Whither Are We Traveling? - Part Four
by Midnight Freemasons Contributor
WB Darin A. Lahners
As we continue to explore Dwight L. Smith's seminal work, "Whither are We Traveling?", we begin to explore his answers to the ten questions he posed for self-examination of the state of Ancient Craft Freemasonry in 1963. The questions he asked are as important and relevant now as they were then. This week we look at:
Question 3: Has Freemasonry become too easy to obtain?
MWB Smith begins this section with this:
"Some three months ago when this series of articles was introduced, I took advantage of a fifty-year presentation occasion to write a Masonic editorial. The recipient of the Award of Gold had petitioned a Southern Indiana Lodge in 1911 when he was making $10 a week as an apprentice printer. The fee for the degrees was $20. He thought enough of Freemasonry to empty his pay envelope twice.
A century ago it was not uncommon for men to pay what amounted to a month’s wages to become a Mason. We know without challenge that today petitioners are paying a fee which represents a week’s wages at the most – sometimes only two or three days!"
For some context, the spending power of 10 dollars in 1911 is 291.15 dollars in 2021 when calculated for inflation. The highest dues I pay for my Blue Lodge membership is 70 dollars annually, when I calculate the other lodge I belong to, I pay 105 in Blue Lodge dues, while I pay close to 100 dollars individually for my Shrine and Scottish Rite membership dues. If you add in the other appendant body dues - I'm probably paying close to 300 dollars a year for the privilege of membership in them. That's approximately 3 times the amount I'm paying for Blue Lodge membership which is required for membership in the rest of these bodies. There is something wrong with this picture.
"And when we compare the ridiculously low fees paid to an Ancient Craft Lodge with the aggregate fees paid to other Masonic bodies and appendant groups, we begin to see clearly what is wrong. Men are willing to pay for the privilege of Freemasonry, but we distribute the fee they should be paying to an Ancient Craft Lodge among all the relatives, the inlaws and the step-children. We place such a cheap value on the basic degrees that it is no wonder newly raised Masons end up having little or no respect for the Symbolic Lodge."
"Before we are in a position to tackle some of the difficulties that beset us, we must
reestablish the premise that Freemasonry is a Pearl of Great Price, worth a great deal of effort, a great deal of sacrifice, a great deal of waiting to obtain. We need to do a little preaching, perhaps, with a certain New Testament passage as the text: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Has Freemasonry become too easy to obtain? I am one who believes that it has. And I am not the only one. My old friend Arthur H. Strickland, of Kansas, recently wrote a thoughtful article for The Philalethes, entitles, “Who Killed Cock Robin?” Calling
attention to the old axiom that what is easy to get is not much appreciated, he observes that “we have done everything that we can think of to cheapen Masonry… We have cheapened the Fraternity to the point that it is seriously reacting against us.”"
Do I agree? Yes. I believe that this question goes hand in hand with the last article in the series where I examined Smith's question: "How Well are we Guarding the West Gate?" When we are in fact not upholding standards for membership, then we have essentially made Freemasonry as available to everyone as the prize at the bottom of the cereal box. One only needs to buy the box, turn it upside down and open it to find the treasure.
Smith continues: "Has Freemasonry become too easy to obtain? To me, the question is not even debatable. For example:
1. Our fees for the degrees are so low as to constitute an insult to the
Fraternity. When I petitioned for the degrees in 1933 the fee was $20. That was
a good-sized chunk of anybody’s money in 1933, but I would have paid three
times that amount. Our economic standards of today can hardly be compared to
1933, yet the minimum fee in Indiana is still only $30 – and one Lodge in five
charges the absolute minimum. There is not a Lodge in Indiana whose fee should
not be at least twice its present amount.
For a long time I have had the uneasy suspicion that the period of accent on
quantity rather than quality may have started during those cut-rate years of
1933 to 1944 when the minimum fee was only $20."
