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. The various Grand Lodges recognise each other, or not, based upon adherence to landmarks (a Grand Lodge will usually deem other Grand Lodges who share common landmarks to be regular, and those that do not to be “irregular” or “clandestine”).
There are also appendant bodies, which are organisations related to the main branch of Freemasonry, but with their own independent administration.
The origins and early development of Freemasonry are a matter of some debate and conjecture. A poem known as the “Regius Manuscript” has been dated to approximately 1390 and is the oldest known Masonic text. There is evidence to suggest that there were Masonic lodges in existence in Scotland as early as the late 16th century (for example the Lodge at Kilwinning, Scotland, has records that date to the late 16th century, and is mentioned in the Second Schaw Statutes (1599) which specified that “ye warden of ye lug of Kilwynning tak tryall of ye airt of memorie and science yrof, of everie fellowe of craft and everie prenteiss according to ayr of yr vocations”). There are clear references to the existence of lodges in England by the mid-17th century.
The first Grand Lodge, the Grand Lodge of England (GLE), was founded on 24 June 1717, when four existing London Lodges met for a joint dinner. This rapidly expanded into a regulatory body, which most English Lodges joined. However, a few lodges resented some of the modernisations that GLE endorsed, such as the creation of the Third Degree, and formed a rival Grand Lodge on 17 July 1751, which they called the “Antient Grand Lodge of England.” The two competing Grand Lodges vied for supremacy – the “Moderns” (GLE) and the “Antients” (or “Ancients”) – until they united on 25 November 1813 to form the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE).
The Grand Lodge of Ireland and The Grand Lodge of Scotland were formed in 1725 and 1736 respectively. Freemasonry was exported to the British Colonies in North America by the 1730s – with both the “Antients” and the “Moderns” (as well as the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland) chartering offspring, or “daughter,” Lodges, and organising various Provincial Grand Lodges. After the American Revolution, independent U.S. Grand Lodges formed themselves within each state. Some thought was briefly given to organising an over-arching “Grand Lodge of the United States,” with George Washington (who was a member of a Virginian lodge) as the first Grand Master, but the idea was short-lived. The various state Grand Lodges did not wish to diminish their own authority by agreeing to such a body.
Although there are no real differences in the Freemasonry practised by lodges chartered by the Antients or the Moderns, the remnants of this division can still be seen in the names of most Lodges, F.& A.M. being Free and Accepted Masons and A.F.& A.M. being Antient Free and Accepted Masons.
The oldest jurisdiction on the continent of Europe, the Grand Orient de France (GOdF), was founded in 1733. However, most English-speaking jurisdictions cut formal relations with the GOdF around 1877, when (following the Lausanne Congress of 1875) the GOdF removed the requirement that its members have a belief in a Deity. The Grande Loge Nationale Française (GLNF) is currently the only French Grand Lodge that is in regular amity with the UGLE and its many concordant jurisdictions worldwide.
Due to the above history, Freemasonry is often said to consist of two branches not in mutual regular amity:the UGLE and concordant tradition of jurisdictions (mostly termed Grand Lodges) in amity, andthe GOdF, European Continental, tradition of jurisdictions (often termed Grand Orients) in amity.In most Latin countries, the GOdF-style of European Continental Freemasonry predominates, although in most of these Latin countries there are also Grand Lodges that are in regular amity with the UGLE and the worldwide community of Grand Lodges that share regular “fraternal relations” with the UGLE. The rest of the world, accounting for the bulk of Freemasonry, tends to follow more closely to the UGLE style, although minor variations exist.