Whither Are We Traveling - Part Ten
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 9: Hasn’t the so-called Century of the Common Man contributed to making our Fraternity a little too common?
MWB Smith begins this section with a legend from the Napoleonic Wars about a young man who was too young to fight who was permitted to carry the banner of his regiment. During an engagement, his unit was advancing on the enemy under heavy fire. The young man, full of enthusiasm, went so far ahead of his unit, that he was almost out of contact. The commanding officer sent a runner to him bearing a message to have him come back to the line. The lad sent a reply to bring the line up to the standard. He then goes on to discuss a politician of his era that referred to his time as the "Century of the Common Man", although no man considers himself as common and every man wants his sons to be more than common.
He goes on to say that the concern is that when we put too much emphasis on common men and common things we make something that should be uncommon into something common. He then states that he sees evidence for what might be called a Masonic Gresham's Law, in which we witness the sad spectacle of the standard being dragged back to the line instead of being thrilled by the line being brought up to standard. He then says that like it or not, the trend in Freemasonry (in this case in his home state of Indiana, but one could be read this to be universal) is to alter the pattern to fit the cloth. He goes on to confess that he is not merely unburdening himself of a personal irritation, but he is putting into print what has been whispered into his ear for the past 15 years (so since 1948, since this was published in 1963).
He then says:
"When we cease to set a lofty mark and expect our Brethren to measure up to it, when we permit a downward adjustment to conform to practices and manners that are casual and lax and crude, we are dealing our beloved Fraternity a double blow:
First, a blow from without. Certainly, we must not expect to retain the prestige the Craft has enjoyed in the past if we can lift our sights no higher than the bowling lanes, the drive-in hamburger stand, the picnic grounds.
Second, a blow from within. Will not men respect and venerate Freemasonry more if they know there are certain rules of gentility – of behavior, of dress, of speech and decorum – which they are expected to observe?
What am I talking about? All right, then, let’s spell it out:
1. The appearance and actions of Master Masons in public ceremonies. Not
always do they create a favorable impression. Only on rare occasions may
Freemasons perform their ritualistic work outside the Lodge hall, usually a funeral
or the laying of a cornerstone. It requires no great degree of imagination to see what
damage can be done the entire Fraternity when men do not possess that priceless
gift known as “a sense of the fitness of things.”
One time I attended the funeral rites for a beloved Brother. At the conclusion of the
church service the Brethren filed down the center aisle in view of all in attendance
to take their places in the escort. The bearer of the Three Great Lights did not know
what to do with his head gear. So, down the aisle went the procession with a faded
straw hat on top of the Holy Bible, Square and Compass.
What am I talking about? Aprons that are crumpled and soiled. Whether worn
without the Lodge room or within, the apron itself is disgraced when it is anything
less than spotless, and the Fraternity is cheapened, to say nothing of the
psychological effect upon the wearer himself.
Yes, and I am talking about the ridiculous spectacle of the Master Mason who
appears anywhere with long apron strings dangling from the rear, all too suggestive
of the limp tail of an old white cow I used to know. Must we go out of our way to
make ourselves a laughing stock?
2. Then there are the coarse and boorish performances by self-appointed
comedians, and by the Glue Factory Craft Club, in conferring the Master
Mason degree. I have seen the Sublime Degree lose all its sublimity in a matter of
seconds when immature men forfeited their opportunity to convey a never-to-beforgotten lesson and chose instead to show off like little boys. On my private black
list are the names of Lodges in which I simply choose not be present when the
Master Mason degree is conferred. Some of them, I am sorry to say, are in Indiana.
Twenty-four years ago Carl H. Claudy was saying the same thing in a Short Talk
Bulletin which the Master of every Lodge would do well to obtain and read again
3. Finally, let’s lay it on the line. I am talking about the lack of respect shown by
the Masons for their Lodge as reflected in the attire they wear to its meetings.
It was Past Master’s Night. An invited guest, I sat on the sidelines to witness the
always pleasant conferring of the Sublime Degree by those veterans who had borne
the heat and burden of the day.
At first, all went well. The ritual that only Past Masters know was executed as only
Past Masters can. Then King Solomon approached the East. The man who
represented that wise and noble ruler wore a slouch felt hat a half-size too large that
caused his ears to droop forward. Coatless, his loud pattered sport shirt was
buttoned at the throat without benefit of a necktie. Taking his place in the oriental
chair, he laid the heel of a yellow right shoe on his left knee, and began chewing his
“Even Solomon in all his glory,” I mused to myself, “was not arrayed like one of
Yes, I know the subject of a man’s personal appearance is a touchy one.
