There’s a Hole in Our Bucket

The following article originally appeared in Issue 2 of The Masonic Society Journal.
By Stephen Dafoe

North American Freemasonry is on a bit of an infinite loop these days. I don’t mean the type of infinite loop we used to see on the Flintstones whenever Fred and Barney would drive past the same three houses and two palm trees over and over again, but it is close. The type of infinite-loop motif I’m referring to is the type that forms the basis of songs like 99 Bottle of Beer or There’s a Hole in my Bucket. In fact, both songs represent two of the problems confronting many lodges today with respect to our declining membership.

Now, before you turn the page, let me assure you this is not another article lamenting our sagging numbers, nor is it a rallying call for us to rise towards that lofty Masonic pinnacle that was the Halcyon Days of the post-World War II influx. But we will be looking at the numbers, not with an eye towards depression, but with an eye towards resolution. We have a problem, but if we can truly know where the problem lies, and if we can convince enough Masons that this is actually the case, we can collectively begin to work towards fixing it.

What the numbers tell us:

masonic membership, freemasonry, decline

Since 1925, the Masonic Service Association of North America (MSANA) has been keeping track of the numbers of Freemasons in the United States.

Without launching into a long and boring examination of the ebb and flow of these numbers, let it suffice to say that Masonic membership’s highest point in terms of numbers was 1959, when it boasted 4,103,161 members; its lowest point occurring in 2007, when our ranks had been reduced to just 1,483,449. Ironically, our highest point in terms of membership may well have been our lowest point for Freemasonry, or at least the start of it.

Read: 11 Persona Types of Freemasonry – Part 1, New Members

The hand ringers in our fraternity love to hold on to that 1959 membership number like the middle aged bachelor who holds onto the photo of the fashion model he dated in college, as if it were a goal he may yet attain once more. But as both pine away for a desire that has longed since passed the realm of possibility, they begin to tell themselves lies to justify their current situation.

masonic membership, freemasonry, population

As such, our hand ringers have created a long-standing belief that once upon a time Freemasons made up a sizable percentage of the population in American communities. However, if one compares the US census with the MSANA membership statistics, an interesting and revealing picture emerges. In 1930, only 2.66 per cent of the population belonged to the Masonic fraternity. By 1940, that percentage had been reduced to 1.86% – largely due to the effects of the Great Depression, men simply couldn’t afford their dues. It reached its lowest point in 2000, when less than 1 per cent of the US population could say they owned a Masonic apron. But even in the midst of those glory days our hand ringers so love to remind us about, only 2.41 per cent of the population belonged to the Craft. If we divide and multiply these figures to represent a male population of roughly 50 per cent, then we see that even at our highest percentile penetration in 1930, only 5 in 100 American males were Freemasons – this is a far cry from the cries of deep lamentation emanating from the lips of our loudest hand ringing Brethren that once upon a time almost every American male was a mason. And yet, they will cling to that four-million-plus-Masons figure like cat hair to black pants, failing to accept that the much brandied about number represents nothing more than a sociological anomaly. It was that influx of men who swelled the Craft’s ranks between 1945 and 1959 that, in many ways set the tone for the downward spiral towards the Masonic caliginosity we have experienced in the decades since. Although many became dedicated members of the Craft, expanding their learning through books and periodicals, discussions and debates, many who took on leadership rules were attracted by the formality of the ritual, to the point where it became the beginning and end of a Master Mason’s education.

Perhaps the greatest decade for Freemasonry – at  least from a point of research, education and all around Masonic bigness – was  the 1920’s; a decade that saw the creation of the National Masonic Research Society and its publication The Builder, a magazine that offered the words and thoughts of the great Masonic luminaries of the day. It was also a decade where Masons displayed their Masonic pride, not by the number of pins on their lapels, but by the number of elegant buildings on Main Street. It was during the 1920’s that great Masonic buildings including the House of the Temple in Washington DC, The George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia and the Detroit Masonic Temple in Michigan transformed from idea to reality. That decade, which I’ve long-argued to be the most enlightening for Freemasonry, saw an increase in membership of just above four per cent.

