What is Speculative Freemasonry?

Speculative Freemasonry, also known as “Accepted Masonry”, “The Craft”, or simply “Masonry”, is a fraternal institution that seeks to provide its members with opportunities to improve their lives through the following means: the practice of esoteric initiatory rituals; the study of Masonic symbols, allegories and myths; reverence for Deity; tolerance for differing religious and political views; a commitment to high moral and ethical principles; warm fellowship; and service to our fellow human beings. It is called speculative to distinguish it from operative masonry, the trade of working with brick, stone and mortar. The word speculative emphasizes the symbolic and allegorical nature of Masonry, the fact that its rituals, emblems and myth must be subjected to interpretation in order to reveal their deeper meanings. While certain moral interpretations are offered in Masonic rituals, those same rituals admonish Masons to continually seek further illumination.

The history of Masonry is ancient, both in its myth and actual history. The primary myth and symbolism of Masonry is based upon the building of King Solomon’s Temple, though in some rites there are also references to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. In all cases, the ancient arts and sciences of building are viewed as allegorical instructions for moral and social evolution. Furthermore, these arts and sciences are considered reflections of the designs and handiwork of the Creator, which Masons refer to as the Grand Architect of the Universe (G.A.O.T.U.). Therefore, many Masons find their symbols, allegories and myth to be philosophically, psychologically and spiritually revelatory.

The actual history of Speculative Freemasonry cannot be authoritatively documented before the 17th century. According to the consensus of most contemporary scholars, Speculative Freemasonry as it currently exists began in Scotland and England as an outgrowth from the medieval trade guilds of operative masons. While it is clear that the ancient operative Masons did appreciate the symbolism and allegorical value of their craft, there is very little evidence to suggest that they practiced the kind of rituals employed today. In the late 17th century the earliest records appeared which indicate that non-operative members were “accepted” into operative lodges, hence the term “Accepted Masonry”.

The current ritual forms began to be more thoroughly developed in the early 18th century, and it is clear that they borrowed from both ancient and contemporary sources of wisdom. Some scholars believe there was an organized effort, if not a conspiracy, to use the secretive fraternalism of the operative lodges as a vehicle to foment certain philosophical and spiritual ideas, among them many of the humanitarian and egalitarian principles that are today regarded as vital to democratic society. By the end of the 18th century, a plethora of different rituals and rites had emerged, and many of them claimed actual or philosophical connections with other esoteric traditions, including Templarism, Rosicrucianism, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, and so on.

Whether or not the earliest Speculative Masons were involved with such traditions or drew inspiration from them is hotly debated. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that since the middle of the 17th century countless Masons have not only found shared meaning among Masonry and these other traditions, they have also been instrumental in preserving the arcane symbols, concepts and practices of such traditions. One reason for this is obvious, for when Masonry identified itself as a speculative craft, it placed the meanings of its symbols, allegories and myth within a realm that transcends history, concrete reason, culture and tradition; it entered the realms of imagination, intuition and inspiration. Speculative Masonry, by its very nature, encourages its more attentive members to go beyond convention and conformity in their thinking, and by doing so they make the allegorical “builder’s art” truly artistic.

Today, the fundamental symbols, allegories and myth of Masonry are most commonly communicated in three degrees of ritual initiation in the Craft or Blue Lodge: Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. These rituals are instructive dramas presented within the confines of duly constituted and warranted lodges, and enacted almost entirely by memory. In most jurisdictions, once a degree has been received the member is expected to develop proficiency in the memorization of a prescribed series of questions and answers pertaining to the significant events of the ritual and their traditional explanations. In this process, the Mason also learns specific information about the customs and regulations of the fraternity, as well as secret means of recognition, such as hand signals, handshakes, and passwords. One of the most important elements of every degree ritual is an obligation taken at an altar with or in sight of the Mason’s preferred book of scripture. In these obligations the Mason solemnly promises to adhere to certain moral and ethical codes, and binds himself to deepening fraternal ties with other Masons. Although these obligations usually include prescriptions of terrible physical penalties for violations, in Speculative Freemasonry they are understood to be entirely allegorical and symbolic of the spiritual, psychological, social and fraternal consequences of broken promises and compromised morals and ethics. A Mason having received the third degree is called a Master Mason, and after demonstrating proficiency in that degree, the Master Mason is entitled to all the rights of Masonic membership, including election to all official positions and the privileges of membership in the appendant bodies and rites of the fraternity.

The most common appendant rites of contemporary Masonry are the Scottish Rite, the York Rite, and the Allied Masonic Degrees. There are also many Masonic clubs and organizations dedicated to humanitarian, scholarly or convivial purposes. Each of the appendant rites preserves ancient rituals that are intended to provide further illumination on the symbols, allegories and myth encountered in the Craft Lodge. In addition, they typically introduce other symbols, allegories and myths, and frequently build upon the similarities between Masonry and other esoteric, initiatory, or philosophical traditions. However, it is almost universally upheld that there is no “higher” degree than that of Master Mason, and that all Master Masons are equally bound to one another, regardless of their positions, titles, or degrees in appendant rites.

Finally, though Masonry has traditionally been limited to men, there are lesser known forms of Masonry that admit women. For more information on Masonry, readers are invited to visit the Masonic websites linked to the ZenMasonry Resources page.