Once again in Masonic circles of discussion we hear the debate searching for the answers as to why the decline in Masonic membership continues. All sorts of hypotheses have been advanced. The ones I hear most often are the greater number of choices available in today’s world, the limits of time in a what has become a very high strung, stressed out overworked society and the rise of women to equal status in American society thus restructuring the male/female role which often results in couples doing everything together rather than each going their separate way.
These explanations are all well and good and certainly have some merit in the scheme of things. Often times when no explanation reaches out and knocks you in the head it is because there are multiple causes for the resulting effect. But I believe that most are overlooking certainly the largest explanation for the continuing decline of American Freemasonry.
It is precisely Freemasonry’s interaction with civil society, its sympathetic response to what is troubling the nation that brings it into the focus of the uninitiated individual. When Freemasonry leads society into nobleness and righteousness, when it is society’s conscience it becomes a highly regarded institution upon which many will look with favor if not join.
That is not, however, to promote what American Grand Lodge’s of today have done to Freemasonry by turning the Craft into a giant Service Club where Freemasonry tries to use society for its own advantage and gain, where it tries to buy and bribe friends and recognition. There is a big difference between interacting with a nation and serving a nation.
It is often said that no one knows who we are as Freemasons. That’s because we are not interacting with society with the best interests of society at heart but rather merely concerned with ourselves and what’s in it for us.
American Freemasonry was never meant to be or destined to be a secretive monastic society, totally withdrawn from civil society and all its goings on. When Freemasonry actually rolled up its sleeves and became immersed in the “big play”, the overwhelming issue of the day, it was noticed, it garnered membership and it had influence.
When Freemasonry was concerned with civil society’s concerns it was able to LEAD society. As a leader involved with the well being of society, it was an accepted institution. When Freemasonry hid in its own shadow and pushed toleration to the extreme of being “politically correct”, then “Masonically correct” Freemasonry started to whither and die.
Everybody today talks about Freemasonry staying out of religion and politics. Most, however, are neglecting to clarify that it is partisan politics and sectarian religion that Freemasonry prohibits. There is a big difference between broad moral and social issues that define the structure of civil society and specific policies advocated as a remedy.
Freemasonry was always at its height when it chose to lead society. As a product of the Enlightenment it championed religious freedom, democratic government, public school education and separation of church and state. American colonial Freemasonry provided a system of networking in a society with no communication systems. It played a vital role in the formation of this nation. While one can point to the midnight ride of Paul Revere let’s not forget his and his Lodge’s possible involvement in the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor. Nor should we overlook the fact that at least 42% of the Generals commissioned by the Continental Congress were Masons. It was the values of Freemasonry that were drafted into the Constitution of the United States. Freemasons set up the government of this nation, authored the “noble experiment.”
As a new nation American Freemasonry was instrumental in the formation of public schools and universities. Men of letters came to Freemasonry not for the arts and sciences taught in Lodge but because Freemasonry was a learning promoter.
“Brothers officially sponsored educational endeavors that reached beyond the fraternity. This encouragement of broader education seemed to link the fraternity to the post-Revolutionary vision of an enlightened society built around equality and openness, values that brothers came to see expressed even in their order’s structure. By supporting learning and by teaching and embodying republican relationships, Masonry seemed to be upholding and advancing the Revolutionary experiment itself.”(1)
During the civil War Freemasonry was the only organization, society or institution that did not split in two. Even churches became promoters of either the Union or the Confederacy. Freemasonry, as in the Revolutionary War, contained many military Lodges that had a great influence on holding the armies together. But its greatest Civil War influence was ameliorating the harshness of the fighting and acting as a healer of society.
Post Civil War saw American Freemasonry usher in an age of great Masonic authorship and great Masonic building. Its ability to grow right along with the industrialization of the United States was a great asset to its continued influence.
Somewhere into the 20th century Freemasonry lost its leadership role. Oh it wasn’t evident right away. The nation was consumed with fighting two world wars and the post war push of returning soldiers who wished to continue the exhilarating uplift of camaraderie kept the numbers high and the coffers full. But by 1960 American Freemasonry was living on past laurels and fresh blood was nowhere to be seen. The plain fact is that American Freemasonry became SOCIALLY IRRELEVANT.
If Freemasonry had remained socially relevant it could have lead the nation into breaking the color barrier and busting Black discrimination in society. William Upton was the Jackie Robinson of Freemasonry. As Grand Master of Washington State in 1898 he recognized Prince Hall and black/white fraternization. If we had built on this start, even if ever so slowly, Freemasonry could have led the nation into integration thereby avoiding the confrontation of Rosa Parks and the marches of Martin Luther King.
As one of the only institutions worldwide to actually live peaceful, cooperative brotherhood among people of different races, religions, cultures and economic circumstances, American Freemasonry was in a unique position to encourage and promote world peace. People today looking back 50 years ago could have pointed out that the “peace movement” was Freemasonry. The fact that Freemasonry refused to do so out of fear of offending and being politically incorrect caused it to lose esteem in the eyes of the general public.
If Freemasonry had led the nation in the 50s, if it had been the conscience and the moral compass of the nation in the area of Civil Rights and the peace movement then it would not have lost a whole generation to Masonic membership. Freemasonry would have been respected and revered and consequently flourished. But instead we turned a blind eye to black lynching and the evil of the KKK and watched in silence from the sidelines while the Vietnam War tore this nation apart. And then we have the audacity to ask why the generation of the day refused to join Freemasonry. Who was fighting for the soul of the American nation? It sure wasn’t Freemasonry and we paid the price.
Today we are faced with a worldwide HOLY WAR. Who better to promote ecumenical and religious tolerance in the world than Freemasonry? Who better to pave the way for a better understanding among different religious traditions than the institution that has actually accomplished that for centuries? This is not partisan politics or sectarian religion. This is being the moral leader in a time of crisis. This is spreading the values of Freemasonry just as our Masonic forefathers did in the formation of this nation.
But alas, American Freemasonry would rather withdraw within itself than risk the path of greatness. The result will be continued Masonic stagnation and a general misunderstanding of Freemasonry’s role and purpose by the general public.
(1) “Revolutionary Brotherhood” by Stephen C. Bullock, pg. 145