by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Robert H. Johnson
With the recent publication of several articles, the Masonic presence on the web has caught fire...again. In any particular calendar year there are, without exception, several happenings within the Masonic world which rock the boat, so to say. Sometimes it’s ragging on the dress and formal attire: ”It’s the internal, not the external!” some shout. Other times someone will make Masonic minds seemingly explode by putting up images or articles showing women in full regalia, operating in their own Masonic lodges. “They’re not real Masons!” the masses scream. Still yet, there are a multitude of of other controversial topics that plague us, but none more perhaps, than that of this fraternity dying off. Whether due to our own greed, a misappropriation of members, religious fundamentalism or racism--the list goes on.
When I originally wrote this paper, it was 2016 and much had been written about our fraternity and its future. Data had been analyzed, surveys completed and more data compiled. After this last month’s rush of articles, I thought how interesting it is that when we decide to do the work of Freemasonry, to study, to contemplate, reflect and then sometimes write about it, we get only a few hits. Posts like how to critically evaluate ritual, or perhaps this piece on the symbolic interpretations of Solomon’s Temple just don’t get the traffic. Write about the death of Masonry and throw a catchy title on it and: STOP. THE. PRESS. Instant viral Masonic post. Does this confirm that Masonry is already dead in the hearts of those commenting on social media about it? Or rather, is it fair to say that if the only Masonic articles that gain traction are the kinds that speak about Masonry rather than those that are Masonry, that it is in fact dead?
The articles I’m referring to will be shared thousands of times, seldom read, and the “conversation” (I’m being polite about what I will call the dribble bantered about below said posts.) that has formed in the comments becomes inflammatory, and tends to divide Masons into fence sitters, spiritualists and ritual vultures.
The articles are good reading, but if you’re strapped for time, here are some brief words on the two articles I want to address. Here’s the TL;DR (too long didn’t read):
Is Freemasonry Doomed to Fail? - Posted to (https://masonicimprovement.wordpress.com/) on December 2nd 2018
This article by Brother Justin Jones addresses the data compiling and analyzation done by Brother Lance Kennedy. Lance’s data is spot on and is showing us the absolute and unavoidable declination of our membership numbers. While Brother Kennedy’s work is “not flawless” it is solid and even I agree with them. However what was this blog post about? Well, it’s basically saying what I said here (below) in 2016. His conclusion is essentially that we will reach equilibrium. I highly recommend reading this article. It isn’t too long and his thoughts are concise. I tip my hat to brother Justin Jones for his post.
Freemasonry is Dying - Posted to (http://freemasoninformation.com/amp/) on or around November 29th, 2018
Perhaps this one is one of the most inflammatory, at least at first due to the title alone. This is the post that essentially caused Brother Justin Jones, author of the previous article, to put finger to keyboard. A direct quote and complete summary of the piece is found right at the top of the paper:
“Once you can get yourself to accept the fact that Freemasonry is dying, then perhaps some progress can be made in downsizing, consolidating, making Appendant Bodies stand on their own, raising dues significantly and other acts of resuscitation. Terminally ill patients require drastic and sometimes untried measures to save them.”
What follows are several paragraphs explaining the data and its trend of declination. I’ll tell you, it’s pretty solid. I’m an analyst by trade and I won’t argue with these numbers. I once again will tip my hat to Brother Kennedy for his work in charting a path to our inevitable downfall. But wait! There’s more!
Theologians and professionals within the scientific community have argued incessantly for all time regarding what “truth” is and how it should be discerned. Objective and subjective opinions, exegetical and hermeneutical debates on all things, not just religion and its books. We see these debates about the truth of matters raised in philosophical discussions, whether something is prima facie or absolute. We see it in discussions in the medical field, about law, you name it...we’re debating it.
Freemasonry is always in the eye of the beholder. We love being subjective...to a fault. For even when we are given data and facts, we toss them aside as if they don’t matter because what we built and the perpetuation of its ideals as understood en masse, is sacrosanct. Examples of this are rampant. One example, the Forget Me Not. That story is total bupkis. We know the facts are out there. Yet we keep on printing the anecdote on little cards and packaging them with the pins that we buy up every year. How quaint, how romantic. We don’t care that it’s factually incorrect. Read about it here.
A most recent and prime example is the research regarding our crafts founding by Andrew Prescott and Susan Sommers. In their research they confirm that our founding as an official organization was not in 1717, but rather in 1721. What did the Masonic scholars and members do? We screamed, “Who cares! It’s the spirit of it all….blah blah blah…” An effective solution for the majority of our membership. Not so much for those of us who are academically inclined.