To put things into perspective, Twenty dollars in 1933 equates to Four Hundred Twenty-Seven dollars and Sixty-One cents in 2021. However, many lodges have not adjusted their dues or degree fees for inflation. Even 30 dollars in 1963 when this work was originally published equates to Two Hundred Seventy-Two Dollars in 2021. The two lodges I belong to have degree fees of One Hundred Fifty and One Hundred Thirty Dollars respectively. Let's be honest though, for many people even that represents a large amount of money.
Case in point, we have a candidate at one of my lodges. He is in his early twenties. He has a newborn baby and his wife to take care of. He petitioned our lodge to join, he was investigated, and he was elected to receive the degrees of Freemasonry. From us initially meeting him to his election, was a period of four months. He kept showing up at our meals prior to our business meetings, he spoke to me personally at length about the lack of positive male role models in his life. He essentially has been on his own since the age of 16. I felt compelled to volunteer to be his intender (different jurisdictions might have a different term for this, this is essentially the brother who helps the candidate learn his catechisms for each degree and helps answer any questions they have). Upon speaking to him, I was shocked to find out that no one had spoken with him about the degree fees.
While the candidate said that he felt there would be no trouble in getting the fees together, I also could tell from other things he had said to me that I believed that not to be the case. I personally could not justify charging him the fee when that money could be going towards diapers, food, and other living expenses to help his newborn and young wife. So I made a decision. I went to the lodge. I explained the situation, and several of us passed the hat to cover his degree fees. My point is, we are personally taking a chance on this young man because I see potential in him.
So while I agree with MWB Smith that Degree Fees should be adjusted to meet today's standards, I also believe that money shouldn't be the determining factor in whether someone is worthy of being a Freemason. The determining factor should always be the character of the individual petitioning the lodge, not the amount in their bank accounts. I believe that we need to do a better job of explaining degree fees to our prospective members, but also be flexible in allowing them to pay those fees.
Smith then continues with:
"Everything is geared to speed, as if a deadline had to be met. Freemasonry is no longer worth waiting for, nor working for, nor sacrificing for. Too often it is only a
badge of respectability, a prestige symbol, to be obtained with the same hurry-up
zeal that would be assumed in acquiring a Cadillac or a yacht. Candidate A must be
rushed through the degrees before he leaves for service in the armed forces (he has
heard it might be helpful to him.) Candidate B must be rushed through because he
is about to move to a distant point to take a new job. Candidate C must hurry
through so he can join a class in some other organization.
Proficiency? Nonsense! A friendly coach can take care of that.
Comprehension of the underlying philosophy of Freemasonry, its symbolism and
ethics and traditions, what it is and what it seeks to do? You know the answer to
that question as well as I.
And we not only permit such a situation – we actually encourage it. How, in
Heaven’s name, can we so cheapen Ancient Craft Freemasonry and expect
anything other than contempt for the parent body?"
I recently wrote an article about a candidate at St Joseph Lodge #970 that took several years to complete his journey from Entered Apprentice to Master Mason * http://www.midnightfreemasons.org/2021/11/the-mystic-tie-and-time.html. I agree completely with Dwight. We need to slow down. In foreign jurisdictions, it is my understanding that this is the case. Men often spend a few years between their initiation to Entered Apprentice, being passed to the degree of Fellowcraft, and then being Raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason. However, in the States, we push men through the degrees. I'm not even going to discuss one-day classes here.
While ultimately, it's the quality of the man who is joining that is going to determine what type of Freemason he is going to be versus how quickly he progresses through the degrees; I believe that we are doing both a huge disservice by rushing them through. I believe that the ultimate reasons for this are two-fold.
1. I believe that Grand Jurisdictions influence this directly or either indirectly. In many Grand Jurisdictions, there is a report which shows how many lodges have candidates in Progress and the amount of time they have been in progress. The Grand Secretary (or whomever else is the keeper of the report) sends the report out to the Area Deputy Grand Masters, who in turn sends it out to their Assistant Area Deputy Grand Masters, who in turn sends it out to the District Deputy Grand Masters, who in turn then does with it what he wants.
