Physical Perfection

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
RWB. Michael H. Shirley

As an academic, I’ve done research in libraries and archives throughout England, and have come to know and respect their rules. They are there for a reason, and the reason is normally well founded and in place for the protection of their collections. There was one I heard of in my travels that I couldn’t figure out: researchers had to take their notes using a fountain pen. It may have been an apocryphal story, but it stuck with me, in part because I couldn’t figure out at first why that rule would exist.

I was reminded of all that by my research into what now seems an anachronistic bit of Masonic history regarding membership requirements. There aren’t many prerequisites to becoming a Mason: a man must be of age, believe in God, and be well recommended. Things change of course. In Illinois, at least, the requisite age was once twenty-one and is now eighteen, which was a relatively minor change, and reflected the lowering of the voting age. Some changes, however, are surprising, not that they come, but that they take so long to achieve. There was one Illinois requirement that lasted a long time, but which would likely startle my modern Brethren, given that it is the internal and not the external qualifications of a man that should recommend him to be made a Mason: a candidate had to be physically whole.

In Article XII of the 1874 edition of the Constitution and By-Laws of the Grand Lodge of Illinois, specifying the qualifications of candidates, Section I read as follows: 

Every candidate applying for the degrees in Masonry, must have the senses of a man, especially those of hearing, seeing and feeling; be a believer in God; capable of reading and writing, and possessing no maim or defect in his body that may render him incapable of conforming literally to what the several degrees respectively require of him.

No provision of this section shall be set aside, suspended or dispensed with by the
Grand Master or the Grand Lodge.

Given that speculative Freemasonry is not designed to turn out operative stonemasons, the physical perfection requirement gives one pause, particularly the powerlessness of the Grand Master to make exceptions. A man who lost his leg in an accident was ineligible to receive his degrees, and nothing could be done about it, no matter how much a Mason he was in his heart. 

While the Constitution and By-Laws were renumbered over the years, with additions, corrections, and deletions, Article XII, whatever its number became, remained in effect. 

The prospect of wounded and maimed servicemen returning from World War I caused many to reconsider this requirement. At the Grand Communication in 1918, Grand Master Austin H. Scrogin observed:

There is much agitation regarding the physical qualifications of candidates. Our law is rigid in the extreme. It follows from the origin of speculative masonry as a development from the operative art. The “perfect youth" theory, still held by many grand lodges, is a relic of conditions long since outgrown. It is the internal and not the external qualifications that fit men to be Freemasons. Even in times of peace our law has been considered unnecessarily drastic. Hundreds of thousands of young men have gone into the service of their country. Many of these are under age now. These, the flower of our young manhood, are at the front battling for the liberty of the whole world and are the special guardians of American institutions. It is my opinion that our law should be so changed as to permit these returning heroes, though maimed and torn in our defense, to apply to our lodges for admission. Of course suitable regulations should be made so that the grand lodge, through the grand master, can supervise and control in cases where this might be abused. I therefore, recommend that an amendment be prepared to bring about the change suggested.

In 1919, the Committee on Legislation recommended against the outright abolition of the physical perfection requirement:

The amendment to Code 443 regarding physical qualifications of candidates your committee has given full consideration. There is a wide difference of opinion among brethren running from the present drastic ironclad law to the proposed amendment which abolishes all physical restrictions. We submit that a middle ground is the proper one. In line with this the committee submits the following provision as a suggestion for the solution of this question. The amendment will read as follows:
443. Every candidate applying for the degrees in Masonry must have the senses of a man, especially those of hearing, seeing, and feeling; be a believer in God; capable of reading and writing in English, and possessing no maim or defect in his body that may render him incapable of conforming to what the several degrees respectively require of him. Provided that in case of any such maiming or physical defects, on petition of five members of the lodge, the secretary shall transmit the petition to the grand master for his decision. Should the grand master upon investigation deem it advisable so to do he may in his discretion issue a dispensation permitting the lodge to proceed to ballot on the petition.