The truth as we should all agree, is that in the world, as science and religion are interdependent on each other, so are objective and subjective opinions. That is, the outside and the inside must come together to bring us the facts. In the question then, “Is Freemasonry Dying?”, we see a dilemma. We cannot answer this question because there is a need to separate two ideas, which is likely not readily apparent to most.
We need to first ask what Freemasonry is. And the answer is that we are two things or ideas. Freemasonry is the organization which is beholden to a Grand Lodge, who derives its power and its existence from its contingency. That is, they don’t exist unless, or can’t financially exist unless they have/make money. The second thing Freemasonry is, and it's the more important thing, is that it is a philosophy, a school of wisdom.
So, now that I’ve said my piece on the aforementioned articles, this is my take on the situation. My subjective look as a Mason and my objective look as someone who isn’t so invested in the idea that I’ve lost my individuality.
I've been researching Freemasonry for about thirteen years now and there seems to be no shortage of information, ideas and general complaining about our membership numbers. That is, the number of Freemasons in the United States and it's decline over time. The obsession over these membership numbers has been covered ad nauseam. Especially recently.
Fixing things has long been the goal. Above I mentioned that Freemasonry is two things. The former of the two ideas, that it is Grand Lodge is in most ways, seen as the more important. From a Grand Lodge Officer, “These men don’t realize that if the Grand Lodge dies, they aren’t masons anymore. They’ll be clandestine.” This notion is FALSE. This mindset is wholly predicated on fixing the “membership problem”. Meanwhile, I'm not sure that we need to fix anything. It seems as though Freemasonry is correcting itself in that we are reverting to the small, refined group we once were, composed of knowledgeable, carefully selected and true brothers.
When I ran "surveys galore" as expressed by a post on "Blinded by the Light", it was interesting to see the take on it [my piece] and Jon Ruark's (see video link below) research into our decline. The aforementioned blog is stating the elephant in the room is that the Grand Lodge system itself is to blame for the downfall of membership. And in part it's true, but perhaps not why you think.
I think I am going to say something here which not many people, possibly no one has said quite this way before: We aren't losing members and we aren't dying and we aren't going anywhere. Your respective Grand Lodge on the other hand, may be.
Let me explain. In 1924 the Masonic Services Association started keeping track of the number of Freemasons in the United States. This number was based on regular lodges under the respective Grand Lodge system of that state. You can look at those numbers by clicking HERE.
Notice the rapid rise and the steep decline. At a point we had almost 6 million members, now we only have about 1.2 million according to 2014. It’s almost 2019 and the numbers reported by MSA for 2017 are in. We have a little less than 1.1 million masons in the United States. Grand lodges are consistently pushing membership drives and one-day conferrals, amendments to the way Freemasons progress through the degrees and much more. But none of it is helping.
Bro. Jon Ruark of the Masonic Roundtable did an excellent presentation this last year about membership numbers, which I mentioned above. You can watch it HERE. In short, Non Payment of Dues, suspensions and deaths are the culprit of dropping membership, coupled with the fact that not as many men are joining. But this is OKAY!
According to recent Pew poll the percentage of Americans who have a belief in a supreme being is decreasing. The target audience for Masonry is dwindling. Read about it HERE. After all this though, consider these statements:
- At Masonry's peak, from an educational standpoint (1900) Freemasonry was small.
- The influx of men into the Fraternity during the 50s and 60s was an anomaly.
- The craft built an empire based on an influx of men and treated that high number as the new normal, which for whatever reason they still measure us against today. This is WRONG!
- Now that we are returning to normal numbers, the craft is trying to figure out ways to sustain the top heavy elements we built. I say, let them die.
What I'm saying Brothers, is that the membership drives are here in order to sustain what was erroneously built-- based on a false presumption about what Masonic membership numbers would be in the future. We are returning to the smaller group we once were, and that's okay. In fact, it’s healthier, and all around better. Why is smaller better? A prominent Mason, who holds a doctorate and who has written some amazing texts once told me and a group of Brothers, “It’s hard to care about Brother John Smith, if you’ve never met John Smith.” The context of this quote comes from a conversation we we’re having about the value of knowing all of your members. The exemplification of crying with, or laughing with our Brothers. Truly knowing them personally, like best friends.
The prominent Brother continued, “We’re working pretty hard at making *Redacted* lodge smaller.” That really hit home with the one-hundred or so brothers in the room. The fact is, we cannot, no matter our intent or how hard we work, maintain this level of knowing, caring and being truly invested in our fellow Brothers when our numbers are sky high. Twenty to thirty men is truly optimal.
