Freemasonry is aÂ 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 inÂ Scotland andÂ Ireland, over a quarter of a million under the jurisdiction of theÂ United Grand Lodge of England and just under two million in theÂ United States.
The fraternity is administratively organised into independentÂ Grand Lodges or sometimes Orients, each of which governs its ownÂ jurisdiction, which consists of subordinate (orÂ constituent) Lodges. The various Grand Lodges recognise each other, or not, based upon adherence toÂ landmarks (a Grand Lodge will usually deem other Grand Lodges who share common landmarks to beÂ regular, and those that do not to be “irregular” or “clandestine”).
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.Â There is evidence to suggest that there were Masonic lodges in existence inÂ Scotland as early as the late 16th centuryÂ (for example theÂ Lodge at Kilwinning, Scotland, has records that date to the late 16th century, and is mentioned in the SecondÂ Schaw Statutes (1599) which specified that “ye warden of ye lug of Kilwynning […] tak tryall of yeÂ airt of memorie and science yrof, of everie fellowe of craft and everie prenteiss according to ayr of yr vocations”).Â There are clear references to the existence of lodges inÂ England by the mid-17th century.
The first Grand Lodge, theÂ Grand Lodge of England (GLE), was founded on 24 June 1717, when four existingÂ 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 supremacyÂ â€“ the “Moderns” (GLE) and the “Antients” (or “Ancients”)Â â€“ until they united on 25 November 1813 to form theÂ United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE).
TheÂ Grand Lodge of Ireland and TheÂ Grand Lodge of Scotland were formed in 1725 and 1736 respectively. Freemasonry was exported to the British Colonies inÂ North America by the 1730sÂ â€“ 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 theÂ 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 theÂ United States”, withÂ 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 practiced 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. beingÂ Free and Accepted Masons and A.F.& A.M. beingÂ Antient Free and Accepted Masons.
The oldest jurisdiction on the continent ofÂ Europe, theÂ Grand Orient de France (GOdF), was founded in 1728. However, most English-speaking jurisdictions cut formal relations with the GOdF around 1877Â â€“ when the GOdF removed the requirement that its members have a belief in a Deity, thereby accepting atheists. TheÂ Grande Loge Nationale FranÃ§aise (GLNF)Â is currently the onlyÂ French Grand Lodge that is inregular amity with the UGLE and its many concordant jurisdictions worldwide.