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The Death of Freemasonry: When Change Changes You

Is Freemasonry dying or changing?

I haven’t said much on the subject of membership in Freemasonry (in general) and in the United States in particular, for some time. But with the buzz and interest in the last few posts (Freemasonry Is DyingBait & Switch, I Quit and Masonic Anti-Intellectualism A Crying Shame), I thought it necessary to pen a few thoughts on the matter.

So often, articles like these end gathering comments saying “…lodges just need to do the work and things will get better…we need to guard the west gate” or “…we need to focus on the people with a real interest in Masonry.” I like “Freemasonry isn’t dying…we’re refining.”

In all of these instances, the insinuation of doing nothing except what was done before, only better, is tantamount to putting your head in the sand and pretending that the problem isn’t really a problem. This isn’t a new realization. I gave the numbers my own rudimentary examination in 2007, concluding with saying So What? You can’t stem the change without acknowledging it.

That change, no longer on the horizon, will only result in a better fraternity with true believers of likeminded men. Some Masons get it, or at least see why its so hard to have the conversation in the first place. And sure, Freemasonry as an entity, isn’t dying. What’s dying is the Freemasonry as we know it today.

What happens when lodges lose their membership?

The situation as I’m reading and seeing today in the numbers, is membership declining precipitously which will mean sooner, rather than later, revenue from lodges will dry up and lodges will close. This story ran just yesterday in the Daily Times, a news outlet out of Delaware County, PA: End of Era in Chester: Masons hold final meeting.

The long and the short of it: lodge membership dropped, it lost its charter, the Grand Lodge took the charter and keys of the lodge and sold it.

As things progress in this period of refinement, Grand Lodges will take possession of old charters and buildings, selling the latter in high-value markets to keep their own coffers full sustaining what remains of Grand Lodge programs and retirement homes.

As member dues continue to shrink, the relationship between the lodge and grand lodge will be reevaluated and charters will start being deconstructed, flowing back along their lines of dispensation. In that process, Freemasonry will cease to exist in a meaningful way in the manner it does today.

No more lodge buildings. No more organized charity. No more institutional presence, turning to vapor 300 years charity, initiation and enlightenment.

They’ll be a few folks around doing something like Freemasonry, but it won’t be in the manner it was today.

It’s actually a fascinating thought experiment to consider how the business end of things will transpire as revenue dries up.

Cause and Effect

This is the cause and effect of change. Change in membership numbers, change in interest, change in cultural norms.

Gone are the days of men in suits lunching on three martinis or fellas in blue collar work shirts building things in factories. The bygone days are gone.

Chris Hodapp posted a great piece on how the era of the “woke generation” has mostly forgotten about Freemasonry—seeing what’s left as an anachronistic throwback club wearing racially biased costumes in gender excluding male hang-outs (Read: Freemasonry in the Age of Woke). In some respects, the age of woke probably isn’t too far off the track on their assessment. You can see, in one instance, what happens to the temples when their caretakers have to turn over the keys because they can’t keep up the rent.

This is the change that’s happening, right now, as the number of dues-paying members declines.

Masonry is going to change, not because it wanted to, but mostly because it will run out of the fuel that sustains it—namely people and money.

History Repeats Itself

This isn’t the first time Freemasonry has faced change.

During the Morgan Affair, membership in Freemasonry recoiled and nearly went extinct in the fires of the Anti-Masonic Political Party. Over the centuries masons gathered in conclaves, held meetings, met in lodges, and traveled to regional congresses—all to debate the changes they faced and the direction they should move.

In one early period, a rough conglomeration of stand-alone lodges in England organized themselves in a tavern to become the United Grand Lodge of England and the progenitor of American Freemasonry.

This was change. And it meant bucking the convention of the age.

From its inception (and baring a few making-of Masons at sight) lodges have been the defacto entry point to membership. To be a mason, you join a lodge, which meant you joined Freemasonry.

But membership is exclusive. You join “a” lodge to facilitate your dues and catalog your membership, which in turn rolls up to the state level grand lodge which takes a portion of your dues to pay some leadership and finance its operation. 

