The Masonic Trowel

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by Brother Sean O'Neill

Masons were never intended to be like other men, so we should revel in these fundamental differences and stop trying to convince the public we are just another philanthropic organization.

Being made a Mason is pretty easy. Despite all the ceremony, it's a lot like joining any other association. A man fills out an application, is approved, pays a few dollars, and goes through a few formalities. In Freemasonry, the latter consists of the Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason degrees. Then, if he can memorize and recite, he's done. Nowadays, what with one-day conferrals, he probably won't even have to do that. He is instantly a Master Mason. So what's the problem? Well, why would anybody bother joining this version of Freemasonry in the first place? Second, if he did, what would keep his interest over a few years, let alone a lifetime?

Surely most of the Brethren would object to this dismissive description of their Masonic experience. Although it captures the mechanics of the procedure, it clearly excludes the emotional and psychological change that attends the gradual making of a man into a Mason. A man being "made a Mason at sight" is an extraordinary occurrence precisely because, rather than the transformation it should be, it reduces the procedure into an incident.

Today the Craft attempts to achieve what would seem to be mutually exclusive goals -- to stem the contraction of our Fraternity by building the membership, and to maintain the exclusivity of the Brotherhood by selecting only enthusiastic men of good character as Candidates. How are we doing in meeting these objectives? Masonry used to strive to make good men better; our aim today seems to be to make anything we can out of anyone we can get.

If being made a Mason is a process, it is important that Lodges imbue knowledge of the real meaning of Masonry to the Candidates and do so over time so that it can be absorbed. If they do not, then these men will have joined something but become nothing.

It is popularly known that in colonial America the Degrees were given in a different manner. After the conferral of each Degree, the Brethren were seated at a large table, and a discussion about the content and meaning of the ritual was held. When the Master Masons were satisfied with the Candidate's understanding, everyone enjoyed fellowship, good food and spirited beverages. It was a festive board from which members left for home at a civilized hour refreshed in body, mind and spirit.

This doesn't resemble today's meetings very much. The very idea of having a sociable glass in a Lodge social hall is anathema. We force our Candidates to memorize obscure passages filled with archaic words and phrases. In our Degree work, the Brothers are so busy correcting each other's recital that one could scarcely know that the entire exercise is supposed to be for the Candidate's benefit. Many of our Stated Meetings are more an insomnia cure than informative sessions of brotherhood and enlightenment. Educational programs primarily consist of plaintive requests for blood donations, child ID program participation, and financial contributions to the Masonic homes -- all worthwhile causes to be sure, but how often have you heard the identical presentations?

A primary summer Lodge event may be a picnic, when we who feel too old for volleyball sit and look reflectively at the carefully hung net. We were optimistic enough to hang it, but not energetic enough to use it. It is a sad and unintentional metaphor for the somnolence and decline of our Fraternity itself. In America, the Square and Compasses are now better represented on gravestones than on lapels or rings.

Sometimes we rationalize all of this by thinking that membership numbers don't matter. We don't care if men join, in other words, because we are better off somehow if most of them don't want to. But you wanted to join -- why shouldn't they? What has changed too much since the "old days", and what is too much the same?

In early America, the Masonic Lodge was the center of the town's activities. Everyone knew of it, and it was the focal point of most citizen meetings that were held after nightfall. At that time, every good man sought to become a Mason because every good man that he knew was a Mason. Today, urbanization and frequent relocation have forced a transient culture upon the Fraternity. The obvious benefits of membership -- respectability, reputation and mutual reliance -- have diminished in society generally and are currently dismissed by many as naive and idealistic. This actually means that although people would like to live in such a world, they have given up hope.

Today, we cannot count on good men having heard of us and wanting to join. We are a nearly obscure organization, membership in which conveys nothing in particular to the average person. Indeed, there seems to be only two categories of persons in the USA -- people who have heard of the Shriners and are surprised to hear that they are all Freemasons, and people who know of us only by virtue of their grandfathers having been, as one woman phrased it, "Masonics."

So much for the problems. What can we do to implement solutions? How can we become the Fraternity we endlessly advocate and aspire to be?

