The origins and early development of Freemasonry are a matter of some debate. A poem known as the “Regius Manuscript” has been dated to approximately 1390 and is the oldest known Masonic text. There is evidence that there were Masonic lodges in existence in Scotland as early as the late sixteenth century (eg the Lodge at Kilwinning, Scotland, has records that date to the late 1500s. There are clear references to the existence of lodges in England by the mid-seventeenth century.
The Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland were formed in 1725 and 1736 respectively. Freemasonry was exported to the British Colonies inNorth America by the 1730s – with both the “Antients” and the “Moderns” (as well as the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland) chartering offspring (“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”, withGeorge 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. 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 1728. However, most English-speaking jurisdictions cut formal relations with the GOdF around 1877 – when the GOdF removed the requirement that its members have a belief in a Deity (thereby accepting atheists). 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, and
- the 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.