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One hundred years ago the world was at war. Known as the Great War or the War to End All Wars, World War I (WWI) began after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand[i] of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Germany declared war on Russia and soon other countries also declared war on Germany including France, Great Britain and Italy.
The United States initially stayed out of the war, pursing a policy of non-intervention. The 1915 sinking of the British liner RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat, saw 128 American amongst the dead. President Woodrow Wilson demanded the Germans end the attacks on passenger ships. The Germans ignored this request and the U-boat attacks continued.
Ultimately the US would enter the conflict after Wilson called for war on Germany on April 2, 1917[ii]. Congress approved the request four days later. Though Wilson was generally not favorable to war, he saw the opportunity to end all future war by defeating the Germans. America quickly scaled up its military and began a mobilization to confront the Germans in Europe.
Freemasonry was an active supporter of America’s cause and helped contribute supplies and funds to help the war effort.
In his 1918 report at the Seventy-Ninth annual[iii] meeting of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Illinois, Brother Austin H. Scrogin, serving as Grand Master wrote: “In this great work Masonry has no small part. Members of lodges in vast numbers have joined the colors and are, either “over there” or are in camps training for overseas service. It has been my great privilege to loosen the rains, heretofore firmly held, and my dispensation enable many soldier boys to bow at our altar before embarking on their great missions abroad. Masonry in Illinois and elsewhere has shown its devotion to freedom’s cause in provide large funds by free and voluntary contribution for the comfort of those in the camps here, those in need abroad and to care for their loved ones left behind…”
Illinois Freemasonry was clearly supporting the troops and war efforts.
Grand Master Scrogin had numerous challenges of his own back on the home front in Illinois. He reported that several lodges were encouraging the recognition of Grand Orient of France. He reminded the constituent lodges, that however noble the cause was in supporting the French lodges, only the Grand East had the authority for such recognition. Brethren and lodges should not be entering into a campaign for any reason not endorsed and approved by the Grand Master.
Scrogin wrote “It will be recalled that under the wise leadership of Joseph Robbins, the profoundest Masonic jurist and scholar Illinois has ever produced, the hand of fellowship was withdrawn from the Grand Orient as well as the Grand Lodge of France. This was not done in any fit of anger, but action was taken after due deliberation and most thorough investigation. There are certain landmarks or fundamental principles which, if removed, would render Masonry innocuous. It would become a purely benevolent and social association of men merely for pleasure and good fellowship…”
The land mark Scrogin was referring to is the requirement of a belief in a supreme being. French Freemasonry had dropped the requirement in 1877. The French lodges also did not place a bible upon their altar, instead using a book of constitutions.
The Grand Master of Illinois understood that patriotism and the need to support the French people in time of war was important, but not so much as to ignore one of the fundamental principles of Freemasonry. Apparently, some brethren were looking to bring Masonic charges against those proposing recognition. But Scrogin deferred any action saying[iv], “It is my suggestion, therefore, that action be deferred until the calmer counsels of peace may lead us into safer channels that those to be found in the vortex of war.”
These weren’t the only things that Grand Master Scrogin was facing. In the next installment I will review a number of other actions and recommendations he made that are impacting Freemasonry in Illinois to this day.
WB Gregory J. Knott is the Worshipful Master of Ogden Lodge No. 754 in Ogden (IL) and a plural member of St. Joseph Lodge No. 970 (IL), Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL) and Naval Lodge No. 4 in Washington, DC.
[ii] Stables, Gordon. “1917: Woodrow Wilson's Call to War Pulled America onto a Global Stage.”The Conversation, The Conversation, 24 June 2018, theconversation.com/1917-woodrow-wilsons-call-to-war-pulled-america-onto-a-global-stage-75022.
[iii] Scrogin, Austin H. Proceedings of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Illinois. Vol. 79, Grand Lodge of Illinois, 1918.