Taking Back the 24-Inch Gauge
By Midnight Freemason Contributor
Freemasonry is a complex organization. Its history is rich, dynamic, and largely unknown. The organization itself has spawned hundreds of others--some open to women and others open to children--almost all of which predicated membership on first having been raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason. Many of these organizations, including the Tall Cedars of Lebanon, the Grotto, DeMolay, Job's Daughters, and Rainbow for Girls, were all formed at the cusp of the twentieth century—a period in which Masonry had once again begun to expand following two distinct periods of major anti-masonic sentiment in the United States (first in the 1830's following the Morgan Affair and second in the 1870's-1880's). In the heyday of the post-WWII Masonic membership boom—and partially due to the societal norms of the day—these appendant and concordant bodies (as they came to be called) expanded and flourished.
But this is no longer the case today, at least universally. Masons are overburdened, and the entire craft is suffering because of it. Many appendant bodies, at least on the local level, obtain just enough support from overwhelmed Masons to stave off shutting their doors. I would argue that given the decline in Masonic membership, changing socio-cultural norms and the concurrent breakdown of the “Masonic family,” and the proliferation of non-masonic organizations—all of which have occurred over the last century—the myriad appendant bodies, and women’s and youth organizations attached to the Masonic fraternity is no longer sustainable. One of the best things that we as Masons can do is to take struggling chapters and organizations off of life support and let them die.
One of the very first lessons Entered Apprentices are taught is to manage time through the use of the 24-inch gauge. But today’s Masonic fraternity does not lend itself to proper time management. Masonic membership has been in sharp decline across the world for the past 60 years, yet Masonic obligations have not diminished proportionally. The calendar in my Masonic district is packed, and a lodge officer can be assured that he’ll be away from home a minimum of 2 nights a week just for his home lodge, not counting the events occurring in the district on a weekly basis to which he is “expected” to show up—and this is just for Blue Lodge! It doesn’t take into account the weekly Shrine club meetings, Scottish Rite pancake breakfasts, or the last-minute phone call from the local Royal Arch Chapter looking for one more member to attend their monthly meeting so that they have enough brethren to open. Seeing how overburdened Masons in my own District happen to be, it’s no wonder that Masonic youth groups and other aforementioned organizations fall by the wayside.
But declining Masonic membership is only one reason for this lack of support. Changing sociocultural norms also play a role. In the 1950’s, many women derived their identities from their husbands’ hobbies and lives. If your husband was a Mason, you could spend time with him by taking part in women’s Masonic organizations like Amaranth or the Order of the Eastern Star. If you were the child of a Mason, you could spend time with your father by joining DeMolay or Rainbow for Girls. This way, a Mason could concurrently spend time with his family and tend to Masonic obligations. Today, however, the “Masonic family” arguably no longer exists, especially in today’s younger generation of Masons. I can count on one finger the number of Masonic spouses under 35 who are actively engaged Masonic endeavors with their husbands (Sorry, Cori—you’re quite the outlier at present). Masonic and familial obligations today simply do not overlap.
A final reason for lack of support is the proliferation of other organizations and ways to spend one’s time. Freemasonry no longer holds the enviable position of being the only game in town for extracurricular socialization and entertainment for men and their families. The success of youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America has dwarfed Masonic youth organizations like DeMolay and Job’s Daughters.
Now that we’ve diagnosed at least a portion why Masons today are so over-obligated, how do we chart a way ahead? How do we take back the 24-inch gauge? Should we try to squeeze more commitment out of Masons through guilt, Grand Lodge edicts and resolutions, or other requests for aid? I have seen each of these tactics employed time and time again. Yet, youth groups and other appendant bodies in my area retain barely enough support to keep their doors open. Case in point—while at a blue lodge meeting I overheard a brother bragging about a youth group chapter that had become one of the biggest in the state—at 16 members. That’s a lot of effort for little quantifiable reward. Far more concerning to me, however, is the fact that I consistently witness more and more of my fellow brethren fight with their spouses over how much time Masonry is taking away from family.
Something needs to change. Short of building the membership back up to where it was at the turn of the twentieth century, the only way to lessen the burden on today’s Mason is to sacrifice struggling organizations currently on life support. No one wants to see a pet project or a chapter of an organization die, but the fact of the matter is that we can’t do it all anymore. Nor should we. Capture the institutional knowledge of an organization, document its ritual and history, and let it go.
Be bold. Make difficult choices. Take back your 24-inch gauge. We may find a strengthened fraternity as a result.
Bro. Jason Richards is the Junior Warden of Acacia Lodge No. 16 in Clifton, Virginia, and a member of both The Patriot Lodge No. 1957 and Fauquier Royal Arch Chapter No. 25 in Fairfax, Virginia. He is also Chaplain of Perfect Ashlar Council No. 349, Allied Masonic Degrees. He is the sole author of the Masonic weblog The 2-Foot Ruler: Masonry in Plain Language, and is a co-host on the weekly YouTube show and podcast The Masonic Roundtable. He lives in Virginia with his wife, cats, and ever-expanding collection of bow ties.