When I began writing this article, one of my original objectives had been to present a research paper that would compare and contrast the status quo of American Freemasonry and the some of the ideas presented under the banner of the Masonic Restoration Foundation. Prior to beginning this article, I held the ideals of Masonic Restoration in high esteem; regardless, I had intended to deliver an unbiased paper. However, as I continued my research and writing, it became exceedingly obvious that I could not deliver an unbiased opinion nor continue to compare and contrast this topic. First, this topic has been sufficiently covered by a number of outstanding Masonic scholars (several excellent selections of which are included in the bibliography). Second, as I conducted my research I was unable to identify credible sources to support the position of the status quo. On the contrary, I found overwhelming evidence that favored the position of Masonic Restoration, and thereby solidified my favorable opinion of the movement. Fortunately, this article will meet one of my other objectives – one that I consider a primary objective towards correcting the present course and decline of Freemasonry in the United States.
An Abbreviated History of American Freemasonry
Most written histories of the United States do not adequately address Freemasonry’s role in the inception and development of our Nation. Several of our Founding Fathers were Brother Masons, who through their fraternal affiliation, philosophical ideals, and worldly experiences provided them with the necessary faculties to win America’s independence from the mighty British Empire. Masonry continued to enjoy fertile soil in the fledgling United States, as it had before the revolution (Tabbert, 2006). As Masonry grew, so grew its influence and its enemies. The Morgan Affair of 1826 and the Anti-Masonic period that followed shook the very foundation of American Freemasonry, and altered the course of the Fraternity in much of North America. These events also altered the course of American politics, and sent Freemasonry into a coma in several jurisdictions (Dafoe, 2009). On the heels of this Anti-Masonic period was the Baltimore Convention of 1843, which triggered the beginning of a cultural revolution within American Freemasonry. New protocols were adopted by most of the jurisdictions in attendance, and these changes were summarily engrained within the genes of the new Grand Lodges that would be borne from Manifest Destiny. Webb’s Ritual and Monitor, with some minor modifications, became the standard work in most American jurisdictions, and the Grand Lodges began to centralize their authority. By the time the Civil War had ended, mainstream American Freemasonry had rebounded in membership, but distinctive differences from its European parents began to emerge. The era of taverns and festive boards were at an end, local Blue Lodges practiced the same standard work (with minor variations between jurisdictions), and Entered Apprentice and Fellowcraft Masons were excluded from regular Lodge meetings. The local culture and identity of the Blue Lodges was being extinguished. American Grand Lodges continued to centralize their authority, and gradually adopted an informal doctrine of dilution and appeasement to soften Masonry for the profane world. Many of the traditions that contributed to Masonry’s success began to fade away in the United States (Knights of the North, 2004, p. 9-10).
In spite of these changes, the Nation’s Masonic identity remained strong for a time, and men made sacrifices to join the Fraternity:
In 1897, the North American Review estimated that the average Lodge member spent fifty dollars annually on dues and insurance, and two hundred dollars on initiation fees, ritualistic paraphernalia, banquets and travel; this at a time when the average factory worker earned just four hundred to five hundred dollars a year (Hodapp, 2016).
However, as the country headed into the Great Depression, Masonic membership began to wane. In 1929, there were 3,295,125 Masons in the United States. By 1941, Masonic membership in the United States had dropped to 2,451,301. America’s entry into World War II caused a resurgence in Freemasonry, and by the end of the war Masonic membership numbered 2,896,343. Masonry continued to prosper in United States following WWII. By 1959, Masonic membership reached an all-time high of 4,103,161. Social upheaval in 1960’s, amongst the baby-boomer generation, contributed to hastening the decline of the Fraternity, as men turned away from the values and traditions held dear by their fathers and grandfathers. It is said that Masonry skipped a generation. By 2014, Masonic membership had fallen to 1,211,183 (Masonic Service Association of North America, 2014).
M.W. Dwight Smith, PGM of Indiana, recalled a conversation he had with a fifty-year Mason were the Brother had stated that in 1911 he had paid $20 for his initiation fee, which at that time was two weeks wages for that brother. By 1933, that initiation fee remained unchanged when M.W. Brother Smith paid his initiation fee. Thirty years later, in 1963, the Grand Lodge of Indiana had a minimum fee for initiation of $30, of which one in five Lodges in that jurisdiction was charging the bare minimum. In spite of low dues at that time, many Lodges thrived due to a large body of members (Smith, 1963a, p. 11-12). However, as membership began to decline, dues remained the same, and Lodges began digging into the principle of their savings and endowments. These days, it has become a fairly regular occurrence to read a story or article of an old, beautiful Masonic building being sold, converted into apartments and offices, or being razed for new building projects. It seems that once a Lodge’s savings have been exhausted, most Lodges still will not increase dues even if doing so will save their Lodge. Even worse, there are some Lodges that resist organizational changes that would result in cutting unnecessary costs. The numbers do not lie. In Alaska, our members pay dues that are a fraction of a percent of the median household income for the State of Alaska! The natural response to solving these problems has been largely one-dimensional and ineffective: Masonry has become desperate to recruit new members.
