Due to a lack of any verifiable documentation the precise origins of Freemasonry are hotly contested. Currently the most widely held belief is that modern Freemasonry evolved out of Stonemasons guilds in 17th century England. This theory, supported by the United Grand Lodge of England and the premier Masonic research bodies, proposes that these operative guilds began to admit non operative (or speculative) members for the further spread of their moral and spiritual ideals.
There is considerable, though by no means conclusive, evidence to suggest that Masonic lodges more recognizable to the modern Freemason were in existence in Scotland as much as a century earlier and the earliest text claimed to be of Masonic origin, The Regius Manuscript, has been dated as early as 1390 CE.
Founding the first Grand Lodge
The first Grand Lodge, the Grand Lodge of England, was founded on the 24th, June, 1717 when four London lodges met for a joint dinner, proclaiming themselves pre-eminent and assuming regulatory control over Freemasonry in England. This apparently spontaneous formation of the Grand Lodge understandably caused resentment amongst the other existing lodges of the time and ultimately lead to a schism in English Freemasonry that was not fully resolved until 1813 when the two rival groups formed the United Grand Lodge of England – the body which exists and co-ordinates English Freemasonry to this day.
In the mean time, the popularity of Freemasonry was spreading internationally. Grand Lodges were formed in Ireland in 1725 and Scotland in 1736. By the 1730’s Freemasonry had also been exported to the British Colonies in North America and, after the American Revolution, Grand Lodges began to form in each of the American states.
Freemasonry in Australia
Freemasonry was brought to Australia by military lodges granted traveling warrants and the first Lodge established and resident in Australia is The Australian Social Lodge No 260IC which held its first meeting on 4th of January, 1820 in Sydney.
During the 1890’s a French journalist going by the pseudonym Leo Taxil published a series of pamphlets and books charging Freemasonry with various wild allegations including conspiracy and devil worship. On April 19, 1897, Taxil revealed that the publications had been part of a elaborate series of hoaxes he had conducted. Records say he was mobbed by his audience and had to be removed by police. Despite his revelation Taxil’s works are often the foundation of anti-Masonic claims to this day.
On January 8th, 1934, the German Ministry of the Interior under Adolf Hitler ordered the complete dismantling of Freemasonry, the destruction of Masonic Lodges and the incarceration of convicted Freemasons in concentration camps. Freemasons were forced to wear an inverted Red Triangle to identify themselves as political prisoners. It is estimated that between 80 000 and 200 000 Freemasons were murdered under the Nazi Regime.
After the Second World War, Masonic membership experienced a significant boom as men looked to maintain a sense of belonging and comradeship. Interest in Freemasonry is regularly revived by the works of historians or story tellers, most recently in 2003 returning to public interest when included in the fictional work, The Da Vinci Code, by novelist Dan Brown.
Current membership worldwide is estimated at 5 million.