But then the Great Depression reduced membership roles by almost 25 per cent by then end of the 1930’s. In fact membership continued to decline until America entered the Second World War in 1941, and that is when the anomaly occurred. By the end of the 1940’s, Masonic membership had increased by more than 42 percent, carrying a forward momentum through most of the 1950’s, which saw an increase of 16 percent from the decade before. From this point on membership has been on a steady decline, with the present decade – now about to enter its final year – on a fast track to surpassing the 1990’s, the current record holder for membership seepage.

It is a mistake for us to pine away for a resurgence of the anomaly that was the 1940’s and 1950’s. The WWII soldier returned home and, looking for the camaraderie of the barracks, he sought to find it in fraternal societies like Freemasonry. This inflated our membership roles like a windfall inflates a bank account, but like the lottery winner who does not invest his new found money properly; it is soon piddled away until nothing remains.

Another tale the hand ringers love to tell us, especially those who have more steps behind them than they have left ahead of them, is that men are not joining today like they used to, and that we are losing members from death faster than we can replace them through initiations. Certainly, if one considers “not joining like they used to” to be those post-war Halcyon Days previously discussed, then I’m more than willing to concede the point. However, if there is one myth in Freemasonry that has gained wide currency and firm traction, it is the notion that Masons are dying faster than we can replace them.

What the numbers don’t tell us!

In 2005 I was asked to deliver the keynote address to the Western Canada Conference – an annual gathering of the Grand lines of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Part of my presentation sought to dispel this myth that the Grim Reaper was using his scythe to cut a swath through the fraternity. Whereas, the MSANA numbers only give us the annual bottom line, I was able to look at the big picture closer to home by tracking specifics in our membership statistics over an eight-year period.

masonic membership, freemasonry

What I discovered was that, like the rest of North America, Alberta had a sizable hole in our Masonic bucket; 1,777 of our Brethren had affiliated with the Grand Lodge above, leaving us with a net loss of 1,512 members between 1996 and 2003. But this is not where our problem was because the numbers showed that in that same period of time, 3,118 men had joined, affiliated or renewed their membership in one of our lodges.

Read: Three Types of Masons

In an ideal world, the difference between deaths and new members should have seen Alberta experience a 14 per cent growth in that time, but instead we were dwindling, just like everywhere else. The question was why? Where was the hole in our Masonic bucket that was causing the decline? It wasn’t through deaths; we were clearly finding the men to replace ourselves. The answer was through demits and suspensions for non payment of dues (SNPD); a combined loss of 2,863 over the eight years. When added to the deaths, we had lost a total of 4,640 men, while gaining a respectable 3,118. The hole in our Masonic bucket had been found and, as I’ve learned, it is not an isolated situation.

masonic membership, freemasonry

This past November I was keynote speaker at the Grand Lodge of Manitoba’s Masonic workshop and presented a similar address and findings, chronicling their past six years of data. Like Alberta, Manitoba has a hole in its Masonic bucket, caused by demits and suspensions outpacing new members. Between 2002 and 2007 Manitoba saw 856 men join, affiliate or reinstate their memberships. During that same time, 753 Manitoba Masons have died; again leaving a positive number between membership losses and gains. Like Alberta, their hole is caused by the combination of demits and SNPD’s. In the past six years the province has seen 1,355 men leave the Masonic fraternity.

masonic membership, freemasonry, templars

But the Craft lodge in Canada is not alone in finding it has a bucket with the same hole.

Membership statistics from the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar show that between 2004 and the end of September 2008, 17,470 American Freemasons have become Templars, while 9,576 have taken a demit and another 21,706 have been suspended for non payment of dues. Add to this the 22,546 Templars who have gone on to join their creator, and you have 36,358 fewer Knights Templar marching about.  But perhaps marching about is precisely the problem. Perhaps the men who are joining today are joining to parade about like the sword-wielding Templars of old and disappointed to find only old Templars parading about doing sword drill. It is a question only the Grand Encampment and those who are left remain in her Commanderies can resolve, but like the Craft Lodges, its bucket is leaking primarily from the same rusted out hole.