By operation I mean how it controls and distributes charters, funds homes, controls communications between states and works organizationally (albeit loosely) with the other states and appendant bodies to say who’s “regular”, and who’s not. Think of dues as an affiliation fee, or a tax. The more members a lodge has, the more it pays to the grand lodge. The fuller the coffers the more it can do.

Catalyst for Change

The issue with modern Freemasonry, as practiced today, isn’t wholly the teachings. It isn’t wholly the philosophy. It isn’t in the message or ideals.

Certainly, the history and cultural norms bring a measure of baggage in the broad exclusion of women and the history of racial separation. But these “issues” have evolved their own solutions within the system. The problem facing modern Freemasonry, and its decline in membership, is its membership model.

To require interested seekers to pay to join a lodge that offers no “intrinsic” value or no “tangible” service isn’t working.

Sure, by joining a lodge dues payers get access to an esoteric library (maybe), something we all use these days. Members get access to a Masonic funeral (if you stay current in dues for a set number of years). And, if you fit into the culture, you can develop good relationships with people (maybe) who are interested (mostly) in the same things you are. In-between you might get to eat or serve (maybe) decent meals, argue over paying the bills (out of the dues you’ve paid) and support closely associated charities that exist to give family of some members something to do other than attending lodge dinners.

This is a gross oversimplification of the Life Masonic, but in a nutshell this is the bread and butter of the Masonic lodge system. 

Why lodges lose most newly made masons is that they join, see this process, lose the value proposition (or never find a place in the old boys club) and within a fairly set amount period of time, stop attending and stop paying dues.

The issue isn’t lodges. The Issue is who’s using them. Not the leadership. The issue is in the members. Without them, there isn’t a reason to exist.

Follow the Money

It’s this layer of non-paid dues that really amplifies the loss. (read: There’s a Hole in Our Bucket) It’s the cessation of dues-paying members that ramps up the attrition.

This is what is wrong with the current model of Freemasonry.

No better meals, no better educational programs or improved ritual performance is going to bring people back once they’ve walked away. How would they know unless someone reaches out to sell them on the improved value proposition? 

Doing Freemasonry Differently

The situation is that being a mason is dependent on paying dues to a local lodge that just doesn’t offer a value proposition.

Is there a different model? A disruption of the death spiral?

I think a temporary solution could be a separate layer of membership tied to the state or perhaps a national body that removes the barrier of belonging to a local lodge and allow, if even for a few years, membership in Freemasonry to start to grow again. This would allow for a needed infusion of membership (and their dues) to cycle back into the craft something of value for the membership. What does that look like? Quarterly programs, some kind of media that’s interesting to new AND old Masons keeping them interested, rather than a cut and paste photocopied newsletters full of borrowed articles from around the web. 

Freemasonry isn’t dying a natural death. Freemasonry is slowly strangling itself in the grip of suicidal inaction over the fear of its own history under the glare of modernity.

The system of dues making the mason at the local lodge level is the noose strangling what’s left of the fraternity.

The antiquated modalities of doing things the way they were done before, right down to how and where dues are paid, is a noose around Freemasonry’s neck as we watch the options escape us like the last gasps of life on the gallows.

Disrupting Freemasonry

Some quick thoughts worthy of exploration to do Freemasonry differently:

  • Change the membership system from the old lodge dues and Grand Lodge tax system
  • Eliminate the necessity of belonging to “a” lodge
  • Invite SNPDs (suspension of nonpayment of dues) back into the fold under the “new” system of membership
  • Craft quality content, relevant to the program, to keep the membership engaged (Think how the AARP, Scouts or even the NRA are engaging their audiences)
  • Look hard at the issues of race and gender
  • Reevaluate the state by state system of management.

If not, doing nothing will still track the decline in membership. Doing something differently? Maybe it can slow things down.

Initiations could be handled by extant lodges with exceptional ritual which would begin to help them thrive again with returning members not tied to one lodge by dues and nurtured in meaningful ways. It’s a change from what’s been done before, in control of the change rather than letting the change control the future. Appendant bodies could leverage their above and beyond the blue lodge activities, and masonry can remember what it was to be flush again.

It means taking control of the future and leaning into it—steering the chaos as best possible—rather than letting the chaos of change control where the fraternity is headed. 

