In all countries where the authorities accept or support their activities, the freemasons are grouped in Lodges, under the authority of a Master of the Lodge or Worshipful Master, who is elected for a limited period. The Lodges are grouped in Grand Lodges the sovereignty of which is usually restricted to the country itself. As opposed to a widespread, but wrong opinion, there is no central organization exercising its authority over the entire freemasonry in the world.
Here in Lebanon, the ORIENT is grouped in Grand Lodges.
The Masonic structures are national. In every country there is one single Grand Lodge, under the Obedience of which all Lodges of the same country operate.
In some countries, such as the United States, there is a Grand Lodge per State. The Grand Lodges - there are over one hundred of them in the world - are independent, autonomous and sovereign. Each Grand Lodge has a character of its own, with specific customs reflecting the local mentality and tradition. But all these Obediences are interrelated by a consensus with regard to the principles and the customs, which form the indispensable basis of regular freemasonry.
These common standards are indicated as the Landmarks. The landmarks are the borders, which cannot be transgressed, at the risk of leaving the domain of the Order.
The relations among the Grand Lodges are entered into through mutual recognition. Thus bilateral contacts come about which guarantee the cohesion of the institution in the world, without, however, interfering with the responsibility of every Grand Lodge.
Even the United Grand Lodge of England, the oldest and most important, with some 600,000 members, does not exercise any direct influence on the international plane. It limits itself to granting, withdrawing or refusing recognition.
The rigid accuracy with which it respects and makes others respect the principles which, as the very first, it codified, grants to its decisions a very great influence, so that it plays a leading role with regard to the regularity of the Grand Lodges.
The regular freemasonry numbers some 7 million members.
From 1726 on, the year in which it emerged in Paris, freemasonry spread first throughout the kingdom and subsequently in Europe, which then were part of the Austrian Netherlands.
In 1738 a first Grand Lodge was established in France. In 1733 the Grand Orient of France was founded under the presidency of the duke of Chartres, the later Philippe-Egalité; thus two Obediences existed next to each other, a situation which lasted until the revolution. From that time on, too, a certain tendency became visible in the Latin freemasonry to discuss topics of philosophical, moral and political nature.
In consequence of a love of rhetoric and polemics the French lodges mainly took pleasure in all kinds of debates, rather than performing initiatic work. The lodges were open chiefly to friendship, eloquence and table-pleasures. They also played a rather modest role in disseminating the ideas of Enlightenment. Yet it is a frequently occurring mistake to believe that their activities were the cause or one of the causes of the French Revolution. This legend which arose in the XIXth century from the imagination of a fiercely anti-masonic author, the clergyman Barruel, was, strangely enough, repeated by members of the Grand Orient of France which by then was definitely taken in by the political passion.
Owing to its social composition - its members belonged indeed to the three social classes - freemasonry could in reality not fight disintegration and did, for that matter, never think of it.
Thus several documents demonstrate the neutrality of freemasonry in the events of the revolution, and even though there were freemasons among those who condemned to the guillotine, there were even more among them who fell victims to it. In fact these events were all but fatal to the Order in France. In 1792 all lodges were closed and had it not been for the thermidor-reaction, this would have become a permanent situation.
The period of the empire marked a capital turn in the evolution of masonry in France. During this period it became the meek instrument of the authorities. The nobility and clergy of the old regime were replaced by imperial civil servants, army officers and captains of commerce and industry. The Grand Orient of France, a centralized and regulating power, became an instrument of the political authorities.
The fall of the empire meant the disappearance of this co-operation, in which freemasonry was far too much tied to a regime. This loss of power, however, awoke in some people the desire to regain the lost influence and induced them to come more and more to the fore as freemasons in political life. In France this evolution meant the end of traditional freemasonry and gave rise to an organization, which aimed only at propagating a doctrine of social progress, based on the fraternity among men, on rejecting the old faith and on the supremacy of ratio. The masonic author Jean Baylot termed this la voie substituée.
Moreover, this evolution was strongly promoted by the conflict with the catholic church, which had, as early as 1738, condemned the organization for enlisting members without any distinction of faith and making religious tolerance its main principle. The first condemnation had hardly any effects, but by repeating it regularly and by its vicious character most Catholics stayed away from the lodges, where they had been quite numerous until then.
Thus the lodges became homes for those people who considered the battle against the Church a duty for anyone who cared for Freedom.
These two factors, nostalgia for power and refusal of the Roman domination, were determining elements and gave to the irregular continental freemasonry the character it still has. Internally, the radicalization in its attitude led to thorough reforms in the latter half of the XIXth century.
Arguments about religion and politics were permitted in the lodges, the affirmation of the existence of God and any reference to God in the rituals were banned, freemasonry was opened to women by the creation of a mixed obedience, the Droit Humain.
In the Latin countries the conflict between Catholics and freethinkers resulted in the fact that freemasons became members of centre left parties - in which they often had a considerable influence - and in a politicizing of the masonic obediences. The members of these obediences were compelled to take a stand against the catholic parties with relation to the problems of that time (education, freethinking, religious congregations, influence of the Vatican). There was also a mutual influencing between masonic obediences and political parties (Italian republicans and liberals, Belgian liberals and especially French radicals).
Since 1945 the political evolution and the increasing role of the trade unions and of the left and extreme left parties has caused a change in the situation.
In France, for example, the Grand Orient shows a lively interest in public life. Evidence of this is found in its convents which are often devoted to problems of political, social and economic nature and about which its lodges are beforehand requested to reflect. The Grand Orient also feels obliged to take a stand on general problems of society.