What’s up with that?
It says here I’m supposed to start with a lame joke, so here goes:
How many Royal Arch Masons does it take to change the lightbulb in the Gentlemen’s Necessary?
Well, it takes a minimum of 48.
The High Priest must bring the possibility of changing the bulb before the Chapter. The King and Scribe need to discuss the matter heatedly with the Treasurer. The Principal Sojourner needs to consult Scripture for guidance. The Secretary needs to check all by-laws and minutes for the past fifty years for references to lightbulbs.
The Captain of the Host, the Royal Arch Captain, and the Veil Masters need to find references in Ritual to changing anything, and get into a dandy sword fight off in the northwest corner over their findings.
The Chaplain needs to pray for all present, and for guidance in the ways lightbulbs affect the work of the Chapter.
The Sentinel needs to guard against all fluorescent encroachments.
Then the High Priest needs to consult the Grand High Priest, who repeats the exercise by making a conference call to all the other 19 Grand officers.
Meanwhile, the 15 other Royal Arch Masons present at the Chapter meeting need to raise a righteous ruckus about who installed the light fixture in the first place, and why. Then they argue for the obligatory 90 minutes about whether to call a plumber or a diesel mechanic.
Finally the newest Royal Arch Mason shakes his head and leaves the sidelines to change the bulb.
Now. All who think that’s a really lame joke, vote by the usual sign of a Royal Arch Mason when in Chapter assembled.
Yup. Me too.
Just like with that old, burned-out lightbulb, Masons are pretty good at looking backward, pretty good about discussing minutiae endlessly, and pretty poor about planning for the future.
It’s one of our chief pleasures these days, when serious Freemasons get together to talk about serious things, for several Brothers, or Companions, or Sir Knights to wring their hands, sigh deeply, and say something about how things used to be, and how membership just isn’t what it was.
This is equally true whether one gets together with his local Blue Lodge Brothers, with his Scottish Rite or York Rite Brothers, with his Shrine Brothers, with his Eastern Star Brothers and Sisters, or (and maybe especially) at the meeting of some Grand Body or another.
Indeed, go to a meeting of Masonic youth advisors, and you’ll hear the same laments.
If one were an outsider, one would be forced to conclude that American Freemasonry is an institution that has appeared, strutted and fretted its time upon the stage, and is about to be heard no more. It’s certainly on its last legs. Just ask those who know it best—its members themselves.
That’s one of the problems: outsiders ARE listening in on these conversations!
So maybe we, as Freemasons, as Blue Lodge and York Rite and Scottish Rite and Shrine and Eastern Star Masons, need to take a closer look, so we know, at least, what we’re talking about.
Since I only have access to data from my home jurisdiction of Iowa, I’ll limit my discussion to those specific data—but I’ll bet the data from Iowa are similar to those in many other Grand Jurisdictions. And because I have access only to Craft Masonry data, I’ll use those. However, I’ll bet that my conclusions are equally applicable to all appendant bodies.
Now, before you get completely honked off, mutter a few cuss words to yourself and your neighbors, and hot-foot it out of here to find some coffee and a doughnut—or even a good, stiff belt—let me say that I really DO believe we have a crisis when it comes to membership.
And I should also warn you against that Great American Pastime, instant gratification. If you stick around, I can almost promise that I’ll make you so mad you’ll want to do something personal about it—to me. To that felicitous end, the hotel is preparing a great vat of hot pine tar in its kitchen even as I speak, and I have arranged at my own expense for the delivery of a semi-load of feathers and a sturdy 12-foot 10x10 rail.
Before you start hollering about how this is a YORK RITE conference, and I have no business discussing Blue Lodge matters here, let me simply remind you of a single fact. The one invariable requirement for becoming a York Rite Mason is that the candidate must FIRST be a Blue Lodge Mason.
The same, of course, is true for the Scottish Rite, the Shrine, and Eastern Star. In fact, in all appendant Masonic bodies, when one ceases to be a Blue Lodge Mason, he simultaneously loses eligibility for ALL Masonic bodies.