Winston Churchill said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” Freemasonry hasn’t changed in nearly a century. Now is the time to seek perfection, before it’s too late and Freemasonry really is dead.

Greg Stewart: A devoted student of the Western Mystery Traditions, Greg is a firm believer in the Masonic connections to the Hermetic traditions of antiquity, its evolution through the ages and into its present configuration as the antecedent to all contemporary esoteric and occult traditions. He is a self-called searcher for that which was lost, a Hermetic Hermit and a believer in “that which is above is so too below.” Read more about Greg Stewart.

View Comments (9)

  • Brother Greg - Excellent article. It reminds me of two things, first; the axiom "You cannot treat a patient unless he knows he is sick" (many Masons still do not acknowledge a problem exists), and; second, this was what caused me to write "The Masonic Manifesto" years ago, which offered a list of suggestions for improving the fraternity. Unfortunately, this was misinterpreted by the powers that be at the time, which led to my censorship:

    http://www.themasonictrowel.com/new_files_to_file/the_masonic_manifesto.htm

    Hopefully, your article will trigger Masons to revisit the subject before it is too late.

    All the Best
    Tim

  • The simple fact is that the "old guard" had some great years, but are now extremely reluctant to relinquish control of the crumbling castles they think they built. The younger brethren don't want "Ladies Nights" or "Horse racing nights" they are more likely to enjoy a go karting evening and a decent bit of pub food.
    Masonry simply has to adapt or die, it still has an immense amount to offer to younger guys, but as a rule we no longer have the old class system and top down management structures, so why does masonry still hold onto those times? I was disgusted when a senior member of our lodge informed one of our new recruits that he was being made a steward and there for had to be a waiter for the dining!! I stepped in at that point and assured the EA that those days are long gone. Masonry has to survive the next 5-10 years then the younger guys will hold the keys and recruitment will surge again. Only trouble is in about 25-30 years some one else will be typing a similar set of thoughts, but will no doubt be referring to me as one of the "old guard".

  • Love the article. My favorite part: "Freemasonry isn’t dying a natural death. Freemasonry is slowly strangling itself in the grip of suicidal inaction over the fear of its own history under the glare of modernity." That said, I am still baffled by the notion of trying to save the Fraternity in some way that would result in it being similar to it's current system. e.g. Grand Lodges etc. The charity we espouse, is an innovation. Largely, what we're bent out of shape on and what people can't seem to just let go of, is the concept once defined as "Continental Masonry"--that is, United States' version of Freemasonry. I say let it die. Let lodges who function under the concepts of education and spiritual experience be the remaining vestiges of a once magnanimous order, turned bastardized social club and who is now quietly lurking and taking over like a disease. A disease that will creep through the ranks, pull away active members from lodges that are struggling, in order to bring them into the fold of the aforementioned spiritual and educational lodges.

    There is no "teaching an old dog new tricks" in this sense. You have to let them die and let the small outfit "Esoteric" lodges become the home of the social club converts. And should they not want that brand of Masonry, than I dare say that they should never have joined in the first place. We are a wisdom school. As it is written in the book displayed in such a prevalent manor on the altars of US Lodges, "You will reap what you sew." Galatians.

    Let it go.

    • The hurdle in just letting things go, I would suspect, is having to acknowledge the letting go of the charities started and in current operation, which would mean going back on promises made in earlier generations. No more charity means no more homes. It means no more orphanages. It means smaller Grand Master "special projects." Maybe this is for the better, but it would be a willful break from programs already established and driven with dues.

      We know what doing nothing will achieve. It may at least be worth the attempt to keep things afloat relative to the current situation before the attrition drives what is already happening and there's no one in control of it.

  • I would add that we need to jetison the boring American ritual, and use the original Modern's ritual. Its a return to our roots, and offers by far, a more meaningful and less verbose intiatic experience.

