Suitable Proficiency

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Steven L. Harrison, 33°, FMLR

I've seen it often — a candidate enters the Lodge room to receive his Fellowcraft or Master Mason degree. In each, the Senior Deacon leads the candidate around the room, stopping at stations for an interrogation. The officers at those stations ask if the candidate has made suitable proficiency in the preceding degree.

"He has," replies the Senior Deacon… as he shakes his head "no." Muffled snickering from around the room usually follows.

You see, about 15 years ago my jurisdiction — Missouri — dropped the requirement for proficiencies. Many of our Brothers considered that decision to be the worst thing that had happened in our state since the Pony Express went belly up; and it's not exactly breaking news that the debate continues — those Senior Deacons aren't shaking their heads for nothing.

I recall receiving the pamphlet with the proficiencies when I became an Entered Apprentice. (Yes, in Missouri they're written down, in code, but still a practice some consider heretical.) Discovering I had to memorize the material gave the word "daunting" new meaning. Somehow, though, I "manned-up" and learned them for all three degrees.

Having gone through the experience I consider it one of the highlights of my Masonic journey. I spent time with my mentor who not only took me through the rote memorization process, but also explained things along the way. At the end, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. I also found all that memory work paved the way for learning other parts in the future. Frankly, I wouldn't trade it for anything.

I'm still not sure, however, where I fall in the debate we're still having 15 years after the proficiencies went away. I think there is a feeling that the lack of proficiencies increases membership; or maybe a better way of putting that is having proficiencies might scare some men away. I have to say, in all those years we haven't had them, I've seen men come through who are some of the finest Brothers I know. We wouldn't want to do without them. But would they have joined anyway?

In the end, I probably fall somewhere in the middle of the road. I really think it should take more of a commitment to join the fraternity than it does, say, to become a member of your local Public TV station. We should require new Brothers to demonstrate at least a knowledge of signs, passwords and maybe even learn the obligation.

Going through some old Missouri records recently I noticed one more interesting fact to consider — historically, there were a lot of Brothers who were initiated, passed and raised in a matter of days — sometimes, in fact, on the same day. Meriwether Lewis, for example, was initiated on January 28, 1797, and received his Second and Third Degrees on the following evening. Obviously, he did not learn "suitable proficiencies" in that time span.

Lewis and many others who came into the fraternity that way served the Craft well. Don't we become a little more proficient in Freemasonry every day, with every meeting, every experience? Perhaps we should look at proficiency as something other than memorizing a boatload of material. To me, understanding that material is proficiency, and it doesn't come overnight.

I wonder what would happen the next time I'm asked if the candidate has obtained suitable proficiency if I responded, "Define proficiency."

You're right… maybe not a good idea.


Bro. Steve Harrison, 33° is Past Master of Liberty Lodge #31, Liberty, Missouri. He is the editor of the Missouri Freemason magazine, author of the book Freemasonry Crosses the Mississippi, a Fellow of the Missouri Lodge of Research and also its Worshipful Master. He is a dual member of Kearney Lodge #311, St. Joseph Missouri Valley of the Scottish Rite, Liberty York Rite, Moila Shrine and a member and Past Dean of the DeMolay Legion of Honor. Brother Harrison is a regular contributor to the Midnight Freemasons blog as well as several other Masonic publications. His latest book, Freemasons: Tales From the Craft & Freemasons at Oak Island. Both are available on


  1. If my memory serves me correctly, I was the last one required to turn in proficiency at De Soto (MO) Lodge #119. After serving as Master in 1996, I drifted away for several years. I am just now getting back to meetings and can tell there is a lack of understanding and knowledge of the craft. Even after being away for a while, I could still recite most ritual to the word, even helping the new brothers filling the chairs. I, too am on the fence as to what is best. So mote it be.

  2. Wow. I learned something about Missouri today. Here in Alabama we still teach the lessons, and I like you, find the experience extremely rewarding. How can a Brother hold true to an obligation they do not know?

  3. The value of returning proficiency is entirely dependent on the the coaching process. If the coach focuses solely on the rote, then I see no value in it. Our ritual has come down to us through many generations and each word has a purpose. Were it not so, then we would not have been repeating the same words for a couple hundred years. The job of the coach/mentor/lodge is to educate the candidate on the meaning behind the words. Too few lodges are even attempting to educate our members on the esoteric meaning behind our ritual. Hence Masonry is gradually being reduced to a social club with no deeper meaning. Each time my coach asked me a question and I retuned my response, I was immediately asked, "what do you think that means". "Where is the Lodge of........... show it to me on the map." I quickly learned that these were not just words, but philosophical and esoteric concepts that needed further contemplation. Still to this day some 39 years later, I am gaining insights. "Rote", there is nothing rote about our ritual. If we are not emphasizing that we are certainly missing the boat.

    1. I personally believe that you do not truly learn the lessons until you start to teach them yourself. That was the case for me in any case. I, like you, enjoy explaining what the words mean, why we do the things we do.

  4. I am learning my MM now and almost done. I joined in September of 2015. I really enjoy doing it is feels like your learn more about the craft. And I wonder how many done this in the old days by code it's harder to learn but you remember it. I'm all for it.


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