The 20th Century
Challenge to Masonry - An Opportunity for Greatness
W. Bro. John D. Blankinship
It is significant that our legendary hero, Hiram Abif, inspected
the work every day at noon when the harsh light most clearly
revealed defects and weaknesses in the structure. It is even more
significant that he did not hesitate to draw designs on the trestle
board to remove defects and to improve and strengthen the building.
It is now high twelve for Freemasonry - as it is continually for
every human institution. Imitating his daily practice, let us now
inspect our fraternity to see if anything may be done to strengthen
and enrich it. Let that inspection be realistic and our evaluation
honest. Let us tell ourselves the truth, even though the truth
However glorious its past. Freemasonry today shows unmistakable signs of
decay The most obvious is the decline in membership described by Worshipful
Brother Turner in his oration to this Grand Lodge last year. The declines he
described have accelerated. Last year this Grand Lodge lost more members than at
any time since the depression. We find no comfort in the fact that many of those
were lost by death because that grim fact warns us that as our average age
advances, we will have even greater losses in this category in the future. The
increase in the number of those who drop their membership by non-payment of dues
is significant. Many of these are cases of procrastination or inadvertence, but
a substantial number are men who were once interested enough to pay the
initiation fee, take three degrees and learn the posting lectures, but who no
longer consider the organization worth annual dues which, in most cases, are
trifling. The decline in membership is all the more telling because it is
happening in a time of relative prosperity, increasing population, and when more
men have more time for leisure activities. Even more disturbing is the scarcity
of attendance at our meetings. Few Lodges can boast of an average attendance of
10% of their members. Yet, if we are to see ourselves in proper perspective, we
must observe that, by their absence, over 90% of our more than 66,000 members
have voted that our meetings are not worth their time. Many of us can testify as
to the growing reluctance of qualified members to start through the progressive
officer line. Although some of these potential officers are unable to accept
office many simply prefer not to do so. Others can testify as to meetings which
are poorly conducted and still others about officers who neither know the work
well nor propose to learn it.
If we shrug off the decline as "only temporary" we run the risk that we will
discover too late that it was permanent after all. The risk is great because
degeneration feeds on itself. It produces a vicious circle; poor attendance
causes poor programs which, in turn, cause ever greater declines; failures breed
apathy and a sense of defeat which produce ever greater failures.
Why this decline? Why the lack of interest? These involve other questions.
What do men want and expect from Masonry? What should Masonry give them?
What are we trying to achieve? I think men want, and Masonry should give
them, an opportunity for fellowship; for education, particularly in their
relations to God, their fellowmen and their institutions; and for a means to
decide upon, and take responsible group action on, current issues. Our problem
lies in the failure of Freemasonry to fulfill this mission. It does not compete
effectively for men's minds and souls. Although parts of our degrees are
impressive and instructive, far too much consists of vague generalities couched
in archaic language and offering as the final word knowledge which is obviously
antiquated. Our degrees seldom tell us how to reconcile duty to others with duty
to oneself nor how to practice brotherly love in a modern society which is
becoming progressively more materialistic and impersonal. Ironically "success"
in grinding out the same degrees repeatedly carries with it the seeds of failure
because excessive repetition not only bores the sideliner but also thwarts his
opportunity to visit with his brothers. We offer very little to a member once he
has proved up on his third degree and signed the bylaws. We treat his
transformation from candidate to member as the end rather than the beginning of
Our stated meetings usually consist of little more than the opening and
closing, reading of minutes, approval of bills and perfunctory committee
reports. Our programs avoid vital topics and current issues because they may be
controversial. This leaves us with the nagging suspicion that we distrust the
ability of our members to discuss controversial matters objectively.
Masonic relief of members and their widows and orphans has faded in
importance as social security, industrial insurance, unemployment insurance and
welfare programs have pre-empted the field. We are left with a feeling that
Masonry is drifting aimlessly. Even more important, we feel helpless to do
anything about the problems which confront our fraternity. An attitude prevails
that any change would violate "ancient landmarks" notwithstanding the fact that
they have never been defined in this Jurisdiction. This attitude stifles
constructive self-criticism for fear it will be considered disrespectful or even
blasphemous. It discourages improvement as futile.
Stating the problem is relatively easy. Finding the cause is more difficult.
Finding a solution has seemed impossible. But let us not be easily
discouraged. Remember the old saying: "The difficult we do immediately, the
impossible may take a little longer." In this spirit let us now attack the next
question; What shall we do to revitalize Masonry? How do we stimulate the
interest of members and potential members? How do we stimulate our own interest?