What Came We Here To Do?
This, my brothers, is the ugly truth. As I said earlier, one of the primary objectives of this article is to offer solutions to correct the present course and decline of Freemasonry in the United States. Rest assured that I am not going to begin cajoling you about the need or merits to recruit new members or to change Masonry that it might be more palatable for the profane.
We are not missionaries trying to convert the masses; we are not like proselytizing religious sects or political parties seeking strength in numbers. Our sole concern is the development of character within ourselves. We ought to recognize the basic fact that Freemasonry is not for everyman – not even for every good man. Admission into Freemasonry is a privilege that must be sincerely sought, honestly earned, and worthily deserved (Daniels, n.d., p. 2-3).
Much of what made Freemasonry truly unique and special was gutted from the fraternity by knee-jerk reactions implemented by the Baltimore Convention of 1843 and its legacy in the Grand Lodge policies that would follow suit. Moreover, for nearly three generations, recruitment has been American Freemasonry’s answer to declining membership, and it has not worked!
Brothers, what came we here to do? We did not knock on Freemasonry’s door to struggle to resuscitate an organization failing from bad management, whilst worrying about declining membership. We knocked on Freemasonry’s door to be a part of the world’s greatest fraternity! Instead, we have become consumed by groupthink, and we have inadvertently conditioned ourselves away from what we came here to do. As long as we continue our gross fixation on membership, we will fail to enjoy meaningful Masonic experiences. For many Lodges (and Grand Lodges), finances are the pitfall which perpetuates the manic obsession for recruitment. Our vocation, above all others, is to instill an atmosphere in our Lodges where each of us can enjoy a rich, meaningful Masonic journey. Masonry, a system of philosophy, cannot die. However, its present incarnation in the United States will not prosper, it will not succeed in its vocation, and its members will suffer accordingly. Have we not grown weary of this continued state of affairs?
Brothers, these problems are opportunities to innovate, learn, develop our potential, and elevate our Craft. These are the very opportunities that build confidence, develop men into Masons, and give rise to men of character befitting to lead a nation. Masonry is the ultimate leadership lab. It is a sanctuary to build our temples and test ourselves before we venture out into the world. This being said, we have a quite the task ahead of us – restoring that which has been lost to American Freemasonry for over one hundred fifty years! I am speaking of cultural change, and such change should be carried out systematically, incrementally, and judiciously. Radical changes are likely to fail and divide a Lodge. However, I ask that we make two immediate changes: stopping worrying about declining membership and build a financial strategy for you Lodge.
Worrying about declining membership is a fool’s errand, and recruitment only exacerbates our present situation. We must regain that exclusivity which was lost through recruiting and pandering to the masses. Freemasonry has always been a high quality institution, and we must only accept high quality men into our ranks. Our ancient brethren did not accept substandard materials to construct temples and cathedrals when they built these magnificent monuments to God, which have stood the test of time. We would do well to follow their example, and maintain a vigilant watch over the West Gate. Recruitment cheapens our noble Brotherhood, steals precious time and resources from our Masonic pursuits, and dilutes our ranks with insincere candidates. We invest too much of ourselves in a new candidate to have it thoughtlessly and carelessly thrown away by an unworthy spectator. We are better off having fewer members that are truly dedicated to the Craft, thereby forging an unbreakable chain of union. When we concentrate our labors on Masonic excellence, our members will prosper, our Lodges will flourish, our old problems will cease to exist, and sincere, worthy men will seek Masonic Light. Masonic excellence includes the thoughtful management of the Lodge’s accounts and property. After all, how can we expect our brethren to have encouraging Masonic experiences when Lodge meetings fixate on the Lodge’s financial woes?
The fundamentals of Lodge finance are straightforward, and are very similar to a household or a small business. Many lodges struggle with their finances. Masons of yesteryear worked hard and made sacrifices to ensure for the prosperity of their lodges. Yet, it seems that time and complacency has proven to be the greatest adversaries to even some of the wealthiest lodges. This is plainly obvious, as Blue Lodges and other Masonic organizations, lose their buildings in what has become a disturbingly common trend. In some cases, losing the lodge building has been a mortal blow to a struggling lodge. Lodges need to develop a financial strategy, which includes regular audits, as well as establishing and adhering to a budget. Each lodge must examine their situation and culture, in order to determine a course of action that suits them and ensures for the strength and longevity of their lodge. Ideally, lodges would be prudent to implement a financial strategy that includes the development of a steady source of outside income or a strong, diversified financial portfolio. In addition, there are other budgetary items to consider when building and implementing a financial strategy; these are lodge buildings and life membership programs.