As York Rite Masons, we cannot blame the Imperial Shrine for dropping their requirement for York or Scottish membership as a prerequisite for the Shrine. In fact, I would argue that the Imperial Shrine did the Rites a favor. If the Rites don’t have anything to offer on their own, then why should anybody want to join them anyway?
Every man in this room knows the riches to be found in the York Rite, and most of us understand the complementary riches in the Scottish Rite as well.
Thus I suggest that healthy Craft Masonry is at the very center of rebuilding excitement for and membership in the appendant bodies. But what’s the reality where the rubber hits the road, in York and Scottish members’ involvement in their local Lodges?
Let me relate just two very brief comments, one from an experienced York Rite leader, and one from another and equally experienced Scottish Rite leader:
The first has told me on several occasions, “I don’t want anything to do with my local Lodge at all, and I want even less to have to deal with the Grand Lodge of Iowa.”
The second told me, “Maybe if my Blue Lodge were worth attending, I might be there occasionally.”
What do these comments say about the health of Iowa Masonry? More, I submit, than those two men intended.
Back to our crisis. It exists across the whole gamut of Masonic organizations, and it needs to be addressed, and addressed very soon—as in a decade ago.
I’m just not sure we’re looking in the right places to identify the problem. And if we don’t define the problem accurately, I’ll guaran-dang-tee we won’t be very effective in addressing it, let alone in solving it.
Let’s start by looking about the “common knowledge” about this Masonic Membership Mess in which we supposedly are enmeshed.
Everybody knows what the problem is:
· Why, time was when EVERY self-respecting, honest, adult male in town and for miles around just LUSTED to be a Mason! If a guy wanted to join, he had to ask a Mason, too. It was illegal to talk to ANYBODY about Masonry, ’less’n they asked about it first. A father couldn’t even talk to his own sons about Masonry!
· Those who couldn’t be Masons STILL wanted to be Odd Fellows, or Knights of Columbus, or Knights of Pythias, or Woodsmen, or Foresters, or SOMETHING! Heck, they were inventing different outfits, just so’s guys could join ’em—and they did, too!
· I’ll tell ya! We had so much work that we had to do three and four Degrees a night for five nights EVERY WEEK! I remember a time when we had three Thirds on Christmas EVE, and each of those guys got all the extended lectures! Just as we were done, the Grand Master of the North Pole stopped by for a cup of coffee and a ham sandwich. I didn’t get home until 3 in the morning, and—let me tell ya!—I sure did catch what-for when I got there!
· Gosh, I remember sitting in Lodge with 95 guys there, and all of them were members of our own Lodge! I remember when we had three separate Degree teams who could do all three Degrees flawlessly! Sometimes we had to rent the Presbyterian and Baptist Church basements, just so we could do all the work!
Here are some other things that we commonly believe affect Masonic membership:
· Following American involvement in wars, there has been an upsurge in Masonic membership—until Korea, that is, and then the Viet Nam guys wanted nothing to do with us.
· When we got away from extensive memory work, we weren’t really Masons any more. When a man knew all three posting lectures, he not only knew a lot about Masonry, but he was well along to being able to work in any chair or station in any Degree.
· There just aren’t any men anymore who want to be Masons.
· In recent years, more and more men have come into Lodge by the front door, and walked right out the back door.
· Demits and suspensions for non-payment of dues have risen at an alarming rate in recent years.
· We must guard against pricing ourselves out of the market! Dues are getting out of hand!
· We’re a bunch of old men. We’ve been unable to attract younger members for decades, and there are no good reasons for younger men to want to become Masons. And, you know what? That’s just how it is.
Well, maybe. Some of those observations may be accurate, and some may be slightly embroidered by time. There most certainly was a time within living memory when the number of Masons in Iowa was significantly larger than it is today. There was a time when York, and Scottish, and Shrine, and Star membership was larger. There was a time when the youth organizations were much more active.