Towards a solution

Back when I was editor of the short-lived Masonic Magazine, I wrote an editorial titled The Restaurant at the End of the Masonic Universe. Without republishing the editorial here, it told the story of a restaurant that does not live up to its advertising slogan, “We make good food better,” an obvious play on our own slogan “We take good men and make them better.” The editorial, which has received equal doses of praise and criticism, sought to explain in a light manner the malaise affecting Freemasonry today and the true cause for the hole in our bucket.

Every mason has heard the expression “but we’ve always done it that way before.” The fact that it is used as the butt of Masonic jokes serves as proof positive of its longevity and power in maintaining a status quo. But, as we have seen by what the MSANA numbers don’t show us, the status quo is draining our buckets. As the allegory of my restaurant editorial showed, the reason things suck in many lodges is because the men who show up month after month like things that suck. They do so because they enjoy the bland food; not the shoe-leather roast beef and off color green beans, but the Masonic meal that is largely comprised of recitation of minutes, tedious debates over how funds are dispersed and arguments over when and how to salute the Worshipful Master. Clearly these are not the things that appeal to the men who are leaving our ranks. If they were, they’d be with us still. But instead of spending our energies trying to retain them, we devote our efforts to finding their replacements.

For as long as I have been a Freemason, we have been trying to fill a bucket that has a sizable hole in it. Like Henry in the famed children’s song, we have whined through the infinite loop of reasons why we can’t fix the bucket and like Jack in the classic nursery rhyme, have rolled down the hill, our empty bucket tumbling behind us. Like children on a bus trip we have done our rendition of 99 Bottle of Beer by repeating the same pattern ad nausea, as one by one our members – like the bottles of beer on the wall – vanish.

Unfortunately, we are not doing a good enough job  identifying what it is that the men who are joining are looking for, which is – in almost all cases – that which they cannot get any place else – FREEMASONRY! They are looking to be educated in the Masonic Craft, in the art of being a gentleman in a world that has largely forgotten what one was, and in how they can be part of – to quote my jurisdiction’s ritual – “the society of men who prize honor and virtue above the external advantages of rank and fortune.” In short, they want to be taught the things about themselves and the world in which they live that only Freemasonry can teach them. If we cannot teach them because we do not know these things ourselves, then we must learn alongside them. Then, and only then, can the hole in our Masonic bucket be truly repaired and we can return to that growth that once allowed us to select men who would most benefit from Freemasonry’s teaching and most benefit Freemasonry by their character and their conduct.

It will not be and easy task fixing this half-century old hole in our Masonic bucket; but it will not be possible at all until we accept that a failure to do so is the cause of our decline and the harbinger of our demise.

Read: So What? The Dynamic of Masonic Membership.
And, Freemasonry Is Dying.

About the author

Stephen Dafoe
Stephen Dafoe

Stephen Dafoe

V. W. Bro Stephen Dafoe is a past Grand Steward of the Grand Lodge of Alberta, former publisher of Masonic Magazine and the author of several books on the Knights Templar and Freemasonry. In addition, Dafoe is a self-confessed anti-Internet Mason.

Ironically, his website can be found at

Posted in Sojourners and tagged , , .


  1. [Applause]
    VERY well written and dead on target. My Lodge suffers from the same rut, and disdains any improvement toward the latter… infact they passed up a very nice chance at hosting a DeMolay group due to it being a change. [btw they would have to have allowed the DeMolay to rent the hall, EVERYTHING else was provided, the children, the adults, the regalia, EVERYTHING else]

    My lodge has in excess of 180 members, and about 15 – 20 attend … ‘Why are the members not showing, they re young and new and and and, there’s a hold in my bucket …’

    How does one change that …. one existing member at a time… make a presentation to your lodge, talk to the officers of the lodge … talk to those waiting in line to be officers!

    Don’t hesitate, don’t blink … act.

    My 2 cents on a soapbox.

  2. Thank you Talmont. The lodge I presently belong to is a great lodge with a good mixture of good ritual work, strong education programs and excellent fellowship. Five years ago, I’m told, the lodge wasn’t so good.

    The turnaround happened because a few guys identified the problems as to where the hole was,took hold of the reins and did the turning.

    At our last general purposes meetings, we discussed cutting down on the reading of minutes to highlights and bullet points. This will shave more time off the business and leave more time for discussion and fellowship.