Nevertheless, I stoutly maintain that appropriate dress for Masons while attending
meetings of their Lodge simply is not a debatable issue. A Lodge hall is dedicated
in the name of Jehovah. It is set apart as a place in which the Great Architect of the
Universe is an object of our reverence. Why, then, should there be any question
about proper and respectful attire in the Lodge room any more than the Church?
Recently a distinguished officer of the Grand Lodge of California prepared a most
effective pamphlet under the title, If Freemasonry Is Good, Let Us Talk About It. This
one paragraph deserves frequent repetition: “The Mason who creates a bad impression, in whatever field of activity, can bring discredit to the Craft. I am in the women’s clothing business, and in our business we are concerned about what our female employees wear ‘off the job’ as well as on. Our salesgirls make an impression at all times – and we want it to be a good impression.”
Let us not cloud the issue with pious mouthings about how Masonry regards no man for his worldly wealth and honors; that it is the internal and not the external qualifications of a man that render him worthy to be a Mason. The question is not one of honors – it is of respect for the dignity of our ancient Craft. Mark it down: If the internal qualifications are there some of those qualifications will show through on the outer side. A Mason need not wear a Hart, Schaffner & Marx suit to show proper respect for his Lodge, but certainly there should be a high point below which even laziness and negligence will not permit him to descend.
Sometimes I wonder what a serious minded young Mason must think when he looks about the Lodge room and sees his Brethren attired as they would for an outdoor steak fry. Does his mind go back to the time when he received his preliminary instructions prior to initiation as an Entered Apprentice? Perhaps he recalls two significant sentences: “Put on your freshest and most immaculate garments,” he was told, “that their spotless cleanliness may be symbolic of the faultless purity of your intentions. With your body clean and your garments spotless you are more suitably prepared to receive that spotless and faultless
philosophy which Masonry will offer you.”
Yes, perhaps the young Mason does remember those sentences. He may be one of the sizable army of newly raised Brethren that drift away from their Lodges never to return!
All these practices and many more serve to cheapen Freemasonry in the eyes of the
public and in the eyes of the Brethren themselves.
Much more could and should be said. For example, my criticism has been confined to the Symbolic Lodge. But the Symbolic Lodge does not stand alone in the cheapening process, by any means. Organizations which restrict their membership to Masons and which profit by their relationship to the Craft are doing their part rather well in dragging the standard back to the line.
Now let there be no defensive bleating that the Grand Secretary has gone over to the silk stocking crowd and is promoting tea parties. The choice is not bowling league attire versus white tie and tails. I only insist that Masons, of all persons, should have that fine “sense of the fitness of things;” a wholesome respect for the Lodge and the place it should occupy in the lives of men; the same kind of respect a man should show his church when he goes to worship, or the family of a friend when he attends a wedding, or his host when he is invited to Thanksgiving dinner. Just plain good taste, that’s all.
Will the Brethren complain if Lodges insist on dignity, decorum, respect? Will
interest lag, attendance fall, membership decline?
Well, take a look at interest and attendance and membership now.
When good men are summoned to the highest and best within them, they usually respond with the highest and best. We might be pleasantly surprised at the reaction of our Brethren if challenged to bring the line up to the standard where it belongs!"
I apologize for the long quotation, but I felt that everything MWB Smith said here needed to be together for context. The first point, MWB Smith has driven home time and time again in my examination of his work, is that if we want Freemasonry to be taken seriously by the public, then we must act and dress seriously. However, I wonder what he would have to say about Freemasons on social media. I would expect as I have driven the point home previously that he would feel that the same rules apply. Speaking about bringing the line up to a standard, I feel that he would be saddened by seeing brethren attack each other because they disagree on the things that we don't discuss in the lodge because they bring disharmony.
Reading between the lines, his second point, I believe is to remind brethren that the degrees, especially the Master Mason degree, are about the candidate. I have seen time and time again the same men that decry the lack of other brethren wanting to participate in degrees bad mouth the young men that attempt to participate for the doing the same things that they do. Is it not the most hypocritical thing that a brother can do is to exert his ego during a degree that is all about killing the ego?
Don't come at me about what happens in the Prince Hall Third degrees. What is acceptable behavior in their degrees has no bearing on what we do in our degrees. I am not attacking that behavior, but rather those that ignore the code 365 of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Illinois which specifically states: "The second section of the Third Degree constitutes a most solemn and impressive portion of our ritualistic work. In it we are taught the ultimate lessons of Masonic philosophy--victory over death and the immortality of the soul. Nothing must be allowed to impair the deep impression which should be made upon the mind of the candidate. Accordingly, the Grand Lodge forbids any levity, horseplay or roughness and insists that there be no such actions and no audible laughter or other noise in the Lodge room which might distract the attention of the candidate. Failure to comply with this Code, and any action by any officer or member in violation of or inconsistent with the language of this order shall constitute grounds for disciplinary action."
