Freemasonry is a fraternal organisation that arose from obscure origins in the late 16th to early 17th century. Freemasonry now exists in various forms all over the world, with a membership estimated at around six million, including approximately 150,000 under the jurisdictions of the Grand Lodge of Scotland and Grand Lodge of Ireland, over a quarter of a million under the jurisdiction of the United Grand Lodge of England and just under two million in the United States.
The fraternity is administratively organised into independent Grand Lodges or sometimes Orients, each of which governs its own jurisdiction, which consists of subordinate (or constituent) Lodges. There is no single overarching governing body that presides over worldwide Freemasonry; connections between different jurisdictions depend solely on mutual recognition
There are also appendant bodies, which are organisations related to the main branch of Freemasonry, but with their own independent administration.
Principles and activities
While Freemasonry has often been called a “secret society,” Freemasons themselves argue that it is more correct to say that it is an esoteric society, in that certain aspects are private. The most common phrasing is that Freemasonry has, in the 21st century, become less a secret society and more of a “society with secrets.” The private aspects of modern Freemasonry are the modes of recognition amongst members and particular elements within the ritual. Despite the organisation’s great diversity, Freemasonry’s central preoccupations remain charitable work within a local or wider community, moral uprightness (in most cases requiring a belief in a supreme being) as well as the development and maintenance of fraternal friendship.
The fraternity is widely involved in charity and community service activities. Freemasonry worldwide disburses substantial charitable amounts to non-Masonic charities, locally, nationally and internationally. There are thousands of philanthropic organisations around the world created by Freemasons. The Masonic Service Association, the Masonic Medical Research Laboratory, and the Shriners Hospitals for Children are especially notable charitable endeavours that Masons have founded and continue to support both intellectually and monetarily.