  • I am a mason as was my father and grand father. The entire male side of the family are masons. forgive an old man in his dotage, I am in my ninety"s. My participation as a mason drifts in and out of actual participation. I had this discussion in lodge a few years ago. It dealt with the number of masons that take thew first degree and for what ever the reason fade into the back ground. We have maintained an enter apprentice membership list that encompasses a large identification of sleeping masons. Using the measurement that once raised they are masons and the seeking of more light rests with him. I put forth a position that allows for the lodge to maintain a relationship, they after all are good men. I came home in WWII to a time of close relationship that the lodge filed. The lodge has many levels. It stems back to a time of interrelationship that provided the code of honor that men lived by. Often time they met on the battle field. This carried over up to WWII. Do not cast this obligation aside it is the cloak of honor that has stood the test of time. Give thought to how to save this resolve of masons, they exist. The two tier level is justified.
    Fred V Miller St Ark 39

  • Excellent article Brother Greg, every Mason needs to read this article. I do agree that changes need to be made in many of our lodges. In some ways I like the way the lodges are run in the UK. A prospective member is not given an application for membership until they learn more about how the lodge works and they see how they can fit in as a member. It may take up to two or three years before you become a Master Mason. The membership retention is better than here and also some of the lodges are smaller in member numbers. I enjoy being a member of my lodge, Greenwood Lodge #514 in Indiana. I have met people I would have never would have met if it weren't for being a Mason. I have also made long lasting friends with my Brothers in my Lodge as well as in Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite and the Murat Shrine in Indianapolis. My son is also a Mason as well as my Father, Grandfather, Great Grandfather and at least two more generations I have been able to find in research. Keep up the good work my Brother.

  • Bro. Stewart,

    Fascinating article. I think your two-tier system, though, might hinge on a debatable premise: that Masons are "tied to their Lodge by dues." My Lodge has perpetual memberships, and so on joining (~15 years ago) I paid the last of my compulsory fees. I do not consider myself tied to my Lodge by anything but a genuine delight in being with my brothers, and I avail myself often of the opportunity to visit other Lodges when traveling. I have loved the experience of seeing Masonry practiced on almost every continent.

    I am not the norm, though -- most Masons don't travel as much as I do (personally, professionally, or Masonically), and those who have the opportunity to see many Lodges--especially American Masons--often do so fully within the bounds of their Grand Lodge. With this in mind I would posit that Masons are not tied to their Lodge by dues, they are tied to them through their lives. They joined, and remain at, their Lodge because it is a part of their social fabric.

    This begs the question: if a Lodge in, say, rural Ohio folds, what happens to its members? It is unlikely that they will spontaneously find funds to travel significant distances to other Lodges. What would membership in an organization outside of their state, such as the national membership you explore, do for them? Practically, not a whole lot.

    There are certainly benefits to having a broader view of Freemasonry, and this is something that could come out of an affiliation at the national level. But... with all of the tools already available on the internet, why pay membership dues to a nebulous organization staffed by people the average member would never meet? If the core of Freemasonry is on the Five Points of Fellowship (read: in person), then digitally focused organizations can only ever get so far.

    I think this is a great topic to discuss and debate. And Freemasonry is certainly changing right in front of us. But I'm not sure that a "shadow Grand Lodge" at the national (for the US) or global level would solve our membership problem. For the vast majority of Masons without the ability or desire to travel significant distances, all it would do is insert a digital proxy where the Five Points once were. And to me, that would no longer be Freemasonry.

    -j

  • I became a Freemason in South Africa, about 35 years ago. I joined The Gold Fields Lodge No. 2478 EC, quickly became Charity Steward and rose to Junior deacon, beefore moving to the UK. I joined a London Lodge whic met in a lovely lodgde room near Liverpool St. Station, before joining a lodge that Met nearer my home in Hertfordshire. From this point on I became disillususioned with English Freemasonry. All taht mattered was being word perfect in the ritual, something we managed well enough in South Africa despite meeting 12 times a year and only having 1 LOI per month. We spread the work out amonst willing brethren, ratheer tha making the Master do most of it. I persevered through my year as Master but attended only once or twice as IPM. My enthusiasm was killed by the lack of brotherhood, the cliqueyness (if that is a word) and the general pointlessness of the way the Lodge functioned, with no social elemebnt execept Ladies Night and the occassional evening when the ladies were welcomed to the post meeting dinner. For me Freemasonry had lost its relevance, and though I have very fond memories of my tim as a mason in SA, I do not miss it here is England. Sadly.

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