Lastly, MWB Smith discusses attire in the lodge. Echoing some of the points he tried to make in point one, He is correct in stating that our attire reflects our personal respect for the Craft. If we dress like slobs, then we are not giving Freemasonry the respect it is due. Not only that, but we are also setting a poor example for those that come after us. I feel that MWB Smith the nail on the head when he says: "Let us not cloud the issue with pious mouthings about how Masonry regards no man for his worldly wealth and honors; that it is the internal and not the external qualifications of a man that render him worthy to be a Mason. The question is not one of honors – it is of respect for the dignity of our ancient Craft. Mark it down: If the internal qualifications are there some of those qualifications will show through on the outer side."
What MWB Smith says above reflects back to his Chapter 3, which was aptly entitled "A sleep at the West Gate." We find a general lack of respect for the Craft because we have lowered our standards. Let's face it, in many lodges, a pulse and a checkbook will get you in the door. Investigations are done poorly, or not at all. Many Grand Jurisdictions including Illinois do not require a background check for prospective members. Many lodges won't even google a potential member to find out if they are on the sex offender list, have any pending criminal court cases or look at their social media footprint to see if they are posting conspiratorial nonsense about the Craft itself. We recently in Illinois have not only endured a rash of Anti-Masonic literature being placed at our lodges but also have had our Grand Lodge offices and other Masonic buildings vandalized. One would think that now more than ever, we would be vigilant, but there has been no change in our policies regarding vetting our potential members. Many of our problems, especially ones that MWB Smith has highlighted in this work, are due to not guarding the West Gate vigilantly during his lifetime, and the trend has sadly continued into the present day.
Let me state this as clearly as I can, the problems that WMB Smith has highlighted that we are facing in Freemasonry will not go away if we continue to admit men just because they “might” have something to contribute to Freemasonry if given the chance. The fallacy of the argument is in believing that every man comes into Freemasonry with a desire to improve themselves. I find it ironic that certain Freemasons that believe that men that are known to have beliefs antithetical to the ones taught in Freemasonry should be given a chance to join Freemasonry because they might just have a "Change of Heart". It seems that they have forgotten this question which we all have answered in our Entered Apprentice Catechism, which is: "Where were you first prepared to be made a Mason?" and its answer: "In my heart".
Probability dictates that a very low percentage of people that have indoctrinated beliefs that are counter to our core values are going to have an epiphany and change their belief system once they join the Fraternity. If you believe the above rationale, do you believe should we start allowing Atheists into the craft because they might benefit from Freemasonry? Then stop pretending that we should allow Racists into the fraternity because they might benefit from it. The probability that an atheist might find God due to Freemasonry is the same probability that a white supremacist would be able to peacefully sit in a meeting on the level with men that have a different skin color or practice the Islamic, Jewish, or any other non-Christian faith and admit the error of his ways. That probability, while it may not be an absolute zero, is pretty close to it. Not all men are redeemable, and every year when I sit through the jurisprudence report at our Grand Lodge Sessions I am reminded of the type of "men" we have allowed in thinking they would “have a change of heart” but instead have them tarnish our reputation.
MWB Smith believed that Freemasonry should not be as common as the prize at the bottom of a cereal box. We do a great disservice to the Craft is by not caring about the type of men we admit to the Craft. If we continue to allow everyone who petitions to join Freemasonry, we have lost our perspective and I fear we continue to have lowered our standards. Freemasonry is something that we should reserve for the small percentage of men that want to live their life according to its tenets. Not every man deserves to be a Freemason.
I have been more than forthright in saying in my previous articles on this very blog that I probably shouldn't have been allowed to be one had the investigation committee done its job properly. Thankfully, I was given the chance to join and attempt to live a life in which I follow the lessons of Freemasonry. However, for every one member that has attempted to live a life inspired by the lessons of Freemasonry, there are hundreds if not thousands that have joined and do not.
The men that have the internal qualifications will be those that display this convincingly to you and to the brethren of your lodge. They will be the men that do not talk about what they can do for Freemasonry, but rather what Freemasonry can do for them. They will show a desire for self-improvement not only in word but in action, a desire for joining and participating by showing up for those pre-lodge dinners or other events for months prior to petitioning, and continuing this while awaiting their degrees. My point is that when you stand at the ballot box, you need to be sure that the ballot is being cast correctly, and if you have any hesitancy as to why you should allow a man to join, it is your duty to protect the Craft and to deny their membership.
In my next article, I will explore the next question MWB Smith poses, which is: Question 10: Are there not too many well-meaning Brethren who are working overtime to make Freemasonry something other than Freemasonry?
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.