"You are never to solicit anyone to a participation in our privileges... "
Outsiders to Freemasonry are often confused, or even offended, about the membership policies and qualifications of the Craft. Put simply, Freemasonry is a fraternity that does not recruit for membership. These are among the specific rules that are so old, and held to be so inviolable, that they are termed the "Ancient Landmarks of Freemasonry". We make no excuses for, nor exceptions from them. Fathers do not ask their sons to join, no matter how much they hope for it. We do not solicit our oldest and dearest friends. Because we do not invite men to join us, no matter how deserving we may think they are, we may appear aloof, secretive and even ominous to the outside world. To become a Mason, a man must first ask a Mason about joining the organization. We will not approach him; he must show a distinct initial interest "of his own free will and accord", based on his having formed a "favorable opinion of the Craft". Once he has broached the subject of joining us, however, the prospective Candidate will suddenly find Masons to be remarkably open, supportive and helpful in his search for "Light". Through casual conversation on a variety of topics, the Brothers will satisfy themselves that the man is sincere and qualified. By their generally open responses to his inquiries, he will come to know for himself whether this is the kind of group with which he would be comfortable. We are at least as concerned that he approve of us as that we approve of him.
"It is the internal, and not the external qualifications that recommend a man to be made a Mason... "
There are certain very particular prerequisite qualifications for membership in any California Masonic Lodge. To be "made a Mason", the Candidate must be "a man, freeborn, under the tongue of good report, and coming well recommended". He must be willing to declare that he places his trust in a Supreme Being. He will be asked to make certain serious declarations "on his Honor" and to swear certain binding Obligations, asking his god's help in maintaining their observance. Those declarations and Obligations pertain only to his relationship to Freemasonry and do not "interfere with the duty you owe to God, your Country, your Neighbor or Yourself". These prerequisites are to be taken quite literally. We seek only the kind of mature, sincere, upstanding, well-regarded man who will bind himself to high ideals "without equivocation, mental reservation or secret evasion of mind whatever". The Obligations are taken under the threat of horrible (but fortunately only symbolic!) penalties for their violation.
"Speculative Masonry ... is so far interwoven with religion as to place us under obligations... "
It should be especially noted that Freemasonry is not a religion, nor is it a substitute for a religion. There is no test of religious affiliation in the qualifications to become a member. Aside from needing to satisfy the Brethren that he is willing to take his solemn obligations to heart, the Candidate's choice of church is of no matter to us. Masonry "unites men of every country, sect and opinion, and causes true friendship to exist among those who might otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance". We do not require a man to accept another man's god as valid or equal with his own. We do require him to put religious and political differences aside while in the Lodge. This enables us, perhaps more than any other grouping of men, to cooperate on the more important business of promoting "Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth".
"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find... "
The prospective Candidate will complete a written application form addressed to the Lodge of which he hopes to become a member. Two members of the Lodge must sign the petition and it must list other character references. The salient points of the petition will be read in Lodge at its next Stated Meeting, the monthly business meeting. The Master will appoint a committee of three members to investigate the applicant. The investigators are not known to the Lodge nor to one another. They may wish only to meet the applicant and talk for a few minutes, or look more seriously into his background, as they wish. They will often ask to meet him and his family in their home. The three investigators will report their recommendations to the Master. At the next Stated Meeting, the Master will announce the recommendations of the committee in very general terms and the membership will ballot on the petition. In California, a single negative vote is sufficient to reject the petition, a rare event. This requirement is so stringent because we hold that "Harmony is the strength and support of all societies, especially of ours". A California Mason will always know that his presence among the Workmen was approved by each and every man who was present that day.
Once his application is approved, the Candidate for Freemasonry will participate in a ceremony called the "Degree of Entered Apprentice", or "First Degree", in which he will be Entered into the Lodge and made an Apprentice Mason in due and ancient form. He will receive preliminary instruction on the nature of his new association and an important lesson in Masonic Charity. He will be assigned to a Candidate's Coach, who will meet with him as often as it takes to teach him the question-and-answer summary of the Degree. When his Coach is satisfied with his command of the Work, he will be scheduled to perform the Proficiency in Lodge. If done well enough, he will receive the Second Degree.
The "Degree of Fellowcraft", or "Second Degree", is widely regarded as the most poetic and instructive of the Masonic degrees. In it, the Apprentice is Passed to the Degree of Fellowcraft Mason in due and ancient form. He learns many of the more expressive symbols of his Craft and hears references to the philosophical basis for his conduct as a Mason. The importance of the study of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, especially of Geometry, is emphasized. He will again meet with a Coach to learn the summary of the Work and will pass a Proficiency examination.
In the "Degree of Master Mason", the famous "Third Degree", the Fellowcraft will be Raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason in due and ancient form. He will take part in a traditional reenactment intended to emphasize the importance of the virtue of Fidelity. Upon completing this Degree, the Brother is a fully qualified Master Mason, entitled to all of the rights and privileges of that Degree. Among us, there is no higher rank than that of Master Mason.
The Character of a Freemason
The real Freemason is distinguished from the rest of mankind by the uniform, unrestrained rectitude of his conduct. Other men are honest in fear of punishment that the law might inflict. They are religious in expectation of being rewarded, or in dread of the devil in the next world. A Freemason would be just if there were no laws, human or divine, except those written in his heart by the finger of his Creator. In every climate, under every system of religion, he is the same. He kneels before the Throne of God in gratitude for the blessings he has received and in humble solicitation for his future protection. He venerates the good men of all religions. He disturbs not the religion of others. He restrains his passions, because they cannot be indulged without injuring his neighbor or himself. He gives no offense because he does not choose to be offended. He is honest upon principle.
Farmer's Almanac, 1823
Freemasons (Satirically) Defined
FREEMASONS [free-mey-suh nz, fri meɪs ənz] n. An order with secret rites, grotesque ceremonies and fantastic costumes, which, originating in the reign of Charles II, among working artisans of London, has been joined successively by the dead of past centuries in unbroken retrogression until now it embraces all the generations of man on the hither side of Adam and is drumming up distinguished recruits among the pre-Creational inhabitants of Chaos and Formless Void. The order was founded at different times by Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Cyrus, Solomon, Zoroaster, Confucius, Thothmes, and Buddha. Its emblems and symbols have been found in the Catacombs of Paris and Rome, on the stones of the Parthenon and the Chinese Great Wall, among the temples of Karnak and Palmyra and in the Egyptian Pyramids -- always by a Freemason.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1889