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 7: Do we pay enough attention to the Festive Board?
MWB Smith begins this section with an examination of how Pisgah Lodge at Corydon was less than a month old when the time came to celebrate the Feast of St. John the Baptist in 1817. He states that there was every reason for them not to observe the holiday, having little money and having the brethren busy with their normal occupations. However, he states that the minutes tell a tale of a small number of Freemasons who assembled and marched to the courthouse to hear an oration and after that, they marched to a local establishment and partook of dinner.
He goes onto mention that lodge records of any lodge that was around at that time or before will describe similar events and that if there were minutes or secretary records about the amount spent on a jug of whisky, we chuckle and explain to ourselves that times "were different then". He agrees that times were different, but states he's not convinced that change has been for the better.
He then goes on to state that: "Should any reader have to ask what the Festive
Board is, that in itself will serve to show how far we have strayed from the traditional path of Freemasonry." The problem is that while every lodge eats now and then, that is just the problem. We eat. He asks:"But how often the Brethren are permitted to meet around the Festive Board for the genuine, heart-warming fellowship of the traditional Masonic feast- the same kind of close-knit community of interest that a family experiences when it gathers for the Thanksgiving dinner?"
He states that for the most part, Lodges have abandoned the Festive Boards, and goes on to quote a passage from H.L. Haywood's book More About Masonry, extolling the virtues of a Festive Board and how when fellowship is restored, brotherly love will follow and that members will fill up the empty lodge rooms.
He then goes on to ask: What has happened?
His answers are:
"1. First of all, we must not underestimate the Puritan influence on American Freemasonry. It is that influence which, almost without our knowing it, attaches some sort of holier-than-thou stigma to the Hour of Refreshment, frowns upon anything cheerful and festive, and gives us that grim and silent staring at a wall of which Haywood speaks. How many times have you heard a pious Brother refer sneeringly to the “Knife and Fork Mason” and to the “Six-Thirty Degree,” as if there might be something reprehensible in the enjoyment of fellowship? How silly can we become? The Brethren are not going to fill the benches until the walls bulge just to see the pious Brother clown his part in the Master Mason degree, and why should they?
For some reason, Freemasonry overseas was able to escape the more dour effects of Puritanism, but on almost every facet of American life we still suffer from it. The ramifications of its influence on Freemasonry in the United States are far too numerous and controversial to discuss here, and I must not elaborate on the subject except to say that a great many of our problems today can be traced back to the period when it was deemed almost a mortal sin to eat, drink and be merry."
While MWB Smith feels that discussing this is controversial, I have no problem with saying what I feel on the subject. In my Grand Jurisdiction of Illinois, alcohol isn't allowed on the property of or inside the Lodge Building. Maybe your jurisdiction is different. This being said, in a previous piece, we discussed the appendant bodies and how there is often a rush of men to get into these bodies and forego that Blue Lodge experience altogether. I have no doubts that alcohol being allowed at the meetings of some of these appendant bodies is a factor in that.
How many times do we hear members repeat the old tried and true saying: "We take good men and make them better." If this is really the case, if we are "good men", then why do a majority of our Grand Lodges forbid alcohol in the lodge building? Let me be perfectly clear. I am not advocating for open containers of alcohol in the Lodge Room, nor am I advocating for them to be part of the stated meeting.
What I am saying is that if we are good men, then we should be treated as adults and allowed to use our own god-given judgement on how to act in our lodge buildings. Point of order, isn't it part of the Junior Wardens' duties to: see that none convert the means of refreshment to intemperance or excess? Why would this line be included if there wasn't a time in our history when alcohol wasn't frowned upon? Should the brethren want to have a glass of wine at dinner prior to the meeting or have a drink after the meeting; this should be allowed. We need to allow the Junior Warden to do his job and superintend the brethren during this time, and if we are "Good Men" then we will act responsibly.
Speaking about tradition, the traditional Festive Board and even the ritual I have for the Table Lodge in Illinois has toasts. While you don't necessarily need to have alcohol to toast, traditionally the toast is done with an alcoholic beverage. It seems counterintuitive for a Grand Jurisdiction to publish a ritual for a Table Lodge, include toasts in the ritual, and then ask the Brethren to use sparkling grape juice.
If we want to regain some of our former glory, then I would state that having Festive Boards in our own lodge buildings is a way to do this and allowing alcohol to be part of them is allowing us to practice fellowship in the ways that our foreign brethren do, where this is not an issue whatsoever. Only in America do we seem to have these vestiges of the temperance movement haunt our hallowed halls. Enough already.