In many cases, the stigma of being on a list or report is an impetus to force action by the offending lodge to move the candidate along to the next degree. In many cases, the mentor or intender is then pressured to make sure the candidate's catechism is ready to be given in open lodge, to force the candidate and intender into a position where the candidate is not learning the work, but memorizing the words.
They also have an obsession with numbers. We all have seen the charts, which show Freemasonry's membership numbers dropping. We have read the articles and heard the cries that we need to replenish the membership or else Freemasonry will die. It's all poppycock. However, it seems that every Grand Lodge feels that it needs to plug the holes in the dyke, hold Grand Master's festivals and make Freemasonry easy to obtain. Instead of focusing on the quality of the membership that they are bringing in, we seem to get the message that quantity matters more. So then we lament why we can't get more men attending the meetings when the answer is quite clear. We have brought the wrong men into the fraternity, to begin with!
2. Appendant body membership qualifications should be changed to stop making membership in them easy to obtain. There are very few invite-only bodies in Freemasonry. Many of the bodies only require one be a Master Mason to join them. I bore witness to this when I joined the Shrine this past September. The class I joined the Shrine was all from the Grand Master's festival. Here, I am a three-time past master who was a Master Mason for 9.75 years joining an appendant body with one hour old Master Masons. There's something fundamentally wrong with this.
So inevitably what happens is that many of these men never show up to their mother lodge. While they have to pay their dues to keep their memberships in the appendant bodies, their financial support pails in comparison with their participation. So what I purpose is this:
There should be at least a 5-year waiting period before any Master Mason should be able to join any appendant body. Furthermore, the Master Mason should be attending lodge at least 80% of the time during this five-year period. Finally, the 80% attendance should be enforced as judiciously as the man needing to pay dues to his mother lodge going forward for them to continue their membership in the appendant bodies.
I'll allow you to pull your jaw off the floor. In the past, Masons needed to be either a Knight Templar or Scottish Rite Freemason to join the Shrine. Why do Grand Lodges think so little of Blue Lodges to not stand up for them when it comes to the appendant bodies? If a grand lodge were to say to an appendant body, from now on, if you want to be recognized in our Jurisdiction, we are redefining what we mean by "Good Standing". Instead of it being only a member being current on their dues, how about adding other qualifications like lodge attendance? In my mind, the members in "Good Standing" in my lodge are the ones that keep showing up and running the lodge. Not the ones staying at home but paying their dues. Do you think the appendant bodies are going to pull up stakes and leave that jurisdiction?
Before you give me any argument about appendant bodies collapsing because they couldn't get any new membership, I would argue that all of the men that already joined will have been grandfathered in. Secondly, in making membership in them harder to obtain, would we also not be raising the quality of their bodies? It boggles my mind that many think of Blue Lodge as being an afterthought instead of the focus of their Masonic Journey. It's time for Grand Lodges to stand up and put their foot down when it comes to the qualifications for membership for the appendant bodies. Otherwise, why bother with even having the Blue Lodges? If we are allowing them to be Master Mason factories only for the sake of those Master Masons to be able to join Appendant bodies, then we've not only lost the word but also what the foundation of Freemasonry is and always has been - the Blue Lodge. What happens to a house without a solid foundation?
I believe that Dwight would agree with me. He continues:
"The privilege of courtesy work has been so abused that it actually has become
a detriment to all Freemasonry. What was once intended as an occasional
pleasant arrangement for the benefit of a Lodge has been liberalized to the point that it now is only for the convenience of a candidate. Do you realize that a candidate for the three degrees may become a Master Mason without ever having attended a single meeting of the Lodge which has elected him? He can be initiated in one Jurisdiction, passed in another, raised in another. And yet we expect him to
become a loyal and devoted Mason, with a strong sentimental attachment to a
Lodge he knows nothing about, and which has done nothing except to elect him!
We crave his faithful attendance, but we do about everything in our power to
create a situation in which loyalty has no place.