How do we give our fraternity a sense of mission and purpose in the world?
During the past year I have discussed these questions with many Masons and the
suggestions which I offer are a composite of their views and mine. The
suggestions do not pretend to be a cure-all, but if they do nothing more than
provoke thought and stimulate conversation, they will have been worthwhile.
Because so much of our time is now spent on presentation of ritual, we should
immediately begin an objective, critical review of it. Let me illustrate what I
mean. As I have already said, our ritual contains much that is inspiring and
instructive but it is also inconsistent. For example, we should make it clear
that we will not cheat, wrong or defraud anyone with or without advance warning;
and that we disapprove violation of the chastity of any woman whether or not she
is related to a Master Mason. It is also unnecessarily repetitious. There is no
reason to require a candidate to repeat over and over his willingness to proceed
with a degree. One lie is enough for perjury. We should require no more. A
candidate should not be compelled to repeat, with numerous synonyms, the single
idea that he will not disclose a secret; a promise not to write a word
automatically includes a promise not to write the syllables, letters and
characters which make up that word. The work also exaggerates. No one takes the
penalties of the obligations seriously and, stated literally, no one should.
Because we do not mean what we say, the overstatement cheapens the ritual. If
the penalty is intended to warn of tortures of conscience and death of the soul,
it should say so. We should say what we mean. Worst of all, much of the work is
obsolete. Take the lectures for example. They were written in his spare time by
William Preston, a London printer, who finished them in 1772. They were
thereafter copied in various published monitors from which they were officially
adopted by this Jurisdiction in 1886. For the most part, the lectures which we
recite today are exactly as Preston wrote and illustrated them nearly 200 years
Are the lectures as relevant in our day as they were in his? Did Preston
write such eternal truths that they apply to the 20th century as well as they
may have to the 18th? This is the question we should decide-and soon.
Let us hear the observations of the late Roscoe Pound, a brilliant scholar,
law professor and distinguished Mason. In a little book entitled "The Philosophy
of Masonry" Pound explains that Preston intended his lectures to teach Masons
all the knowledge of his time. They were to be, and are, a compendium of 18th
century learning couched in the flowery and elegant language then in style. For
example, Preston thought Masons should know something about architecture so he
included a description of five different Greek and Roman columns which he said
comprised the orders in architecture.
His lectures taught physiology by describing five senses of human nature. He
talked about the liberal arts and sciences and about a geometry problem solved
by an ancient Greek named Euclid. In Preston's time few men went to school so he
turned Masonic Lodges into class rooms where he taught men not just ethics,
religion and human relations, but astronomy, music, arithmetic, and so on. In
his day the lectures were useful. Are they today? How relevant is a recital
about Greek and Roman columns in a world which knows of structural steel,
pre-stressed concrete, skyscrapers and suspension bridges?
Of what use is it to talk of hearing, seeing, and so on to an era which knows
of radar, electronic microscopes and Geiger counters? Why do we talk only about
Euclid to men who know about Einstein? I shall not belabor the point. The
questions answer themselves. Most of the knowledge we have today was unknown to
Preston. Somehow we forgot the purpose for which the lectures were originally
written. We have gone blithely along giving 20th century audiences samples of
18th century learning with the solemn assurance that it is the final-if not the
latest-word. Is it any wonder that we are slipping in the competition for men's
minds and souls? Truly it is said that the 20th century will discover and join
Masonry only when Masonry discovers and joins the 20th century.
Let us begin at once a thorough, systematic and continuous modernization of
our standard work. We must eliminate those qualifying phrases which rob promises
of meaning or which give them double meaning. We must minimize repetition and
use modern English. Let us recognize that we cannot educate men on all subjects.
Man's knowledge today is too broad, too technical and expanding so rapidly that
even experts must work hard to keep up to date in their own specialty. We should
concentrate on human relations; teaching our members the duties which men owe to
God, to their fellowmen (not just to their fellow Masons) and to their
institutions, governmental, religious, educational, fraternal. The ritual should
outline the basic duties and at the same time emphasize that our philosophy is
based on brotherly love and on a relentless search for truth on all questions.
Lectures should fill in details, explore the practical application of the
fundamental rules, and probe those areas where one duty conflicts with another.
Let me illustrate this point. We now recognize a duty owed to another Master
Mason to keep his secrets. At the same time we recognize a higher duty to
society to disclose such secrets at least when they pertain to murder or
treason. If this is where we draw the line, our lectures should explain why it
is drawn there.