"2. We must remember that this is the day of the service club. And, like it or not, our beloved Fraternity has members by the thousands who think Freemasonry should be made over to fit the Babbitt pattern; the glad-handing and first-naming,the perfunctory first stanza of “America” and the perfunctory Pledge of Allegiance,the raucous laughter, the ribald stories, the movie showing how corn plasters are manufactured. That kind of thing carried into Freemasonry becomes a travesty on Masonic fellowship, but it has crept into our Lodges, and we might as well face up to it."
How true it is that we have adopted patterns found in other organizations all for the so-called betterment of Freemasonry. We want to be too many things to too many people. We have lost our sense of identity and with it, our purpose, because we are trying to please everyone. For an organization that holds so fast to our ancient landmarks, we somehow have lost how our forefathers met and instead of holding fast to those traditions, we have decided that we need to reinvent ourselves to keep up with the times. So we have reached a point where Freemasonry is trying to be something it is not.
We are not a service club, and we should stop pretending to be. Our charity should be first and foremost towards ourselves, our families, our widows, and orphans. We need to invest in our membership and our own charities instead of investing in public charities thinking that they will buy us goodwill, publicity, or more members. We are a Fraternity, and we need to start acting like one by allowing Festive Boards with all of their trappings in our lodge buildings.
While Masonic scholars opine and nash their teeth about why Millenials and Gen-Z are not joining our Fraternity, the answer to me is pretty clear. These generations value authenticity. How can we wonder why they are not joining us when we can't be authentic as an organization ourselves?
And on the off chance we do get a new member, how quickly we run them off by having a majority of our membership not live up to those ideals inculcated into them during their degrees. We are our own worst enemy.
Imagine their disappointment when they come to their first meeting. Here's an unfortunate but familiar scenario.
They sit down to a "dinner" of cold cuts, cheese, chips, and stale bread, or if they are really lucky a warm meat dish served with Green Beans and another side. They sit through a dinner where they listen to their brethren discuss politics and/or religion; topics that they thought were forbidden to be discussed in a lodge. On the off chance they have enough courage to question this, they are quickly informed that the rule only applies "Between the gavels". After dinner, they sit through a poorly run business meeting, where they are thrown into a chair without any explanation of what they are supposed to do, forced to listen to grown men argue about the roof repairs, and other banalities, followed by a Past Master who then comes over to "instruct" them in what they did wrong; often in front of the other brethren as they shuffle out of the lodge room.
We must as RWB Thomas Jackson states (https://thecraftsman.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/DONE-The-State-of-Contemporary-American-Freemasonry-Tom-Jackson.pdf): "Return to the premise of making good men better through a viable educational process so that at least our membership comprehends our purpose." We also must embrace our heritage and work towards a common goal of changing Grand Lodge constitutions to allow festive boards to once again grace our buildings and with them the fellowship that they bring.
"3. The casual living of our day. By this, I mean the dress of the cookout supper, the manners of the truck stop café. No Lodge can experience the true joys of the
Festive Board unless the Brethren are willing to adopt some of the ways of
civilization. Hard words, perhaps, but the need to be spoken."
While MWB Smith is only discussing Festive Boards, and maybe it's only something that happens in the midwest, how many times have you shown up to a degree to see brethren in what could only be called their barn or beach clothes? When the candidate sees this, what do you think he thinks? If we don't dress or act accordingly, how can we expect the candidate to our degrees seriously? Our behavior and manner of dress should reflect the solemnity of our ceremonies.
"4. The over-emphasis on “togetherness.” (I approach the subject with fear and
trembling.) Togetherness is to be encouraged, but it can be carried too far, and has been carried too far in Freemasonry. In characteristic Midwestern style, we havegone overboard. Instead of inviting the ladies’ auxiliaries and the junior divisions to meet in our quarters and pursuing our own ways with dignity and restraint, we have literally abdicated in favor of the “family” idea. Masonic fellowship has been one of the casualties."
I am all for family events; however, I agree with MWB Smith. We have to allow our members to have their own celebrations. We need to have our own opportunities for true Masonic fellowship. These are opportunities for brethren to learn from each other's life experiences and enjoy each other's company. This is something that can not be accomplished while wives and children are underfoot.
MWB Smith continues with his own answers to the question he posed.
"Then where do we go from here?
