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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:
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.)
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'.
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.
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