The first Golden Dawn temple (Isis-Urania Temple – 1888) was founded by William Robert Woodman, William Wynn Westcott and Samual Liddell MacGregor Mathers who were originally Free Masons and members of the Rosicrucian Society of England. It is considered to be the largest influence on 20th century occultism.
The Golden Dawn was an initiatory magical order (similar to the Free Masons in hierarchy) based on documents referred to as the Cipher Manuscripts. The manuscripts were written using *Trithemius cipher and give the specifics of the Ritual and curriculum of the Orders teachings including Hermetic Qabalah, astrology, tarot, geomancy and alchemy. The manuscripts were given to the founders by Kenneth R.H. Mackenzie.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was comprised of three orders; The Golden Dawn, The Inner Order and The Secret Chiefs, each with a different focus of study. Within a few years three more temples were founded including a fourth in Paris and by the mid 1890’s was well established with over one hundred members. William Westcott left the order in 1897, with only speculations as to the reasons why. After this, Mathers was left the only active founding member and not long after Westcott leaving, some of the Adepts of the order became dissatisfied with Mathers’ leadership and concerned with his growing friendship with Aleister Crowley.
Crowley had been refused initiation by the London officials of the Order, so Mathers initiated Crowley himself in Paris on January 16 1900. Further events stemming from this action later caused the London Order to call a general meeting requesting the removal of Mathers as chief and to expel him from the Order. After efforts to re-establish himself in London, and at some point between 1901 and 1903, renamed the Amen-Ra Temple to Alpha et Omega. By this time The Golden Dawn had already moved in to the United States of America and by 1914 had three American temples. Most of the temples closed by the 1930’s, the last operating off and on until 1978.
The current and modern Hermetic order of the Golden Dawn has no direct lineage to the original order other than initiatory lineage through the late Israel Regardie. There have been many other hermetic and ceremonialist orders follow in the footsteps of the Golden Dawn, the other main one being the Holy Order of the Golden Dawn.