Dispatches from Maine

Just another person of little note writing about ordinary things. That I reside in Maine is icing on the cake.

09 May 2005

Fear and Loathing in the Craft

The Grand Lodge Annual Communication on May 7th finally cemented my feelings about the One Day Class issue. As I had studied Masonry, primarily focusing on the development of the ritual from 1390 - 1790, I found my sense of this issue flipping all around. Is the initiatory process we have today crucial? Does it always have the desired affect? Is our membership problem really all that severe? How does it compare to the anti-Masonic period? There are many questions, but few answers.

During the session an amendment came up to permit the Grand Master to waive the one day waiting period between the Fellowcraft and Master Mason degrees. This opens the gap necessary for One Day Classes to be scheduled in Maine, something which has been debated three times in Maine. All of the debates are terribly polarizing, as is the entire issue. As I listened to the two speakers from the Committee on Amendments to the Constitution speak, my own personal view on the issue gelled for the first time. I realized that both are speaking out of fear of the unknown, and that no resolution will be found between these two views since they are both based in fear.

The people who speak out against the classes are arguing two major points. First, they assert that raising candidates in the traditional way is a unique and essential feature of Freemasonry. To change this by raising large numbers of candidates in an auditorium would pulled a thread so vital to the fabric of Freemasonry that the order would be irreperably damaged. Second, in the final analysis no Grand Lodge has been saved by the program. There are still no pockets of real positive growth associated with one day classes.

The people who speak out for the classes are also arguing two major points. First, without a large influx of new members soon the lodge system will be defunct and Freemasonry as we know it will vanish in a generation. Second, they note that the traditional techniques for raising candidates are not finding significant success. This is best demonstrated by the terrible lack of retention.

Let us look at the points of both sides from the bottom up.

The other method is no better...

Each side uses statistics to make the point that the other method is no better. There is much insight to be gained here since both sides have failed to convince people on the basis of the first, meritorious arguments. Both movements then switched to ad hominem attacks against each other, egenendering the bad blood we are all so painfully aware of in the Craft. Finally, they are each now attacking each other's systems as a way of undermining their opponent and winning their argument.

If the traditional method of raising candidates is failing, and I believe there is a serious, nearly fatal problem there, then the focus of the one day class community should be on lodge renewal before it turns to one day classes. Without lodges ready and able to receive candidates, any membership boost would require huge numbers to overwhelm inertia. To ignore lodge renewal puts their whole movement at risk since it assures the same poor results we obtain from traditional raisings.

If, on the other hand, there is really no net effect from one day conferrals, then there is really nothing to be concerned about. Rather than fight it and rip the Craft apart from the inside, which both sides should realize they are doing, let it wither on the vine. In Acts of the Apostles there is a scene of great wisdom where Gamaliel says, "So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God." (Acts 5:34-39). Our order is not divinely constituted yet the advice still rings true. If one day classes are without substance, then they will fall away unimpeeded.

In my view, and in the view of the Committee on the Condition of the Fraternity, there is almost no source for data of the detail and quality necessary to make such a judgement on either side. Even as a lodge secretary, I can tell you little about who attends lodge and why. The Grand Lodge has no access whatsoever to this data making it impossible for either side to say what is occuring. Some Grand Lodges are making efforts, but they are necessarily so subjective, and predisposed in one direction or another, as to be rendered meaningless.

The end of Freemasonry...

Strangely enough both sides are arguing that without them Masonry would be lost for all time if their opponent should manage to make change or to maintain the status quo. It is my view that both of these arguments are deeply myopic and the Craft should beware of them.

The pro one day class brethren argue quite strongly that we are witnessing the end of American Freemasonry. At the current rate of decline there will be almost no Masons remaining in the United States in twenty years. The entire lodge system will vanish and the beauty of the Craft will be lost for good. This is a dire prediction, but one which appears to be borne out by membership statistics and anticipated death rates. In my own mother lodge, there were 600 members in 1980 and today, twenty-five years later, there are 230. Using a Microsoft Excel FORECAST() formula, there are projected to be 115 members in ten years. At that point, with inflation set to 3% and no dues increase, the lodge will run a deficit of $10,000.00 each year.

These are all frightening numbers indeed for a Craft which has grown used to being in the real estate business with lodges of 500-1,000 members and annual dues set below the cost of a meal for two. But there are two key elements which should lead a brother to see the argument for what it is for. First, the dues rate is increasing now very rapidly making up for years of low or no growth. In ten years the dues associated with most lodges will have doubled or trippled. I fully anticipate $100.00 per year dues for my three lodges by 2010 and I do not begrudge them a dime of it. Second, is the recent influx of young men. While the rate, as a percentage of members, is still quite small it demonstrates that Freemasonry is finally starting to attract the men we are most looking for. This is through no action of our own! When you ask these men why they joined the reasons are as varied as the men who joined in the zenith of the 1960s.

At its heart the forecast is probably dead wrong. This is not the end of Freemasonry at all, this is merely Freemasonry shrinking. If Freemasonry ever really faced its end, it was the period 1826-1860, commonly called the anti-Masonic Era. In "The History of Portland Lodge No. 1 (1769-1880)" by Bro. Josiah Hayden Drummond the records of Portland Lodge show large numbers of candidates and busy times up until 1827. Then in 1828 we read:

Undoubtedly the effect of the "anti-Masonic excitement," growing out of the Morgan affair, had begun to be felt at the commencement of this year. Gooding declined to act as Senior Deacon, and was excused by a formal vote of the Lodge, and Arthur Davis was unanimously elected in his place.
The twelve stated meetings were held, but only two special meetings -- one to receive the visit of the District Deputy, and the other to confer the third degree.

