Freemasonry is a fraternal organization whose membership is held together by shared moral and metaphysical ideals and—in most of its branches—by a constitutional declaration of belief in a Supreme Being. The order is thought to have arisen from the English and Scottish fraternities of practicing stonemasons and cathedral builders in the early Middle Ages; traces of the society have been found as early as the 14th century. Because, however, some documents of the order trace the sciences of masonry and geometry from Egypt, Babylon, and Palestine to England and France, some historians of Masonry claim that the order has its roots in antiquity.
The formation of the English Grand Lodge in London (1717) was the beginning of the widespread dissemination of speculative Freemasonry, the present-day fraternal order, whose membership is not limited to working stonemasons. The six lodges in England in 1700 grew to about 30 by 1723. There was a parallel development in Scotland and Ireland, although some lodges remained unaffiliated and open only to practicing masons. By the end of the 18th century, there were Masonic lodges in all European countries and in many other parts of the world as well.
The first lodge in the United States was founded in Philadelphia (1730); Benjamin Franklin was a member. Many of the leaders of the American Revolution, including John Hancock and Paul Revere, were members of St. Andrew’s Lodge in Boston. George Washington became a Mason in 1752. At the time of the Revolution most of the American lodges broke away from their English and Scottish antecedents. Freemasonry has continued to be important in politics; 13 Presidents have been Masons, and at any given time quite a large number of the members of Congress have belonged to Masonic lodges. Notable European Masons included Voltaire, Giuseppe Mazzini, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Franz Joseph Haydn, Johann von Goethe, Johann von Schiller, and many leaders of Russia’s Decembrist revolt (1825).