That amendment was passed, but apparently the possibility that there might be more than a few appeals to the Grand Master did not occur to anyone. It should have. At next year’s Grand Communication, Grand Master Daniel G. Fitzgerrell said,

One year ago an amendment was made to Section 443 of the Code regarding physical qualifications. This provided for an investigation by the grand master as preliminary to the granting or refusing of a dispensation to allow those to petition who were not physically qualified under the law as it stood. I found so many applications being made that it would have been impossible for me to have gone into all these cases. In order to make sure that I was acting in accordance with the best interest of the fraternity, I called together the Grand Master's Advisory Council. This was attended by all the elective officers of the grand lodge together with chairmen of the various committees. After a very thorough consideration it was the consensus of opinion of the Advisory Council that the grand master should not enter upon what seemed a hopeless task. I did not shrink from the labor and responsibility involved by the consideration of the many cases that would come to me from various lodges of the state. Following the recommendation of the Advisory Council I was of the opinion that it was safer and wiser to allow the lodges to follow the letter of the old law rather than to attempt to act under the spirit of the new. Whereupon a circular was issued under date of December 1, 1919, which fully explained the situation and which no doubt is on file in the office of the secretary of each lodge. For the foregoing reason I have declined to consider any cases that have been brought up under the amendment adopted one year ago.

The 1921 Proceedings are replete with reports from the Grand Communications of other Grand Lodges that indicated that they were wrestling with the same concern regarding physical perfection of petitioners. They were roughly split on the question, with some arguing that physical perfection ought still be required, others, such as the Grand Master of Prince Edward Island, F. & A.M., expressed “a desire for a more liberal construction of the law on physical qualifications due to the fact that so many soldiers returning from the war maimed and otherwise unable to apply for the degrees of the fraternity.”

In 1922, Illinois Grand Master Elmer Beach reported that, 

Many requests have been presented for dispensations to enable lodges to receive and act on petitions for the degrees in cases where the petitioners had not the physical qualifications necessary to enable them to conform to what the various degrees require of them. I have felt constrained to follow the course adopted by my predecessor, and issue no dispensations in these cases. I have never been fully convinced that it is wise to depart from the long established and until recently well nigh universal rule requiring that candidates have no physical defects which prevent them from conforming to everything the various degrees require of them. Although empowered to do so, I have therefore declined to issue dispensations waiving physical defects which the Grand Lodge itself has declined to do.

And there the matter lay. It was considered again in 1927 and 1929, but was reaffirmed in 1934, when it was renumbered (to 277) with other portions of the Book of Constitutions and By Laws. It took the prospect of more wounded and maimed servicemen returning from another war to bury this requirement beyond hope of resurrection. In his annual report at the 1942 Grand Communication, Grand Master Karl J. Mohr discussed that requirement at length:

Nothing in our constitutions so thoroughly indicates the antiquity of our Fraternity as this law, which hearkens back to the Middle Ages, when physical fitness had some justification in the regulations and administration of the operative Guilds of England, considered by many the cornerstone of present Freemasonry. Whatever importance external qualifications assumed in that day has evaporated in the subsequent emphasis placed on internal qualifications by our philosophy. A slight physical defect, under the present interpretation of our code, may close the door of fellowship to a man of the highest possible character and integrity, perhaps one a leader in civil life whose contribution to Freemasonry might be incalculable. Nothing could be more repugnant to the fundamentals of this institution.

Nor can this travesty be justified by the provision that the Grand Master, in Illinois, has the power to issue a dispensation permitting the initiation of one under a physical handicap. Common justice and ordinary fairness dictate that this theory of quality be affirmed or rejected as part of our law, and not foisted…upon the individual you honor by elevation to the exalted office of Grand Master.

Finally,…the dreaded, hateful, and dreary consequence of this gigantic military struggle, undoubtedly, will be the return to this State and nation, of too many men, constituting the very flower of our manhood and citizenry, and precisely within the range of age from which Freemasonry should draw its future enrollments, with physical defects incurred in the defense of this democracy.