Another example: The excellent movie "Judgment at Nuremburg" examined the
question, when does duty to mankind and to God supersede duty to Nation? Our
colonial brothers wrestled with this question; so have our Cuban brothers-too
late! This is an eternal question. It deserves our attention.
These are only two of the many examples which could be given of tough and
fascinating questions which probe the depths of relationships among men and
between men and their institutions. Our lectures should discuss these matters
and explore those situations in which men may be required to choose between
conflicting duties. Such lectures will never answer all questions because our
reach will-and should-always exceed our grasp. The ritual and lectures should
give our members a positive attitude and skills for seeking truth; teach them to
discuss issues objectively without becoming enemies; equip them to decide
wisely. To do this we must abandon any notion that we have already found all the
answers. We must free ourselves from the dogmas of the past. We must view
landmarks not as monuments to which we are chained but as sign posts pointing
the way toward the future.
The job of editing the ritual and writing new lectures is too important to be
delegated to amateurs who would be able to work on it only part-time. It should
be turned over to professionals, skilled in the communication of ideas and adult
education who would work at it full time. We should expect to pay enough to
attract top talent. Aided by our discussions and suggestions, these
professionals would work out a modern standard work. Once prepared, it should be
tried in a few Lodges as a pilot project with the idea that it be further edited
and improved in the process. After the trial period, the new work could be
adopted by the Grand Lodge a part at a time over a period of months or even
years. Alternatively, a modern ritual might be offered, along with the old, with
individual Lodges choosing the one they prefer. In other words, let the old and
new compete with one another for acceptance.
Shortening and modernizing our ritual is not the ultimate answer. It will
only help. And it will help only if it equips us with the attitudes and tools,
and releases to us the time, for work on the vital public issues and crucial
social problems of the day. Our objective should be to assist mankind in solving
the problems which beset him. Our ritual should be a means to that end. The
answers to most of the questions which confront mankind are found in the
delicate balance between two or more public policies, each equally good, which
conflict in a particular area. Let me illustrate this point with just one of
many examples which could be given.
Public policy today views education as a national resource and demands that
all pupils, public and parochial, have the best education possible. At the same
time, public policy demands that every individual be free to worship God, or
not, as he sees fit and that government shall neither establish a religion nor
tell us whether to worship God and, if so, when, where, and how. In the
administration of the new Federal Aid to Education Act, local communities will
be required to find the delicate balance between these policies so as to
minimize conflict between them. This will involve consideration of the relations
between men, between religions, between government and religion, and between
federal, state and local governments.
The men who decide these matters must respect one another, have a sincere
desire to find the best of all possible answers and be willing to spend the time
and make the sacrifices required in finding the answers. In short, they must be
motivated by an unselfish, responsible, public spirit. They cannot be fettered
with prejudice or hate. They cannot be simply anti-Catholic or anti-this or
that, because a negative attitude stifles rather than stimulates the thought and
free discussion which test theories and refine ideas. America already has
countless organizations committed to one selfish interest or another or smugly
satisfied that they already have discovered the ultimate truth in some field.
There are precious few dedicated to pursue truth with an open mind and without
selfish motives. History has demonstrated repeatedly that groups of men who
together think out responsible answers to human problems wield an influence for
good far beyond their numbers. There is today a greater need than ever for such
Masonry is uniquely adapted to the task. Composed of men of every political
belief, of various national origins, open to every religion, trained to have
faith in and respect for one another, it is able to foster diversity without
being divisive, and to find the delicate balances required to make our social
order work. Rather than retreating from the problems of mankind, Masonry should
advance upon them. It should seek rather than avoid the opportunity to grapple
with contemporary issues. Let us make Lodges forums for discussion of such
questions. Such discussions could probably best be conducted at refreshment
where the spirit is informal. They would give direction and purpose to our
fellowship. To this end we should encourage a revival of the festive board which
occupied such a key role in earlier days of our fraternity. Let us open such
meetings to wife, family, friends and guests. Let us bring the community into
the Lodge and at the same time take the Lodge to the community. This will
require skill. Lodges which wish to pursue such programs should be assisted and
advised by professionals employed by this Grand Lodge. It will also require hard
work, but it will be worth it. Masonry will again play an active role as it did
in those colonial days about which we now boast. Masonry will have an important
purpose in life. It will make a valuable contribution to society. Let us free
Freemasonry to do the job.
The inspection which we have made in the last half hour is not complete. The
designs which we have sketched on the trestle board are not finished. They are
unfinished and incomplete because the building and rebuilding of any human
institution is a continual evolution. Whether we continue our inspection,
whether we make new designs, whether we renovate our institution depends on you
and me. What shall our answer be?
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