We’ve blamed everything in sight for the decline. We’ve blamed television; we’ve blamed a more mobile population; we’ve blamed two-income families; we’ve blamed the Democrats, the Republicans, the Communists, the Capitalists, the Europeans, the Mexicans, the Canadians, and the Africans. There’s some very sophisticated sociological analysis that says there was a generation or two of men who weren’t at all interested in fraternalism of any sort. To an extent, many of these have probably contributed to the problem.
Almost all of us have looked at the gross numbers. In Iowa, we all have a notion that Freemasonry in the Grand Jurisdiction of Iowa began with 172 Masons who formed the Grand Lodge in Iowa City in 1844. We all know that membership peaked in the 1950s, and has pretty much declined ever since.
To help to address the problem, I have examined some of our Iowa Blue Lodge membership data, and I want to chat with you about what I found.
There’s NOTHING more boring than graphs. When I was in school, I used to skip the graphs until I absolutely HAD to refer to them.
However, I’ve summarized some of what I found out in a bunch of graphs, and I’ve given you copies. I’m NOT going to examine those puppies in detail, but I WILL refer to them. If you want the numbers, I can supply those as well.
What I’d suggest you do after we’re done here is to put these graphs with the rest of the papers you’ll accumulate at this meeting, and then, sometime when you’re completely snowed in next winter, take them out and try to figure out what they tell you.
Let’s just cut to the chase. What did I find out?
I found out that some of the things “we all know” are absolutely correct, while other of those things are absolutely wrong.
I found out, for instance, that in all the first 165 years of Masonry in the Grand Jurisdiction of Iowa, Freemasons have NEVER comprised even 4% of the total population of the state.
I found out that the most sustained period of rapid growth was NOT during the 1940s and 1950s, but began about 1890 and continued, with the exception of the financial recession of 1907 and 1908, until membership reached more than 91,000 men in 1926. However, even then, membership never increased more than 1% per year—with the exception of the war years of 1914 and 1915, when it rose slightly more than 1% per year.
I found out that between 1885 and 1900, more than 1,000 men were Raised in Iowa every year; that between 1901 and 1912, more than 2,000 men were Raised every year; and that between 1913 and 1930, more than 3,000 were Raised per YEAR. Indeed, in 1920, 7,584 men became Master Masons. Compare that to 263 in 1999, or 254 in 2000.
Clearly something went astray.
Or take a look at the percentage of our fraternity we’ve lost to death. The graph is the bottom one on page 4. Now, 4% per year doesn’t seem like much—but look at what happens beginning about 1926.
Or look at how relatively few we lose to demits, SNPDs, and expulsions.
But THAT doesn’t tell the story either, because when you look at the percentage of NET gains and losses (the graph at the bottom of page 10), you’ll see that there’s FAR too much of that line below zero, going all way back to 1930.
Let’s look, just as an example, at 1955 and 1956, the only two years in Iowa Masonic history when our numbers reached 99,000 members.
In 1955 there were 99,044 Masons in the state. They conferred 2,783 Entered Apprentice Degrees, 2,622 Fellowcraft Degrees, and 2,627 Master Mason Degrees, for a total of 8,032 Masonic Degree conferrals that year. 849 Masons were admitted to Iowa Lodges by certificates of good standing in another Lodge. 458 were Reinstated as members in good standing. That means that the Fraternity gained, on paper at least, 3,934 members in 1955.
However. 1,736 Masons died that year. 1,092 demitted. 1,079 were dropped. 17 withdrew or were expelled. THAT means the Fraternity LOST 3,924 members in 1955.
The net gain was a total of 10—TEN!—one one-hundredth of one percent!
1956, when there were 99,033 Masons on the books, wasn’t much better. There was a total gain of 3.898, and a total loss of 3,878, for a net gain of 20 members. At least the net gain doubled from the previous year!
If those two years were exceptions, I wouldn’t be so upset. Sadly, though, they are all too typical.
