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reemasonry — the world’s largest and oldest fraternal organization — is often referred to as “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated symbols.” But what’s so peculiar about it? To be sure, Freemasons scattered across the globe have trouble agreeing on what exactly is meant by this peculiarity.

One consideration in answering this question is the origin of Freemasonry. (I wrote a separate piece on this topic. In 1717, four lodges in England formed the Grand Lodge of England. And in 1730, the first American masonic lodge was established in Philadelphia, with future revolutionary hero Benjamin Franklin as a founding member.

Even so, masonic manuscripts suggest that Freemasonry may date back to 1150.

But if we’re to take 1717 — the founding of the Grand Lodge in England — as a benchmark, the growth of Freemasonry coincided with the Enlightenment. (Scholars diverge in their opinions of exact start of the Enlightenment: I’ve seen some sources that attest that the era began in 1715, while others pinpoint genesis of Enlightenment as late as 1730.)

The Age of Enlightenment focused on an innovative concept (for its time): authority and legitimacy stem primarily from reason. These ideas spurred citizens to write books, create art and entertain discussions on what role citizens should have in government.

Just several years before the enlightenment, the undisputed message from European governments was that authority and legitimacy stemmed from the king. Naysayers put themselves at risk of being jailed, tortured or put to death.

Enter Freemasonry.

Masonic lodges consisting of men of various backgrounds — but all who professed belief in God — converged to discuss an alternate path to authority. According to masonic tradition, authority comes from self-control. Since a man who has no self-control cannot expect to have authority, masonic education starts with underscoring the importance of this personal trait.

To that end, masonic education helps members lead exemplary lives by providing foundational teachings on their duties as a Freemason. These duties extend far beyond the expectation that members attend meetings and pay their dues. In taking his obligation, a Freemason pledges to uphold the strongest morals in his professional, personal and family life — as well as to God and country. (Men who do not attest to belief in God are not eligible for membership).

Freemasonry uses the tools of an operative Freemason (i.e., a builder) to teach members how they may build their own personal code of ethics such that may fulfill their duties in life, as expected of all Freemasons.

Thus, we return to the original question: What makes Freemasonry “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated symbols?” That the moral obligations (duties) stemmed from reason in an era when the norm was that obligations stemmed from the king, made it peculiar for its day.

Today, the fact that we as Freemasons, continue to use allegory and illustrated symbols to teach these lessons in an age when most people learn morality by reading self-help books, makes us peculiar for our own day.

To add another layer that makes Freemasons peculiar — we eschew social media campaigns and large trade events to recruit new members.

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