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American Freemasonry was never meant to be or destined to be a secretive monastic society, totally withdrawn from civil society and all its goings on.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
True. I think now is a great time for Freemasonry to make a stand and, once again, lead.
Very heart stirring, but ….
As you stated, their isn’t one cause. Why did we back off, why did we turn away? And now … why don’t we teach the same values we did? Lodges are having problems putting on Degree work, why? People don’t know the work! Go back to the 40s and say ‘I have been master mason for 5 years, but I don’t know the degree work to help you.’ You would have been thrown out on you ear!, Not today, today you get a sympathetic nod … a nod, for petty sake! Our secretary announced one of the members was going to give his degree work the next week, people rolled their eyes at the inconvenience and some didn’t show! Come on, is this the same Lodge that moved men to join back in the hayday?
As a Lodge we shaped men, today they don’t know what they have promised to be, or to do, they don’t learn, and no one takes the time to offer to teach or to ensure they know what Freemasonry is, We have become the Elks, or the Lions, just another club.
But we can’t MAKE a man learn why he has joined the Masons, oh, no! That would be unfair, they would have to work for what they want, how cruel! If they didn’t make suitable progress they would have to try harder or risk that which they sought in the first place, … is this who we REALLY want to be?
It is infecting the York and Scottish Rites too, Shrine is talking about removing the Masonic requirements … We drop our standards to boost membership and then wonder where the members are …
I remember a motto: We make Good Men Better
I don’t remember: We make any man Mason.
We in American seem to be dropping our standards so as not to offend any anyone, well, I am offended by this and am watching the decline of MANY things… our Lodges included.
Thank you for having the Moral fiber to write this article, hope it wakes some Grands up…. no, I PRAY it wakes some Grand Lodges up…
My penny’s worth.
I am afraid I am going to have to disagree with this post, although I found it very interesting and stimulating. It is not only partisan politics and sectarian religion that we are to avoid discussing, it is all questions of politics and religion.
You believe that Freemasonry should take the lead in certain world affairs. In what way? Who would decide the policy to be followed. For example, if the Grand Lodge decided to enter the peace process in the Middle East it would undoubtly end up offending both Jewish and Muslim brethren. To believe that Freemasonry would not do this where highly trained civil servants and diplomats have is a little bit more than optimistic.
“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.”
And the only reason Freemasonry is a place of peace between all men is because of its refusal to engage in polital and religious discussion. This is not political correctness as you assert but protecting the very institution we hold so dear. No Grand Lodge can speak for all of its members on political question, and neither should they try.
You do have a good point, but it should be seen on a different level. Freemasonry as a whole should not enter the fray as it would do nothing but cause damage to the fraternity and the bond between brethen. We should however enjoin or members to become involved in pulic life, whatever their political or religious persuasion, and work with those masonic principles in their public life. Their achievements then reflect well upon the craft when the connection between their morality and Fremasonry is made.
I respect your opinion Matthew but I think you are caught in the mental process that promoting broad general morality is making policy and writing directives.
It also just isn’t true that all questions of politics and religion are off limits.
Being for peace is like being for honesty. And supporting racial integration is like being for justice.
You could make a case that Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence and Justice are political or religious off limit areas. You could, I wouldn’t.
Being for something doesn’t mean that you are setting policy, making laws or barking commands. Our ancient Brothers coming out of the Enlightenment in the age of Monarchs were promoting democracy. They weren’t telling people how to implement the democracy, just that it was a good thing.
It means you support something by using your bloody pulpit and encouraging the peace and racial harmony process. You are not telling people what to do, you are stating what is noble and right and supported by every major religion in the world.
Name me a religion that is against peace.
Now I don’t want Freemasonry to tell people how to make peace happen. What I do want to do is keep the thought that this is what the world needs on the tip of everybody’s tongue.
“Being for something doesn’t mean that you are setting policy, making laws or barking commands. Our ancient Brothers coming out of the Enlightenment in the age of Monarchs were promoting democracy. They weren’t telling people how to implement the democracy, just that it was a good thing.”
Right; in some countries it meant overthrowing the monarchy and declaring a republic; in others, in meant transitioning from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. There is nothing wrong with either one. There are things to be said in favor of a constitutional monarchy, in that it separates the ceremonial and the operational functions of government. That is, even if you don’t like the current prime minister, you can still revere the king/queen; we have seen in the US both Republican and Democratic presidents whose opponents’ opposition to their policies have spilled over from disagreement with the current president to contempt of the presidency. (I name no names!)
Back when the first Speculative Lodges and Grand Lodges were formed, the main divisions in society were Religion and Class. The nobilty and gentry had little to do with the mercantile classes, who had little to do with the ‘hoi polloi’. Catholics didn’t associate with Protestants, and within Protestantism the Established Church had little to do with the Dissenters. And of course–as Tom Leher put it many years later–“everybody hates the Jews.” Freemasonry did great things then in breaking down barriers of religion and social class, allowing good men of every class and sect a place where they could interact as equals.
Today it is Race. Outside of North America, Freemasonry never considered race; China, Japan, India, etc. all have Grand Lodges that are generally recognized. The Home Islands’ Grand Lodges have lodges in Africa and the Caribbean, and some African countries have their own generally-recognized Grand Lodges now. The Brazilian Grand Lodges are generally recognized. But for some strange reason we have trouble extending the hand of fraternal fellowship to our African-American brothers. And it seems we have no trouble with other races; we recognize the Mexican Grand Lodges, and we have a long history of admitting Native Americans to Freemasonry (when I lived in Oklahoma, I belonged to a lodge that was mostly Native American; I was one of the few members who was not.)
Nobody has ever given me a coherent reason for NOT recognizing Prince Hall. I have known many Prince Hall Masons socially, and without exception they were fine men to whom I gladly would have, had it not been for my Grand Lodge’s prohibition, extended the right hand of fellowship. I once worked with an African American lady who was Past Grand Matron of Prince Hall Eastern Star for that state, and she was a most gracious and classy lady, whom I would have loved to call ‘sister.’
“It is the internal and not the external qualities of a man that Freemasonry considers.” That statement is in all our rituals, with minor variants. Do we believe it? Then why do we not live it?