This is NOT evidence of a healthy organization! Members are coming in the front door, and walking right OUT the back door. And they’ve been doing it for nearly a century.
We’ve blamed everybody in sight except—ummm—ourselves.
What I’m saying right out loud, Companions, Sir Knights, Nobles, and Brothers, is what Pogo said so many years ago: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Pogo hit the nail on the head.
So what’s the problem?
Well, y’see, Brothers—I think we’re lying to ourselves, and, what’s worse, we’re lying to our candidates.
I think we’ve lost sight of what Freemasonry is all about.
Whether in 1900 or 1960, when we were so busy conferring thousands of Degrees every year, we lost sight of who we really are—or claim to be.
Here’s a heresy for you: Masonry is NOT ritual, nor is ritual Masonry! Sure, our ritual is precious. Sure, our ritual is a supremely important teaching tool. Sure, it’s beautiful, and profound, and meaningful, and all of that. BUT IT IS NOT MASONRY! Not CRAFT Masonry, not York Rite Masonry, not Scottish Rite Masonry, not Shrine Masonry, not Eastern Star Masonry, and not DeMolay, or Rainbow, or Job’s Daughters, or Amaranth Masonry. NOT MASONRY OF ANY SORT!
BUT, you protest, memorizing our ritual teaches us about Masonry. Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. What it teaches us for certain is that those people who can memorize ritual can, in fact, memorize ritual.
Ritual is simply a means to an end. It is an INTRODUCTION to what Freemasonry is all about. There’s a LOT more!
We tend to forget that Freemasonry is, before it is anything else, a FRATERNITY. In its very structure it is SOCIAL. And it is not intended for initiates alone, but for their families and friends as well.
In their zeal to create more Master Masons, our Brethren of the past century—and some of us as well—have concentrated ONLY on the mechanical processes—the ritual, if you will—of making Master Masons.
And then we have abandoned many of them.
Most CERTAINLY we have abandoned their families all too often! Have you ever heard the term “Masonic widow?” Does it describe anybody you know?
And, since not all new Masons have any particular interest in a purely ritualistic organization, and, not learning that there’s more to Masonry than conferring Degrees, they leave—and have left— in droves. They left almost as quickly as they were Raised—or received the York or Scottish Degrees (you get the picture).
I will presume that most of us are high school graduates, and that we gained our diplomas the traditional way. After we attended school for four years, in classrooms, taught by teachers, and covering a substantial curriculum, we were granted diplomas
That’s the way Masonry is SUPPOSED to work. While he is becoming a Master Mason, a man is supposed to meet regularly with a more experienced Brother to discuss Masonry. Typically those meetings should comprise several hours. When he becomes a Master Mason, those Masonic discussions should continue in Lodge, and with Brothers outside of Lodge.
But what really happens?
Well, we drag a guy into an unfamiliar place, surround him with strangers, blindfold him, take off his own clothes, and preach at him for a total of perhaps four hours or so. We give him some fancy titles, and tell him he’s now eligible to teach about Masonry himself.
What would happen if we ran our public schools that way?
We claim to “make good men better.” How are we supposed to do that? By osmosis?
Before you start yelling at me about the posting lectures, let me just point out that those who memorized the posting lectures say, almost to a man, that it was the DISCUSSIONS of Masonry they had with their mentors that were the most important part of that catechism. In jurisdictions that no longer require the posting lectures—like Iowa—it’s not the posting lectures that are missing. It’s the bonding experience of one-on-one discussion. In Iowa, at least, that’s still supposed to happen, even if, apparently, it seldom does.
In Iowa today we have groups of Masons called Masonic Instructors and District Lecturers, who are supervised by a three-member Board of Custodians. These men are experts in our ritual—just to become a member of this elite group, one must memorize our ritual in all three Degrees. And I’m MUCH in favor of these guys!
