Traditional Observance

by Midnight Freemason Guest Contributor
Dr. E. Otha Wingo, PDDGL, FMLR

Freemasons from time immemorial have encouraged individual members to fulfill the injunction, "To Improve Myself in Freemasonry," by forming study clubs and research Lodges, Grand Lodge committees on Masonic education, publishing pamphlets, articles, and books, exploring visual aids from stereopticons to digitized computer programs.  The Grand Lodge Committee on Masonic Education, of which I was a member for more than ten years, consistently strives to provide resources for Lodges to fulfill this mission.

At the same time there have been tendencies to reduce requirements and expectations for candidates and shorten traditional degree programs to "save time" and make it easier for new members to "become" Freemasons. The result has been in too many cases to ignore the new member, who loses interest quickly unless his natural inclination is to study his new organization's history and teaching on his own.

MW Brother Dwight L. Smith of Indiana summarized his famous treatise on solutions to perennial problems of Lodge membership and participation ("Whither Are We Traveling? – 1962), thus: "6. And then, humbly begging pardon of the Sacred Cows, if Plans and Programs and Systems there must be, there is only one which has stood the test of time. It is that which is carried on within the framework of the Lodge, inside its four walls, by its authority, under its control and responsible to it. Nothing should be left to the whim or fancy of individuals who may be ill-prepared, inaccurate, or irresponsible. Textbooks, manuals, short courses, schools, forums – these should not operate as substitutes for the work of a Lodge. We can only hope that such tools may assist and inspire. But the stones must be hewn and squared in the quarries where they are raised…. Looking at the overall picture of American Masonry candidly and thoughtfully, it seems to me the greatest single need of our Craft today is a membership with a better understanding of what our Fraternity is and especially of what it is not."

In recent years I have noticed an increasing interest in restoring some of those traditional practices—not because they are ancient or traditional, but because they more thoroughly fulfill the original goals of Freemasonry. Some of these movements have been started outside the jurisdiction of established Grand Lodges and most have failed. Working within established Grand Lodge jurisdictions, Traditional Observance Lodges for the past ten years have been attracting the attention of dedicated Masonic students throughout the country. "Traditional" in the label Traditional Observance focuses on initiatic tradition, emphasizing quality in the work and quality in its members. It is not intended to present an alternative ritual, for these Lodges are chartered under the Grand Lodges. Another important treatise on excellence in Freemasonry is WB Andrew Hammer, PM of Alexandria –Washington Lodge #22, who prefers the label "Observance" only: "What we are seeking, and what we can claim, is the observance of the intent of our historical founders, and the restoration of Lodges to that intended observance….Absent an interest in observance, that is, in reaching for the light through our study and actions, Lodges risk ceasing to be in any way Masonic" (Hammer, Observing the Craft).

In its Fall 2009 issue (Vol. 62.4) The Philalethes Society announced a new format and an extended mission by electing Shawn Eyer as the editor of Philalethes and Erastus Allen as treasurer. MWB Terry Tilton, president of the Society and Past Grand Master of Minnesota, stated (p. 76): "Each brings a particular skill set to our Society which will surely advance our mission and outreach….Both of them, as members of Lodges that are dedicated to traditional observance, represent a growing element of Masonry, promoting a strong and integral emphasis on Masonic education." Brother Eyer is a member of Academia Lodge #847, Oakland, California and Brother Allen is a member of Lodge Ad Lucem #812, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Philalethes: The Journal of Masonic Research & Letters, founded October 1, 1928,  is "the oldest independent Masonic research society in North America."

In comparison, Quatuor Coronati Lodge #2076, "The Premier Lodge of Masonic Research," was chartered November 28, 1884, by the United Grand Lodge of England. The annual volume. Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, is #125 for 2012. The Missouri Lodge of Research was chartered in May of 1941, while Harry S Truman, then U.S. Senator from Missouri, was Grand Master. Truman was the 33rd President of the United States from April 12, 1945, to 1953. An annual volume has been published every year since 1942.

I have been a member of these three research Lodges since 1966, adding substantially to my personal Masonic library. Throughout these years, occasional references were made to Traditional Observance, mostly as used by Lodges in Europe.  If asked about this tradition, I might reply, "What I don't know about Traditional Observance would fill a book." Actually, such a book has been written: Cliff Porter, A Traditional Observance Lodge: One Mason's Journey to Fulfillment (Starr Publishing, LLC, 2013). WB Porter is a Founding Member of Enlightenment Lodge #198 in Colorado Springs, Colorado (2008) and served as its Master for the first two years. He is also an associate member of Lodge of Living Stones 4957 in Leeds, England, and an honorary member of Esoterika #316 in Seattle, Washington. He is Chairman of Education for the Grand Lodge of Colorado and has twice by invitation addressed the Conference of Grand Masters of North America. This book would profit considerably from careful proofreading and copy editing but contains much useful and thought-provoking information.