Are we going to cheer their return, and pay homage to their courage and stamina, which kept this country safe for us, and then slam the doors of our lodges in their faces, because their heroic defense of us brought them the sacrifice of some physical member? Are we going to say to these heroes, “You were good enough to protect me and mine, but you are not fit to be a Mason because in that defense you lost an arm, or a leg, or your sight?” Are we going to say to them and to the world at large that the bonds of fraternity and recognition between Master Masons is physical and not mental? Or are we going to practice our creed, and search a man’s soul, and nothing else, to ascertain whether he is worthy to be our brother!

Grand Master Mohr called for Code 277 to be removed. The Committee on Legislation, in recommending adoption of the amendment, noted that “Our practice has been to submit to the judgment of the Lodge the difficult determination of the question as to a petitioner’s mental and moral qualifications, but to withhold from the Lodge the right to exercise any discretion as to the much more easily determined question as to his physical qualifications.” 

After laying over for a year as required, the amendment striking Code 277 was adopted unanimously. The physical perfection requirement in Illinois was no more.

The question, of course, is why it was there in the first place. It seems to have been a holdover to the time of operative masonry, as Grand Master Mohr stated, but that it lasted so long and was held with such vehemence is at first glance surprising, given the number of strong arguments against it. It seems that many people regarded it as one of the Ancient Landmarks, but this was apparently due to its antiquity, rather than its utility, and antiquity alone is a weak foundation. As Brother Richard E. Kropf, chairman of the Committee on Legislation, said in 1943, prior to the vote that struck down the physical perfection requirement,  “Your Committee has the highest respect for the so-called “Old Land Marks” of Masonry. But if this is an old land mark then we believe that in the light of present day needs and conditions and in the interest of progress it should be demolished.” And so it was. 

I’m glad it was, too, for the good of the Craft and for one selfish reason. Several years ago, I acted as Senior Deacon for a Brother in a neighboring lodge who had spinal problems. He was able to take a few steps at the time, but by the time he became Master of that lodge he was pretty well wheelchair bound.  He was and is a great Mason, the spiritual embodiment of the kindness and selflessness that we are called to emulate. I’m proud to know him, and prouder still to call him my Brother. None of it would have happened had not Brethren in an earlier generation looked at the physical perfection requirement, asked why it was there, received an answer, and, recognizing that times and Masonry had changed, erased the so-called landmark.

As to the archive that required a fountain pen, I finally figured out why that rule existed. When fountain pens, then known as reservoir pens, were first introduced in the nineteenth century, they were much neater and less likely to splatter ink than were dip pens, and the people who ran that archive decided to require them in the interest of neatness. They just never bothered to change it, and it finally took on the authority of an ancient landmark, for no other reason than its age. I have no idea if it ever changed, but if it did, it would have been because someone asked why it was there in the first place, received an answer, and said, “We have pencils.  Let’s use them.” Perhaps Masons should ask why more often. After all, speculative or operative, using the right tool for the job is something we are supposed to understand.


R.W.B. Michael H. Shirley

serves the Grand Lodge of Illinois, A.F. & A.M, as Leadership Development Chairman and Assistant Area Deputy Grand Master of the Eastern Area. A Certified Lodge Instructor, he is a Past Master and Life Member of Tuscola Lodge No. 332 and a plural member of Island City Lodge No. 330, F & AM, in Minocqua, Wisconsin. A Scottish Rite Mason, he is past Most Wise Master of the George E. Burow Chapter of Rose Croix in the Valley of Danville, AASR-NMJ; he is also a member of the Illinois Lodge of Research, the York Rite, Eastern Illinois Council No. 356 Allied Masonic Degrees, Eastern Star, Illini High Twelve, and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon.The author of several articles on British history, he teaches at Eastern Illinois University.You can contact him at:

1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic article. As Brother Shirley illustrates with his well researched article, things do change in Masonry. It hasn't always "been that way".


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