Owning a lodge building is a privilege and a source of pride for many Masons. Lodge buildings are important to our members, but involve added costs and responsibility. Lodges must adequately budget for the associated operation, upkeep, and renovation of these buildings; the annual dues must be sufficient to cover these expenses if another source of income has not been secured. The idea of selling a lodge building is unthinkable to most Masons. In some cases, nothing is being done to stop a lodge from losing its building. However, there are viable alternatives to owning a building. Most cities and towns across the country have an abundance of unused resources that are available for those who seek them. Civic/community centers, colleges, schools, libraries, churches, and other fraternal organizations have space available for your lodge. Some of these may be available at no cost and some charge a reasonable fee. Several of Alaska’s communities have libraries that offer excellent conference and study rooms that can adequately serve the needs of a Blue Lodge. New lodges need a place to start, and, sometimes, existing lodges need a place to regroup and re-engineer themselves. We must never lose sight of what constitutes a Blue Lodge. A Blue Lodge is not a building; it is a group of Masons working under a charter.
Life membership programs are another area of lodge finances that may require some re-engineering. If a lodge’s primary source of revenue is the annual dues, then cost of life membership should be high enough that the dividends from the principal will cover that life member’s share of the lodge’s expenses, and not just their annual Grand Lodge per capita. These programs provide a service to the individual members, but should never become a detriment to the Lodge. At worst, some lodges have engaged in the dangerous precedent of spuriously awarding life memberships or selling them at a significantly discounted rate. Ultimately, underfunded life membership programs harm lodges and become the burden to the regular dues paying members. In some instances, it becomes the Worshipful Master’s duty to levy assessments to correct a grave financial situation after all other means have been exhausted.
Masonic Restoration & Alaska’s Lodges
I commented earlier about the Baltimore Convention of 1843 being the beginning of a cultural revolution within American Freemasonry. Masonic Restoration is, in its very essence, a cultural counter-revolution that is sorely needed. We live in an age where endless information and misinformation is available at our fingertips, where a majority of humanity’s social interactions is being accomplished over social media and the internet, and moral and ethical behavior has become lost in popular culture. Freemasonry remains as relevant today, as it was three hundred years ago. Brethren, it is incumbent upon us to keep our revered Masonic traditions, old and new, alive. Masonic Restoration offers several great ideas for restoring our Masonic heritage and enhancing our Masonic experiences. This is not a call to arms for your lodge to transform into an Observant, European Concept, or Affinity Lodge; it is an invitation to Alaska’s Masons and Lodges to ask yourselves if your Masonic experiences have fulfilled what you came here to do. There are several excellent sources in the bibliography that pertain to Masonic Restoration, and many of them are not very long. I encourage you to explore these further; these writings are thought provoking and make for good discussion.
M.W.Bro. John D. May, PGM
Dafoe, S. (2009). Morgan: The Scandal That Shook Freemasonry. New Orleans: Cornerstone Book Publishers.
Daniels, R. S. J. (n.d.). On Minding Our Own Business [PDF document]. Retrieved from Masonic Restoration Foundation web site: http://www.masonicrestorationfoundation.org/documents/RSJD_On%20minding%20our%20own%20business.pdf
Hammer, A. (2011). Eight Steps to Excellence: The Observant Lodge [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://observingthecraft.com/EightSteps.pdf
Hammer, A. (2010). Observing the Craft: The Pursuit of Excellence in Masonic Labour and Observance. Mindhive Books.
Hodapp, C. (2016, May 20). Freemasons for Dummies: Commitment [Blog]. Retrieved from http://freemasonsfordummies.blogspot.com/2016/05/commitment.html
Jackson, T. W. (1996). Freemasonry is Primary [PDF document]. Retrieved from the Masonic Restoration Foundation web site: http://www.masonicrestorationfoundation.org/documents/Thomas_Jackson_-_Freemasory_is_Primary.pdf
Jackson, T. W. (1977). What Are We Trying To Save? [PDF document]. Retrieved from the Masonic Restoration Foundation web site: http://www.masonicrestorationfoundation.org/documents/What-Are-We-Trying-To-Save.pdf
Knights of the North. (2004). Laudable Pursuit: A 21st Century Response to Dwight Smith [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://www.knightsofthenorth.com/documents/LaudablePursuitFinal.pdf
Masonic Service Association of North America. (2014). Masonic Membership Statistics [Statistical data]. Retrieved from http://www.msana.com/msastats.asp
Morris, S. B. (n.d.). Voting With Their Feet [PDF document]. Retrieved from the Masonic Restoration Foundation web site: http://www.masonicrestorationfoundation.org/documents/Voting-With-Their-Feet.pdf
Smith, D. L. (1963). Whither Are We Traveling? [PDF document]. Retrieved from the Masonic Restoration Foundation web site: http://www.masonicrestorationfoundation.org/documents/DLS_WhitherAreWeTraveling.pdf
Smith, D. L. (1963). Why This Confusion In The Temple? [PDF document]. Retrieved from the Masonic Restoration Foundation web site: http://www.masonicrestorationfoundation.org/documents/DLS_WhyThisConfusion.pdf
Tabbert, M. A. (2006). American Freemasons: Three Centuries of Building Communities. New York: NYU Press.