The original purpose of these experts, however, was not just to be ritual experts. They were to study, understand, and lecture on Masonic philosophy, history, law, and etiquette as well as the ritual. The change in their role in the Fraternity is emblematic of the problems facing our Orders.
A few years ago, while he was Grand Master of Masons in Iowa, Most Worshipful Brother Don Mosier decided to investigate the reasons so many men left the Fraternity so soon after they joined. To that end, he invited ALL Masons in Iowa who had been Masons for three years or less to a series of discussions. Except for the Grand Secretary and one or two other veteran Masons, all other Masons were specifically excluded from these meetings.
Bro. Don asked these newly Raised Masons whether they had received from Masonry what they expected or had been led to expect. What did they LIKE about the Fraternity? What did they DISLIKE about their experiences as Masons?
From every nook and cranny of Iowa the same message came back: we really LIKE the men in our Lodges. We LOVE the idea of Masonry. We like the philosophical goals of the Fraternity, insofar as we know about them.
We’re looking for a fraternity where we can have some social activities with our Brothers—and other social activities that involve our families, including our kids. We’re looking for projects that can benefit our local schools and communities. We’re looking for a fraternity that’s well enough known locally that we can be proud to be members.
NOBODY has taken the time to educate us as Masons. NOBODY has taken the time to have serious discussions about Masonic matters of OUR choice. We were promised more Masonic Light, and we want it! How do we get it? Are there any Masons who want to talk about anything other than ritual, or paying the bills? Why do we have to spend half the meeting time reading minutes and introducing everybody to people who have known then for years?
Seems to me that those are fair observations and questions, and unless we—WE—address them, this outfit really is going to sink faster than the Titanic.
You see, my Brothers, EVERY man in this room has knelt at Masonry’s altar time and time again. In the first three Degrees, blind, symbolically naked, and disoriented, we were asked what we then desired.
The answers we gave are the key to solving our problems. We asked for LIGHT. MORE LIGHT. FURTHER LIGHT IN MASONRY.
And the answer to our plea for light rang loud and clear in that sacred space: “Then you shall receive it!”
But DID you? If you did, how? Have you made a real effort to pass it on? Or do you figure that’s somebody else’s job?
Most Worshipful Brother Neil Neddermeyer, Past Grand Master of Masons in Minnesota, has this on his website:
I’M THE GUY
I’m the guy who asked to join Freemasonry. I’m the guy who paid his dues to join. I’m the guy who stood up in front of you and promised to be faithful and loyal.
I’m the guy who came to the meetings and no one paid any attention to. I tried several times to be friendly to some of the Brothers, but they all had their own buddies to talk to and sit next to. I sat down several times but no one paid any attention to me.
I hoped very much that someone would have asked me to take part in a fund-raising project or something, but no one saw my efforts when I volunteered.
I missed a few meetings after joining because I was sick and couldn’t be there. No one asked me at the next meeting where I had been. I guess it didn’t matter very much to others whether I was there or not.
The next meeting I decided to stay at home and watch TV. The following meeting I attended, no one asked me where I was when the last meeting was held.
You might say I’m a good guy, a good family man who holds a responsible job, loves his community and his country.
You know who else I am? I’m the guy who never came back.
It amuses me when I think back on how the heads of the organization and the members were discussing why the organization was losing members.
It amuses me now to think that they spend so much time looking for new members when I was there all the time.
All they needed to do was make me feel needed, wanted, and welcome.
But there’s more.
Each of us has sworn sacred oaths on a Volume of Sacred Law. We have sworn to behave in very specific ways, not just while we are in Lodge, but also in our everyday lives. Do we live in accord to what we swore there? Or are we forsworn by large and small acts every day of our lives.
Bro. Dan Weatherington, a Mason from South Carolina, has put the challenge this way:
NOT ONE PERSON
Not one person ever joined Masonry because George Washington was a Mason. Not one person ever joined Masonry because Harry Truman was a Mason. Not one person ever joined because of any of our great Masonic heroes. Joining doesn’t make you any of those people.
