The following information on this site presumes two things.
1. It presumes recognized Freemason historians are
not out to deceive the general public.
I am not a Freemason, nor is there any Freemason in my immediate family. This is simply my belief based on the evidence as I see it. The Internet is full of other opinions. I am simply trying to stay with what is known, listen to what Freemasons say and divulge, and apply common sense about the nature of its history.
There are a few things we can say factually about Freemasonry and perhaps a few generalizations that can be discussed in context to the American Revolution. However, every reader of history must tread lightly since there are many authors of less scholarly books and web sites that love the esoteric lore surrounding secret societies, love a conspiracy story, or both. These societies and their mission at the dawn of the American Revolution are frequently enhanced or misunderstood for the sake of political or religious drama.
In studying Freemasonry, I have found two groups that are particularly anti-Masonic in nature. They are:
1. The fundamentalists of the religious right
There is nothing particularly wrong about being anti-Masonic. It's the accuracy of choosing why one should be anti-Masonic - or more specifically the evidence used in defense of anti-Masonry that is sometimes questionable. Agendas appear in such cases when one first has a belief, then interprets all the data to fit that belief.
Both anti-Masonic groups above have one thing in common. They both feel there's enough secrecy involved to disregard what the Masons say about themselves. In essence, they don't believe what the Masons say in regards to their own society and choose to find alternate motives. More often, they find information that is easily misconstrued or they find some particularly bad Freemason or Freemason deed and presume that this person or event reflects the organization as a whole.
Unfortunately, that attitude makes learning anything about Freemasonry virtually impossible. Freemasonry then becomes nothing more than a belief system open to any speculation you wish to give it.
Freemasonry is not a religion by any literal definition or by the definition of its members. However, that has been a contention of several quasi-religious books. Books with titles like Freemasonry Exposed,! The Curse Of The Baphomet, or The Deadly Deception frequently sell well even though their references are sometimes dubious. Furthermore, old, well-documented hoaxes like the one perpetuated by Leo Taxil in 1897 (that Freemasons worshipped Lucifer) have been retold as current truth by the likes of Pat Robertson and others. Freemason Albert Pike - who wrote on the subject of Freemasonry over 100 years ago - has been misquoted, taken out of context, and misunderstood for decades. These myths and petty debates litter the Internet as well as book stores. Fear sells, and these stories have become the bane of Freemasonry. Perhaps this is just what happens when an organization has had the reputation of being a secret society in the modern age.
Freemasonry does not allow for religion or politics to be discussed as a topic within Freemasonry meetings. Every Christian Freemason I've read who have offered viewpoints on Christianity say that Jesus Christ means far more to them than the Freemasonry organization. However, simply having to argue constantly against anti-Masonic sensationalism has exhausted many Freemasonry members and forced a defensive public relations campaign.
In my opinion, I see no reason to simply disbelieve what Freemason historians say about their own society. It seems illogical to simply presume a clandestine conspiracy (or even of a secure secrecy) of their own actions and history for almost 300 years or more when so many major players have joined the organization. It seems almost bizarre to presume Freemasonry is something sinister given the fact men like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and a litany of U.S. presidents were well-known members whose letters continually heaped praise on the organization. As Benjamin Franklin once said, "Three can keep a secret if two are dead." It is simply beyond credulous to think of Freemasons like Harry Truman or Franklin Roosevelt worshipping Lucifer or plotting the "New World Order" in some secret ceremony.
Almost all Freemasons are and were church-going Christians (even the 18th century Deists) and tried to adhere to the high moral standards outlined in the Christian religion. Obviously, there have been people who have not lived up to the standards expected of a Freemason member, but that would be true of members of any church or organization. The opinions on this web site reflect the idea that most recognized Freemason historians are generally consistent and aim to be truthful in their accounts.
18th Century Fraternal Organizations
For the sake of brevity, I'll limit myself to the simplest definition of the organization of Freemasonry. There are also related organizations which have been mistakenly associated with Freemasonry which I also outline.
Freemason - in the 18th century, Freemasonry was generally a charitable organization based on philanthropy and civic duty with a mission to develop high moral character among it membership. Religious tolerance and religious liberty seem to be an important undercurrent among American Freemasons, but religious belief is not discussed in meetings nor used as a screening device for Freemason membership. Freemasonry is not a religion. The mission of Freemasonry was\is likely moral by nature, and the definition of moral comes largely from Judeo-Christian values. It may have changed its moral focus throughout its documented history, but in the 18th century it reflected the religious mores of the local environment.
In terms of their secrecy, one Freemasonry web site put it this way: Freemasonry is an esoteric society only in that certain aspects are private; Freemasons state that Freemasonry is not, in the 21st century, a secret society but a "society with secrets".
Illuminati - The illuminati had about a-12 year history beginning in Bavaria in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, gained about 2000 members, and then was disbanded (suppressed by the elector of Bavaria). It unfortunately gained a mythological reputation as a politically subversive organization, most of which seems to be unfounded. Weishaupt apparently entered a Freemasonry lodge to try and recruit members, but the Illuminati's connection to Freemasonry is apparently nothing more than that. Conspiracy theorists love to suggest that fact that the Illuminati is still alive and functioning when no such evidence exists.
Rosicrucian - the Rosicrucian Order has been closely aligned with Freemasonry, but it's origins appear to be separate. The Rosicrucian Order is considered the most esoteric of the two groups and concentrates on spiritual and metaphysical studies while Freemasonry leaned heavily on civic duties, religious freedom, and practical philosophy. Both groups share many of the same symbols.
Of the three groups, we can only speak definitively about Freemasonry because individual lodges made their records available.