The incident in Montana in which a Brother received his fifty-year button without
ever having attended a meeting of his own Lodge is not as far-fetched as we would
like to think. We can learn a great deal from our Mother Grand Lodge of England and from the Jurisdictions of Scotland and Ireland, Australia and Canada, where a candidate must receive the Entered Apprentice degree in the Lodge that elected him, and in no other. It was a sad day for Masonry in Indiana when that regulation was repealed."
I believe that courtesy work like everything has a time and place. If we are serious about slowing down the rate in which an Entered Apprentice is passed to the degree of Fellowcraft and then raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason, then there should be no reason to ever have courtesy work, except in rare occasions like the one in my article above. But in having a regulation that states that the candidate must receive the Entered Apprentice degree in the Lodge that elected him and in no other, we are doing something that I heard a bunch of District Deputy Grand Masters complain about just yesterday, which is forcing those lodges to learn the ritual and to confer their own degrees. You see, the major failing of Freemasonry is a lack of accountability. There is nothing holding the lodge accountable for the quality of its work. I heard all of this wailing about sloppy work, yet how can the DDGM really hold a lodge accountable? Short of threatening to yank a lodge's charter, what really can be done?
Like everything else in Freemasonry, we need men that are willing to separate the wheat from the chaff. We need enough men to stand up at Grand Lodges that don't have them support changes to the constitution and by-laws to allow a minimum standard of certification for Wardens to meet before they are allowed to become Masters. We also need to have more roadblocks in place that force lodge's to exhaust all other options before having candidates go to another lodge to receive courtesy degree work.
Dwight then goes on to say:
"One of the worst offenders in the cheapening process is the well-meaning
father who is too eager for his son to become a Mason. Those are hard words,
but I have seen the story repeated over and over again. Sonny must be pushed
through because Pop wants him to join the class in another body; because Pop
wants him to receive the degrees in Germany, or France, or South America. Sonny
may not have even lived within the Jurisdiction of the Lodge for years and years,
but Pop wants him to join if the Lodge has to violate all the rules in the book to
So Pop comes to the Grand Lodge office with a plea that the residence laws be set
aside; that the period of investigation be waived; that Sonny be advanced without
regard to proficiency. You have known him; so have I. His name is legion.
What a contrast to the spirit of that great and good Past Master of an Indianapolis
Lodge who waited years upon years to hear his son express the desire to become a
Mason – and who, even then, did not offer to pay the son’s initiation fee because he
wanted the boy to appreciate what he was getting!
And then there are the ill-advised church parishioners who pay the fee for their
minister. I have met quite a number of those ministers in my day, and have become
rather cynical after working long hours trying to unravel their record of suspensions for NPD. But I must not get started on that subject."
How many of you have witnessed a son who is a dullard be given the degrees of Freemasonry because their Father was a past Master and well-respected member of the lodge? The son barely knew the meaning of "Own Free Will and Accord" before being "forced" to join the lodge because of their Father's desires. And while as a father I struggle with the idea that my sons will never join Freemasonry, I also realize that in having them do so before they are ready, I am doing a disservice to both them and the Craft. If they are never ready, then that's something that I must be prepared to realize. As Dwight ends this section, he puts best in saying:
"When we downgrade Ancient Craft Masonry, submit it to all sorts of indignities, look upon it with contempt, label it as something hardly worth mentioning, permit it to have only the crumbs that fall from the table, what can we expect if Master Masons no longer give to their Lodges their full measure of loyalty and devotion? "
In my next article, I will explore the next question MWB Smith poses. Question 4: Are we not worshiping at the altar of bigness?
WB Darin A. Lahners is our Co-Managing Editor. He is a host and producer of the "Meet, Act and Part" podcast. He is currently serving the Grand Lodge of Illinois Ancient Free and Accepted Masons as the Area Education Officer for the Eastern Masonic Area. He is a Past Master of St. Joseph Lodge No.970 in St. Joseph. He is also a plural member of Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL), where he is also a Past Master. He’s a member of the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, a charter member of Illinois Royal Arch Chapter, Admiration Chapter No. 282, and a member of the Salt Fork Shrine Club under the Ansar Shrine. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.