Let's see what Benjamin Franklin has to say.
Courtesy of http://askafreemason.org/
What is this mysterious art we call Freemasonry? There has been a great number of definitions offered, but one of the simplest and most direct is used by our English brethren:
"Freemasonry is a system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated with symbols." The idea of teaching by symbols and allegories is not new; all great teachers have more or less followed this system."
Albert Pike, a great Masonic scholar and writer, says, "Freemasonry is the subjugation of the Human that is in man by the moral sense and reason; a continued effort, struggle, and warfare of the spiritual against the material and sensual." Of course, these definitions need a great deal of explaining. Yet, Masonry is, when clearly understood, a great world-wide system of emancipation, in that it teaches its initiates to liberate obsolete creeds, and beliefs that do violence to the reasoning faculties of every intelligent, enlightened, and untrammeled human mind. Freemasonry is a system of morality by the practice of which its members may advance their spiritual interest. But it is definitely erroneous to suppose that Freemasonry is a system of religion. It is but a handmaiden of religion, although it largely and effectually illustrates one great branch of it- the practice of virtue.
The system of morality, to which we have just referred, is that which every Mason is bound to profess and practice. If it includes principles with which he was familiar before he became a Mason, he will nevertheless find these presented here in new ways and under forms different from those with which he was previously familiar.
If he does not find in Masonic teachings anything surprisingly new, he should remember that in many respects at least there is "nothing new under the sun"; and that the essence of morality is to be found in the utter simplicity (though not ease) of its requirements.
Freemasonry is neither a religion, a political organization, nor a social club. It has for its foundation the basic principles of the Fatherhood of God, and the Brotherhood of Man, It teaches a belief in a Supreme Being, in the immortality of the soul, and that the Holy Bible is the inestimable gift of God to man as the rule and guide for his faith and practice.
It is a Fraternity or brotherhood pledged to the building of character- thoughts, words, motives, and deeds being the materials used. It strives to teach man the duty he owes to God, his country, his neighbor, and to himself. It inculcates the practice of virtue and morality in daily conduct, and it conveys its teachings through ceremonies and symbols.
During almost every period of human history men have set themselves apart from their fellows in groups (or clans). In many of these groups the members were bound by secrets known only to those selected for membership.
In primitive eras of man's existence the idea seems to have developed that group protection would afford the greatest security against the harsh forces of nature and the evil actions of man; that such groups secure sympathy, support, and protection for those whose bond of union was made in a common cause. Early Freemasonry doubtless originated out of similar causes.
There are no precise historical records now available to establish the first origin of Masonry; and if any ever existed, they are now completely buried in obscurity. However, its philosophy may be traced back to the remote ages, where the records actually exist in many cases. Its operative symbols are older than the temple of Solomon or the law of Moses, and many of its ceremonies may have been practiced in the ancient mysteries when Egypt stood as the most enlightened power of the world as then known.
The mission of Masonry now is to teach men to curb their intemperate passions and to reconcile conflicting interests; to extend to nations those principles of humanity, benevolence, and virtue which should move individuals; to overcome the pride of conquest and the pomp of war; to destroy local prejudices and unreasonable partialities; to banish from the world every source of enmity, hatred, and hostility; and to introduce those voluntary social dealings among men which can preserve peace and good order better than penal laws or political regulations ever could.
The advantages which mankind in general reaps from this science or morality are beyond calculation. Its blessings are not confined to any one country but are diffused by the Craft throughout the world. Men of every country, sect, and opinion are united in a strong bond of brotherly affection with the sole object of improving men and blessing mankind.
A Mason is at home in every country and with his friends in every lodge. On the level of Masonry, we know only God and man. We know neither rich nor poor, neither royal blood nor peasant stock. Men of wealth, men of simple toil, philosophers, royal heirs, and hard-handed peasants meet here upon the level, upon a common ground as brothers; and God is the Father of them all.
The Masonic fraternity is in no sense an insurance society; neither does it pay benefits in case of sickness or death. In a broad and correct sense, it is both educational and charitable. It extends such assistance only as it is willing and able to grant. It knowingly admits none to membership except those who are able to provide for themselves and those dependent upon them. Freemasonry teaches and gives opportunity to its members to inculcate morality, honesty and integrity in all walks of life, and to worthy members it renders assistance to a limited extent. It expects its members to obey the moral law and to practice charity towards all mankind, it believes that its members should have a strong desire to aid their fellow creatures. It has its own laws, rules, and regulations, and it requires a strict obedience thereto.
Admission into Freemasonry must not be sought through idle curiosity, because of ambition for honors, in the hope of monetary gain or of business or political advancement, nor for mercenary or other unworthy motives. Masonry does not solicit members; it wants and welcomes men of high character and integrity who should seek admission entirely of their own free will and accord. The aim of the true Mason is to cultivate a brotherly feeling among men, and to help, aid, and assist whomsoever he can.
(lecture from the Lodge System of Masonic Education)