [the medical 'fraternity'] 

Historically, they have had a taint of secrecy and evil. Why? In the centuries before Enlightenment, associations of people regularly led to problems for the ruler. From the earliest of times, people were divided by 'classes' with some receiving more privileges than others as a result. Monarchs were, by birth or by strength of military arms, at the top of the privileged class. Whenever those under the monarch began to meet and talk, however, it often resulted in his overthrow and demise. Because of this, associations of people were outlawed simply as a matter of course and like-minded persons meeting together were things to be feared by authority. In fact, this long-forgotten historical foundation is now often the base upon which the 'boogey-man' claims of conspiracy theorists rest. If there were like-minded people meeting together, it had to be bad.... (An excellent reference for your further perusal is Margaret Jacobs' "Freemasonry in the Age of Enlightenment" which details these origins.)

It is also important to remember that during those times too, persons were prohibited from traveling outside of the town or hamlet in which they were born. Restricting the opportunity to meet others of like interests and concerns was another effective control mechanism!

As we moved past the Middle Ages into the late 1600s and early 1700s, growth and development of the society necessitated the formation of some 'unions' of persons performing similar trades which required a high degree of skill but in many places for shorter periods than one's entire life. Interest in the natural world increased and men met together to discuss science, astronomy and the like. From these associations also grew meetings of men discussing politics - and, as feared by the monarchs, plotting anarchy. Not all such associations were so nefarious, though, and sometimes men enjoyed meeting with each other simply for fun and friendship. From this background grew Freemasonry - a group of men, joined together by common interests for fellowship.

Continuing through the 1700s to the independence of the United States and the 'unshackling' from monarchy, freedom of association grew and flourished. Men (since, at that time, women were relegated to positions of inferiority and subservience) would meet for an evening of dining and discussion. Some groups came together to discuss politics and events of the day. Others sought to enhance their minds by considering advances in geography, medicine and the like. And some formed which had no ostensible purpose other than enjoying the company of those with 'like minds'. 

As Freemasonry formed, making its first noted public appearance in 1717, it was clear that many in power were anxious about such an organization and feared its growth might be a threat to their regime. In France at this time, for example, men were arrested simply because they were seen sharing a drink with others below their 'class' level. If a blacksmith and a merchant met in a room with a baker, for example, it was SURELY because they were plotting governmental overthrow. Since they were each from different classes of society, there was certainly no other reason and they had nothing in common - or so the rulers thought. What they misunderstood - and what has befuddled SO many who have attempted to understand the 'purpose' of Freemasonry - is that men of 'like minds' can enjoy the company of others without discussing politics, religion or the things that divide our societies so often. They can come together for an evening of food and friendship without any particular purpose while learning from and teaching others about those things that unite them all.

The College Connection

Those vaguely familiar with college fraternities are sometimes prompted to ask about a 'connection' with Freemasonry. There are many similarities indeed - and in some instances, an actual direct connectivity.

As the creation and development of schools of higher learning occurred, colleges sought to create groups which would provide the additional incentives of a 'club' to those whose academic achievements were worthy of recognition. Students selected for membership soon realized the strong bonds of lasting friendship and fellowship that formed when those with similar motivations were able to come together for sharing of intellectual stimulation. A number of those college professors/administrators encouraging such activity were Freemasons who had already experienced the camaraderie that was achievable by 'those who can best work and best agree'. Rituals for the induction of new members were created in order to provide an experience separate and apart from what others had known - and sometimes those rituals would show their Masonic heritage as well.

Fraternity members soon found the companionship of like minds so enticing that they took to eating together regularly and, ultimately, to sharing the same boarding house environment. As schools moved simple classroom buildings to a campus environment, fraternities began buying large houses to provide a shared living quarters for their members, separate and apart from the dormitory living environment the college was building. Men (there were few women in college at the time) would form groups, sometimes on the flimsiest of commonalities, but once begun, they brought in new members and passed along the concept that being together with others by choice rather than chance was a very worthwhile experience.

Schools encouraged this growth seeing the positive outcome on alumni. As time moved on, however, things changed: the age of college students lowered markedly and many more students attended than did in the past. Some fraternities flourished and as they did, they developed purposes and principles that potential members would look at before pledging (petitioning) for membership.

The 'goals' and 'objectives' of many college fraternities were sometimes quite specific - as in the case of so-called 'service' fraternities whose members came together to provide some type of support to the college community, generally in whatever form seemed to them appropriate. But, like Freemasonry, many college fraternities did not have specifically identified 'goals' or 'objectives'; their entire reason for being was the friendship and fellowship its members were able to share. They provided a 'club' atmosphere and often bought their own buildings so that members might live together. Some fraternities, regrettably, engaged in excesses: once a person became a member, they would want to 'stiffen' the requirements on the next person and thereby (apparently) prove their own worth. Initiation pranks - absolutely forbidden in regular Freemasonry - in some cases led to injury, impairment, and in some cases even death. In recent times, colleges - wanting to exercise control over those things in and around their campuses - have sought to dismantle the fraternity system and avoid the negative publicity due to such excesses.

Fraternity, then, both by definition and practice is the coming together of those with like minds for a common purpose. What is Freemasonry's 'common purpose'? Because Freemasonry is an organization of interconnected sovereign bodies throughout the world, sharing a recognition in each other as being 'legitimate' (as compared with 'fake' Masonry described here), no one person or body can define for all any rules, regulations, objectives or outcomes. The commonality which unites them and causes their mutual recognition does, though, offer some generalities which may help to aid in understanding.

"Making Good Men Better" is a phrase which has been around for some time. It really does say much about 'the Craft' (as Freemasonry is sometimes called) in that the selection process does not condone making members of 'bad' men. Those whose behavior is scandalous, those with an unsavory past, those who think only of themselves are those who would not be welcomed into its ranks.

Does Freemasonry have programs or formal programs to further this? No, not particularly. Such betterment comes through the association with others who are seeking to be good and do better in their daily lives. The rituals of becoming a member, while not identical from Grand Lodge to Grand Lodge, have a commonality of purpose: to impart upon the mind of the initiate that there is a good to be done in the world and that putting aside one's 'lesser self' can serve to benefit all. Many Masonic writers wax poetic about the 'lessons of Freemasonry' in the context of religion or service to community and yet, such things are - for the most part - unstated in the Masonic rituals. Reference, in many cases, is a small part of an evening which doesn't occur at each meeting and yet, we as Masons come to understand and accept their siren call as appealing to our higher nature. We WANT to do good, to be better. With little encouragement, we can and do because it's part of our being even if we didn't fully realize that when we joined.

Freemasonry does not - despite the rants of some of its detractors - have some over-arching plan for world domination. If we had, we've done a pretty darn poor job in achieving it over these past 300+ years and there's not much hope of doing better! Nor does Freemasonry want to supercede or supplant religion - of any stripe. Such charges are ludicrous on their face. If Freemasonry were as powerful in those arenas as anti-Masons would have you believe, why hasn't it succeeded in its aims? Is it that the hidden internet identities or those ranting in the park have actually held so much sway that Freemasonry was afraid of making a move? Hardly.... The simple fact is that they are wrong and that Freemasonry's sole reason for being is to allow men to come together to enjoy the friendship and fraternity of like-minded individuals.

 

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This site and its contents are (copyright) 1998-2014 by Edward L. King (Ed King). All rights reserved. All comments and opinions are mine personally.

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