    The big thing is we have to stop chasing after the idea of changing things everywhere. Worry about changing things in your spot and if it is successful, others will emulate it.

  3. This was a very good article Bro.dafoe and I appreciate you posting it. Of course in my opinion the reason for Masonic decline lay deep within the fact of organizational structure being overloaded and bloated in the first place. It is not the “glorious” buildings of the 1920’s that we have to save, it is the building of the temple not made by hands that we have to build.

    Raum Sariel

  4. Building the individual is first and foremost and I have been saying that for years and why my talks in lodges are usually geared towards explaining the degrees and how to apply that set of lessons and symbolism to our lives.

    I too think the Masonic pie has been sliced too thin. York Rite and Scottish Rite beign one slice, AMD, Amaranth, Shrine, Widows[sic] Sons, Masonic geocaching societies and all the others slicing the pie thinner and thinner. A right angled triangle is a fourth part of a circle, not an eigth or sixteenth or even 32th.

    I’ll not comment on the organization itself beign bloated via Grand Lodge as I operate in a jurisdiction that does not have a lot of fluffy positions, where we have open elections (three for GSW and four for GJW this year) and where EVERY Master Mason has a vote in Grand Lodge.

  5. Hey Steven:

    Glad to see you are still at it! Have you heard of our new lodge in Frontenac District – Just Consecrated last Saturday!

    Let me know if you ever know you are going to be back our way for one of our meetings – always looking for interesting speakers to make us think!

    All the best!


  6. Good to read your words Tom. I may well be in Ontario for a wedding this fall. Who knows where I might land while wandering about.

  7. My lodge meetings consist of:

    Read the minutes
    Read the sick list
    pay the bills
    close the meeting
    drink stale coffee, chew on a stale cookie
    go home

    Our lodge does not have a website. Our grand lodge forbids the “2B1 ASK1” bumper sticker. We don’t have an answering maching on the lodge phone.

    We have no lodge newspaper. We have no outreach program for our widows.

    Any new idea or program is shot down with “We never did it that way before”.

    Our lodge is dying. Our Grand Lodge is dying.

    Why am I not surprised?

  8. I know what will fix this. Wicca is one of the fastest growing religions in the world. Wicca is based on masonic ritual. Wicca is secretive, dark, and mystical.

    Masonry needs to emphasize its mystery aspects again. It needs to be a secret fraternity, and a secret brotherhood – not a boring, broken down dinosaur that smells like soap, church and drip coffee.

    Check out your local esoteric lodges. They have the right idea, and all the younger guys.

  9. In the opinion of many Free Masons from the European continent , there are 3 kinds of Free Masonry:
    1) An important fraternity which can be considered as a social club since it practices intensively charity, which working is to know by heart the ritual, and for some of them, the 32th degree ( on a maximum of 33 degrees) is given during one week end to any Master Mason (a brother having reached the 3rd degree) . This Free Masonry is on the decline, with a number of members continuing to decrease over the years.
    2) a Free Masonry which can be considered as a fraternity which is searching for a path to self enligthment, which working is based on doing “papers” on spiritual and masonic subjects and for which each degree is to be reached by the ones who have shown by their work that they merit it. This Free Masonry is expanding in number for numerous years already and still continue its expansion. It can be found in the continental Europe, and in particular in France.
    3) a Free Masonry which wants to be on line with this modern era, by accepting women in its ranks, by having discussions in lodge on subjects linked to the real world, i.e. social, political, etc…ones as members are also considered as citizens of their country , and by being free of any religious believing. This Free Masonry is also expanding in number of members and can be found mostly in the continental Europe.

    The solution to the 1st Free Masonry problem should it not to be found in the study of the reasons which are making the two other ones a success? Specially when it’s known that most of the lodges of these two Free Masonries have one or two meetings per month, and not only one every two or three months as seen in the first one.
    The system of recognition should also to be revised entirely. Imposing that in each country, the already recognised Grand Lodge is the only one which can decide on the recognition of other ones is not a good and fair solution. Each Grand Lodge should be free to recognise the Grand Lodges that they want. A Fraternity with more numerous regular Grand Lodges will greatly help the expansion of Free Masonry in the world.

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