"1. Well, first of all, we need to regain a sense of balance. For many Masons,
fellowship is the most precious jewel in the Masonic diadem. It is necessary to the
very existence of our Fraternity. If Brethren can not find it in their Ancient Craft
Lodge, they will find it elsewhere, and the officers and workers who howl to high
heaven when new members desert their Lodge in favor of appendant organizations might reflect on the fact that the Brethren simply may be in search of that which the Lodge denies them. We need to cultivate Masonic fellowship with all our zeal – not to choke it out with trivialities, nor speak of it with supercilious scorn. We need the Hour of Refreshment in all its beauty and dignity; we need to revive those noble old traditions of our Craft. We haven’t outgrown them; we haven’t found anything better; we have lost something and haven’t discovered what is wrong!"
As I alluded to earlier in this article, one of the major reasons we see new members flock to appendant bodies and never return to the Blue Lodge is because alcohol is allowed at their meetings. They seek out Masonic fellowship because the Blue Lodge experience has little to none to offer them. I can not phrase it any better than what MWB Smith says when he states: "We need to cultivate Masonic fellowship with all our zeal – not to choke it out with trivialities, nor speak of it with supercilious scorn. We need the Hour of Refreshment in all its beauty and dignity; we need to revive those noble old traditions of our Craft."
"2. But if the Festive Board is to serve its purpose, it must be dignified. I have said it before and I repeat: A Masonic gathering is neither the proper time nor place for dirty language or suggestive stories. And just as lacking in propriety is the sectarian preaching, and the rabble-rousing, and the political speech disguised as “Americanism.”"
The lodge building needs to be treated as a sacred space and kept distant from the concerns of the profane world. As I alluded to above when discussing a not so hypothetical scenario of that first meeting after a candidate is raised, as the Tyler guards against cowans and eavesdroppers, we should be guarding against topics that are divisive within our sacred halls. If we are to have Festive Boards, then they must not dissolve into allowing topics of conversation that keep Harmony from being the strength and support of our institution. Not only this, but in previous articles, I have addressed how solemnity should be the number one priority of our candidate's degrees. There is no room for ad-libbing, joking around or horseplay. We need to treat the Festive Board as such.
"3. The Festive Board must be appropriate. It is not an occasion for comedians, nor variety shows, nor vaudeville troupes, nor tap dancers, nor magicians, nor
barbershop quartets, nor homegrown movies, nor cute little child entertainers. They have their place, but their place is at the Family Night party, not at the Festive Board of Freemasonry. We can not realize the by-products of Masonic fellowship when the stage setting is so inappropriate as to be ridiculous."
I agree again but I think MWB Smith could have included this in the above section. Clowns belong in the circus, not at a Festive board. Unless you are a shrine clown, in which case; you can enjoy the festivities. I only ask that you do not wear your makeup or outfit. The Festive Board should be treated with dignity and respect. This means that we need to dress accordingly, we need to serve a proper feast, and have proper toasts. Anything less is not worth the energy to plan and execute such an event.
"4. And finally, the Festive Board must be Masonic. Repeatedly I am invited to
Lodge banquets to deliver an address. “Give us one of those straight-from-the shoulder Masonic speeches,” they tell me in advance. “We want you to lay it right
on the line.” And then, lo and behold, when I arrive to deliver that so-called
Masonic speech and “lay it on the line” to the Brethren, I find the room half filled
with ladies and children! Bless ‘em – I love them, too. But let’s acknowledge the
most basic of all basic fundamentals: Freemasonry is for Freemasons. Surely a few occasions can be set aside in the annual program of a Lodge when Master Masons can enjoy the fellowship to which they are entitled in a manner consistent with the traditions and practices of our ancient Craft.
I hope to see the day when the Table Lodge is authorized in Indiana, as it has been in the older Jurisdictions for two centuries and more. I hope to see the day when every Lodge takes pride in an appropriate observance of the Feasts of the Sts. John – something more imaginative than the tedious routine of the Master Mason degree with doughnuts and coffee afterwards! Yes, and I hope to see the day when a Master Mason in the United States will have occasion to sing of his Lodge with the same depth of feeling that Robert Burns felt when he sang of his:
Oft have I met your social band,
And spent the cheerful festive night;
Oft, honor’d with supreme command,
Presided o’er the sons of light;
And, by that hieroglyphic bright,
Which none but Craftsmen ever saw!
Strong mem’ry on my heart shall write
Those happy scenes, when far awa’."
I feel that this is a repeat of his point 4 above, The over-emphasis on “togetherness.”, so I shall repeat what I said in reply to it:
We have to allow our members to have their own celebrations. We need to have our own opportunities for true Masonic fellowship. These are opportunities for brethren to learn from each other's life experiences and enjoy each other's company. This is something that can not be accomplished while wives and children are underfoot.
In my next article, I will explore the next question MWB Smith poses, which is: Question 8: What has become of that “course of moral instruction, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols,” that Freemasonry is supposed to be?
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.
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