Not one person ever joined in order to give a million dollars a day to charity, or homes, or crippled children. You don’t have to be a member to give money.
Not one person ever joined because our ritual is outstanding, or our minutes are accurate, or a hundred other things we worry about They don’t know about our ritual.
They joined because someone they knew and admired was a Mason. It could have been a father, a friend, a man down the street, or someone a thousand miles away. Who, it didn’t matter.
They admired him and wanted to do the things he did, and they did it by the millions.
Want to help our growth? Be the kind of man someone admires. Someone will notice.
You see, my Brothers, Companions, Sir Knights, the best—the only—way to attract men to our Fraternity is to act like a Mason in all our doings. And that means being enough of a friend to others that we can discuss Masonry with them.
Once we have Raised a new Master Mason, our duties have only begun—and this is even more true in Chapter, Council, and Commandery. We OWE that new member something.
In Craft Masonry, we stress time and again the tenets of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. But do we demonstrate them? Do we show our new Brothers genuine brotherly love? Do we demonstrate enough relief to show concern for our new member in times of his adversity? Do we assist him on his Masonic journey in search of truth?
So how do we fix it?
Pogo told us. We have met the enemy, and he is us. So it’s up to us to fix it. I don’t mean “us” institutionally. I mean EACH of us. Individually.
It requires that we live our lives according to the tenets of our Order. It means that each of us will have to learn how to think and to behave like a Mason. And it means we need to start paying attention to our Lodges, our Chapters, our Councils, our Commanderies.
That’s a big assignment. No generation for the past century has really achieved it.
But what happens if we work at it, and get at least a part of it right?
Brother Bob Conley, Past Grand Master of Masons in Michigan, and Brother Bob Davis, one of the pre-eminent Masonic scholars in the country, are both students of fraternalism and society. Both of them stress several things:
· This generation of men between the ages of 20 and 40 are looking for exactly the kinds of experiences Freemasonry can offer. They are more open to these ideas than any of the three preceding generations have been.
· This cohort of young men are more open to Masonry’s ideas and structures than any other cohort SINCE WORLD WAR I.
· The men who petition our Lodges and our appendant bodies for membership today are often more knowledgeable about Freemasonry BEFORE they petition than are many Masonic veterans.
· However, if these men do NOT find what they know Masonry has to offer, they will leave more quickly even than their predecessors.
· Single-sex organizations like Masonry are more important to young men today than they have been since World War II.
So here’s a simple plan—one each of us can put in place today:
1. Get to know men who are not Masons, and discuss Masonry with those who are already Masons in character, but not yet in name. Have a pocket petition handy. Make use of the Invitation to Petition, if appropriate. If you don’t have those tools in your Grand Jurisdiction, see how you can get them.
2. If you’re not already, get actively involved in your Craft Lodge. If you don’t like what’s happening there, find a Lodge more to your liking. This is our source of new York Rite Masons in particular and new Masons in general.
3. TALK AND LEARN ABOUT MASONRY! Do it in Lodge. Do it in Chapter, Council, and Commandery. Do it with your Brothers at the coffee shop. Spend some time reading about Masonry. Talk about how much Masonry means to you with your non-Masonic friends.
4. Tell your Blue Lodge Brothers about how much you enjoy your York Rite affiliation. Have a petition handy.
When I became a Mason, I swore solemn oaths on a Volume of Sacred Law I consider to be divinely inspired.
A part of that volume deals with Jesus of Nazareth, whom I personally believe to be God appearing on earth as a man. But our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters also recognize Him as a great prophet. So his ideas are important to believers of many faiths.
In one of the books of that volume, a book named after a man called Matthew, we learn about the early ministry of Jesus. Here’s what it says—and, I submit, this is a message with great Masonic meaning.
And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people. Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them. Great multitudes followed Him—from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.
And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated, His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
My Brothers, let YOUR Masonic light so shine! Let OUR Masonic light so shine. We CAN bring light to a world wandering in darkness.
So mote it be.