Masonic Rights and Benefits

A number of years ago, the U.S. Marines sought to target their recruiting effort by learning what characteristics of the Corps impressed young American men. Their research suggested that the positive impression made by the Marines is three-fold: exclusivity, quality and masculinity. The Corps responded with the following slogan: "The Marines are looking for a few good men." Today's Masonry must make essentially the same offer. The primary right and benefit, then, is the loyalty inherent in our select society. Masons are sometimes accused of treating each other preferentially -- which one can only hope we really do. Why not? Our Brethren, as men with positive character traits and binding oaths of right conduct, are exactly the sort of people one would like to do business with. In the Virginia ritual, "murder and treason excepted," all Brothers are automatically on your side, though still at their election and according to their conscience.

We were never intended to be like other men, so we should revel in these fundamental differences and stop trying to convince the public that we are just another fraternity with philanthropic objectives. We are more than that, and this identity crisis has inclined many of us to dilute our message: Masons are better men than most, and we belong to a sselect society based on morality and character. Our membership problems and unwarranted attacks from some fundamentalist groups have caused us to approach the public with hat in hand, as though we have something to apologize for. We should reject being put on the defensive. Why not be exclusive and special?

The Catechisms

The memorization of catechism is of recent invention. Although many Masons are great and enthusiastic ritualists, perhaps not all men considering initiation wish to spend time learning rote questions and answers. What is the core information necessary to be a good Mason? Certainly familiarity with the ritual, generally, and memorization of all tokens, grips and passes. Additionally, each Candidate should fulfill a course of study within the Lodge that conveys a clear understanding of the promises contained in the catechism. They should understand what they have sworn to uphold. We should also explain, as part of the oath, that the penalties are entirely symbolic.

The Ritual

When you go to England, you will be faced with the English ritual. Just so for the Italian ritual and so on. Visitors to the United States have the pleasure of being confronted with over 50 different versions of the same thing. How do we rationally explain to our Candidates that it is of great importance that they get the words right, when only a few miles away, Masons sincerely recite them differently? Over as much time as it takes, a committee of all 50 Grand Lecturers should meet to unify this country's ritual. The Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction, is already well on the way in this regard. This year, several Valleys will be performing the Obligatory Degrees of the Revised Standard Pike Ritual. After this ritual has proven itself in practice, it will, as approved by the Supreme Council, become the uniform standard for all Scottish Rite ritual work. Our exemplifications -- whether Symbolic Lodge, Scottish Rite, or Appendant Body -- would be stunning if we could profit from so many ritualists who had worked over so many years.


Traditionally, interested men virtually have had to plead for consideration as Masonic Candidates. This was fine when most men had heard of the Fraternity (one out of 12 American men were Masons in the 1950s). Today we can no longer afford the luxury of such a practice. Furthermore, we still have misinformed Freemasons answering inquiries by saying "It's a secret" or "I can't tell you" to questions they can answer. How can we change this policy without begging for Candidates ourselves? The answer, radical as it seems, is to reverse our historic method -- men should only become Masons if they are invited to join. In this way we would maintain the exclusivity of the Fraternity and entirely free ourselves to approach openly all men we feel would be quality Brothers.


One of the public perceptions that contributes to our membership problem is the concern of some young men that we are just a version of the Ku Klux Klan or at least share to some degree a negative view of minorities. These young men have no intention of being identified with us. We must adopt a formal position statement that Freemasonry is in fact universal in its view, as opposed to having an egalitarian policy that has nothing to do with who will actually be admitted. It would also help if Grand Lodges would at least recognize Prince Hall Masons as eligible for visitation and quit procrastinating in the face of the inevitable. If bigotry was ever considered a virtue, it is not one today.

The world has changed, and we have not kept pace. At the current rate of membership loss, we seem destined to be a real secret society, one that nobody has ever heard of or cares about. Masonry still has much to offer humanity. We must not allow this premier engine of character building and democracy to vanish from the world. To cherish and value the past is not to be chained to it.

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Last modified: March 22, 2014