Enlightenment Lodge is different. The Lodge has higher than 100% attendance and men wait periods of longer than a year to get initiated. It has never lost a single Entered Apprentice, no member has been dropped for not paying dues. Men arrive on Lodge days at 8:00 a.m. and are often reluctantly leaving for home near midnight or 2:00 a.m. Their dues are high by American standards, the background check is rigorous, and the initiations are solemn and serious. Every Lodge meeting is treated as an event and celebrated as such. Dinner is treated as a feast with all its positive connotations. Freemasonry is celebrated in every aspect of the Lodge. From the artwork, the furnishings, the setup, and the atmosphere; all aspects of the Lodge meeting are intentional and meant to create an experience. Enlightenment Lodge is a Traditional Observance Lodge. Like all labels, the Traditional Observance label has caused fear and fright, anger and frustration, confusion, and edicts. It has also helped to define the practices that make the author's Lodge one of the most successful Lodges in the United States by any standard. Worshipful Brother Porter's book does not claim to solve all problems of Lodges losing membership or not having enough present to open Lodge. Nor does it claim to offer the only solution or even the best one. The author explains the Traditional Observance model and encourages ideas in the area of increasing the Lodge experience and emphasizing the quality of experience for its members. He gives a mixture of personal experiences, practical advice, and real-life examples for creating a Traditional Observance Lodge or increasing your Lodge's fulfillment.

Keep in mind that these Lodges are regularly chartered by official Grand Lodges in their state. Christopher Hodapp (Freemasons for Dummies, 2005, p. 272) makes this observation: "A new wave of interest has grown steadily in the United States over what is sometimes called the Traditional Observance Lodge or European Concept Lodge. U.S. Lodges are frequently bogged down by long business meetings, little Masonic education, and, worst of all, lousy food. The European Concept Lodge includes
  • A limited number of members (generally no more than 50)
  • Excellence in ritual degree work, done by the Lodge, without relying on others for help
  • A Masonic education program for the advancement of candidates, including the requirement of original research papers
  • A festive board (dinner) at a local restaurant following meetings
  • A dignified dress code
  • Required attendance, within reason
  • Appropriately priced dues so that the Lodge may be self-sufficient"
Outside of Europe, this formula was pioneered by Lodge Epicurean #906 in Australia, and it has started to gain popularity in the United States. The Masonic Restoration Foundation (  has been formed to share these ideas with interested Masons.

While U.S. Grand Lodges have seen a decline in membership, Grand Lodges in non-English-speaking countries have witnessed a strong increase in new members. They stress the more intellectual aspects of Freemasonry, take much more time between degrees, and don't have such a fascination with appendant bodies outside the Lodge. The Traditional Observance and European Concept Lodges are attempting to emulate their success.

The current list of Traditional Observance Lodges shows 51 in the U.S. and 3 in Canada. This includes newly chartered Lodges and Lodges which have adopted the Traditional Observance format. For example, Saint Paul Lodge Number Three, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was chartered in 1849 by the Grand Lodge of Ohio (before the Grand Lodge of Minnesota was established in 1853). It became a Traditional Observance Lodge in 2001. Likewise, Saint John's Lodge #1 in New York was constituted in 1757 and adopted the Traditional Observance format in 2007. Enlightenment Lodge #198, Manitou Springs, Colorado, was chartered in January 2008 by the Grand Lodge of Colorado. Cliff Porter was its first Master and a leading proponent of Traditional Observance.

Traditional Observance Lodges follow the established ritual of their Grand Lodge, with some ceremonial additions and adjustments, only insofar as they may be allowed by their Grand Lodge. Traditional Observance Lodges begin with the North American Masonic Lodge model and enrich it with traditional initiatic elements practiced in Continental European and Latin American Freemasonry.

Traditional Observance Masonry is not a Masonic rite, but rather a philosophical approach to the way Freemasonry is practiced. In many ways, Traditional Observance Masonry is a response to some of the negative trends experienced by North American Freemasonry in recent years, aimed at reversing those trends and restoring the strength and dignity of the American Craft.

[Sources: Cliff Porter, A Traditional Observance Lodge: One Mason's Journey to Fulfillment (Starr Publishing, LLC, 2013; Hodapp, op. cit.;,;; 

Andrew Hammer, Observing the Craft: The Pursuit of Excellence in Masonic Labour and Observance (2010)]  

Dr. E. Otha Wingo (1934-2015) was a member of Harold O. Grauel Lodge 672 in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where he served as Master in 1973. He served as District Deputy Grand Lecturer for a decade, was a Fellow of the Missouri Lodge of Research and in 2011, received the coveted Truman Medal from the Grand Lodge of Missouri. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and for many years was a professor of ancient Greek, Latin, and Mythology at Southeast Missouri State University. Right Worshipful Brother Wingo was an accomplished pianist who for many years provided the music for Grand Lodge sessions. Outside of Freemasonry, Dr. Wingo was president of the esoteric Huna Society for 40 years and was also a certified private investigator. He is buried in Boonville, Mississippi, where his tombstone, rightfully so, reads, "A very interesting fella."

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