Think about the benefit of having this small number when we need to call everyone. Or even text. Yes, there are robo-dialers, but nothing beats a real call or a genuine text. Not to just announce to the recipient that a degree or a stated meeting is happening, but to say, hello and actually inquire as to how they’re doing. In an age where we are only just now admitting to ourselves that we lie to each other all the time about our feelings, we dare to be different. We dare to ask, “How are you?” and what’s different is that the Brother might unload their baggage rather than saying, “Fine”. And to top it off, we can care. We can be there. The small numbers and intimate meeting spaces do wonders for enabling the Brotherhood we are charged to exemplify.
If Brotherhood isn’t enough for you to get excited about, think about the amount of administrative work it takes to manage three-hundred men. Now make it thirty. A big difference. So significant in fact, that our secretaries will actually care enough to reach out to those members individually.
All this makes lodges stronger, better, and more efficient. The bonds become so tight that there is no distinction between our Fraternity Brothers and our blood brothers. In many cases, we’re even closer.
When I asked for a peer review of this piece, my Brother said "I'm left asking myself, what do I do with this information?" I'm not sure you can do anything with this information other than let it give you comfort. Comfort in knowing things are just fine. We are returning to our original purpose, our original aim.
The Masonic "Utopia"? - If we look at the number of actual members who are active (about 5%), and we divided them into about 2000 lodges around the United States, we'd have about 30 members per lodge. Is that so bad? The question is left on how to facilitate those lodges in that kind of a system. A few ideas, abolish progressive lines, get rid of all appendant bodies with the exception of the York and Scottish Rite and move business meetings to a quarterly basis. Masonic education can take its rightful place within the craft once more.
One of the most insightful replies to the question we’ve been talking about, I saved for the end of this paper. Brother R.H. said, “Freemasonry isn't dying. The huge influx of members during the post war years is the metric by which too many Brothers want to use for membership norms today. Masonry has usually been the province of the few who chose to seek light as opposed to the masses who joined during that period, looking for little more than a social club. Realistically, all the inactive brothers should be an indication of where our numbers should be and where they should have been all along. Our Fraternity is doing fine, just regaining its equilibrium.”
In conclusion, think about all the successful degrees and new brothers coming in. Think about how serious some of us are. For those who say Freemasonry is dead right now, I ask you, “Are you a Freemason? Are you dead?” And I’ll follow that up with this, If you think Freemasonry will be dead in twenty or thirty years, Will you be here in thirty years? If the answer is yes, then Freemasonry will again, not be dead. It’s only dead to those who predicate success in numbers, who place the ideals of Freemasonry into the pocket of a Grand Lodge. Realize that Masonry doesn’t die because per capita is low, or that dues are too low or that Grand lodge can’t keep it in the black. It’s an ever living philosophy. As long as we’re alive and live it, it will be alive. I don’t mean that in just a philosophical way. I mean it literally. Lodges wouldn’t just fold. They'd refine and regather. If you think otherwise, turn in your dues card right now, because you’ve already rolled over. Go find another organization. If I’ve inspired you here, good. The next time someone says "Masonry is dying.", make sure you tell them, "We're not dying, we're refining."
RWB, Robert Johnson is the Managing Editor of the Midnight Freemasons blog. He is a Freemason out of the 1st N.E. District of Illinois. He currently serves as the Secretary of Spes Novum Lodge No. 1183 UD. He is a Past Master of Waukegan Lodge 78 and a Past District Deputy Grand Master for the 1st N.E. District of Illinois. Brother Johnson currently produces and hosts weekly Podcasts (internet radio programs) Whence Came You? & Masonic Radio Theatre which focus on topics relating to Freemasonry. He is also a co-host of The Masonic Roundtable, a Masonic talk show. He is a husband and father of four, works full time in the executive medical industry. He is the co-author of "It's Business Time - Adapting a Corporate Path for Freemasonry" and is currently working on a book of Masonic essays and one on Occult Anatomy to be released soon.
As a Grand Lodge Historian I dredged our past proceedings for a project and discovered that attendance numbers were numerical higher at GL meetings in the late 60's, however the percentage of lodge members and percentage of required officers, etc were actually marginally lower then than they are today. We just have fewer Masons around now.ReplyDelete
Maybe dying is not the appropriate verb. Historical reports use the word extinct. It did happened once to the Grand Lodge of Illinois in 1828. Also, lodges continue to go extinct as they merge with other lodges after downsizing.ReplyDelete
I think one of the "issues" is the cost associated with maintaining the facilities. More members=more dues. Of course, I also think we sell Masonry too cheap...ReplyDelete
One must both admire and yet pity anyone who will willingly take serious a sacred oath in any regard and then actually hold to the oath they have given having been provided little more than blind (and literally so!) faith in the beginning. The first step towards any wisdom is faith that the next steps are actually there.ReplyDelete