The lodge becomes more and more innactive during the next four years, until:

The usual record is, "there not being a quorum of the members present, the Lodge was not opened." But Joel Benney received the degrees, being the last until after the anti-Masonic excitement had died out.
The record of the meetings in January, March, April and September is, "there not being a quorum of the members present, the Lodge was not opened:" and there is no record of any meeting in February, July, August, October and November.
At the meeting in May, a Committee of five was appointed to take into consideration the present state of the Lodge and recommend what method ought to be taken to preserve the fund of the Lodge, and report at the next regular meeting: but no report appears of record.
Upon settlement with the Treasurer, it was found that he was out of funds, and he was authorized to borrow seventy-five dollars, but this being found impracticable, at a special meeting held on the third of January following, the vote was reconsidered, and the Treasurer authorized to sell a share of bank stock belonging to the Lodge...

In the State of Maine, the lodges of the south began to rebound after the famous, but largely undocumented, Masonic Convention of 1843. This convention inspired many public celebrations and gathered so many Brethren into Portland that it made the Craft more visible to Portland's largest city. Yet it alone did not change the fortunes of Portland Lodge, as it had already received its first new petitioner in more than ten years before the convention assembled in 1843. The hard effects continued to be felt in other parts of the State, and the lodges closer to Batavia, New York felt the effects clear until the 1860s. If any brother can claim to have witnessed the very end of Freemasonry in the United States it would be the brethren who lived through the anti-Masonic Era. They knew what true hardship was: no meetings for years, no funds such that the lodge was inspired to borrow funds. They did not, however, make radical changes to the structure of the lodges or abbreviate the degree journey to escape this dire period. They simply got smaller and waited.

The traditionalists, on the other hand, feel that one day classes will precipitate the destruction of Freemasonry. It is their view that the structure of the degree journey is so essential that changes to it will have dire consequences for the Craft. As much as I love the degree journey, the history of Masonry simply does not bear this out. The first Free Masons spent much of their lives making the journey from booking (seven years) to apprenticeship (seven years) to finally being a fellow of the craft. The fourteen year period from booking to fellow is not viewed today, by the traditionalists as essential to the degree journey. Even the most ardent among them thinks a one year period is quite long enough between degrees (one month is the norm here in Maine).

The degree system as well is not nearly as traditional as some might have you believe. The early degree system, as revealed by the Gothic Constitutions and the aides de memoire of the 16th and 17th centuries, consisted of two degrees: Entered Prentice and Fellow Craft. There was no Master, but the Master who ran the lodge. The Master Mason degree is an innovation from period just after the first Grand Lodge was formed in London. The earliest two records, of which I am aware, are Samuel Pritchard's "Masonry Dissected" from 1730 and the letter of censure to the Masonic Music Society (the first valid Master Mason was 1726 at Dumbarton Kilwinning Lodge in Scotland). Pritchard gives us a version of the Master Mason Degree in text for the first time, previously exposures and aides de memoire only reflected the bigradal sytem. The Masonic Music Society required its members to be Master Masons, when a man who was not joined the society raised him themselves. This earned them a written censure from the Grand Lodge in London.

It is also a fact that one day Masonry has its start in the dying operative lodges of 17th century Scotland. There are minutes of Mother Kilwinning Lodge No. 0 which reflect the election of the local laird to the Craft during a time when there were not sufficient brethren to manage the lodge. The hope appears to be both to inspire more work and drawn new men into the Craft as "Accepted Masons." It did not work then, but it also did not destroy Scottish Masonry. Another significant change is the conversion from catechetical ritual, a fancy way to say "question and answer," to lecture-based ritual. Looking at Freemasonry in the United States today we carry around significantly more text from Bro. William Preston (via Bro. Thomas Smith Webb) than we do from our early Masonic brethren. The lectures were largely the work of one man, and are forever enshrined in our workings here in Maine. Brethren are celebrated not because they can remember "I hail. I conceal." but because then can remember "A lodge is a certain number of Masons, duely assembled with the Holy Bible, Square and Compasses..." It is the lectures not the catechesis which mark a great ritualist today. None of these significant changes caused the destruction of the Craft. They are all major differences, but they merely changed it, not destroyed it.


It is my view, that both sides are reacting out of fear. The one day class brethren fear the end of Freemasonry and will do anything to stop it. It is not necessarily true that just anything is the solution. If we do nothing at all, the Craft will be just as likely to prosper. The traditionalist faction fears change. Their ancestors also probably fought against speculative masons, who were predicted to destroy Freemasonry. For a laugh, read the pamphlet "A Mason's Complaint" which is from an old operative Mason arguing that the new speculative Masons will destroy Freemasonry. Even if we have ten years of nothing but one day classes the true essence of the craft will not be lost. The essence, in my view, is the fraternal bond and struggle of we brethren to be better men and to keep our passions within due bounds. The essence is not whether I took my degrees over three years, three months, or three hours. A Brother who shakes your hand, helps you when you are down, and works hard for the lodge is no less a Mason if he was initiated, passed and raised in one day.

There is nothing to fear, so despite my own love for the initiatory journey given to me by the Brethren of Deering Lodge, I would recommend we vote to allow the Grand Master to hold one day classes. The advent of these classes will not destroy Masonry, but the bitterness engendered by the fight over them just might.

with Brotherly Love,
Christian Ratliff


At 18 October, 2005 15:25 , Anonymous Scott Ford said...

Hi Christian,
I was looking for Masonic related information, and came across your blog. I am a initiate mason. I am also a catholic. Mind you not a real strong one. I have not found many or any Catholics that are masons. I would be interested to speak ore communicate through email with you. I am actually quite amazed at the similar interests that we have. I also enjoy making and drinking micro brews. My email is w8sef@sbcglobal.net


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home