A Subject Too Often Overlooked


    -by- Richard E. Fletcher, PGM, Vermont;

    Executive Secretary, The Philalethes Society


    Conrad Hahn, a most distinguished Mason, once

observed, "The lack of educational work in the average

lodge is the principal reason for the lack of interest and the

consequent poor attendance in Masonry over which

spokesman have been wringing their hands for at least a


    This quote stirs one to think about the importance and

value of Masonic education within the Masonic Fraternity.

It should further stir us to think about why this important

aspect of Freemasonry has been so badly overlooked.  We

must not kid ourselves into thinking that Masonic education

is playing the prominent part in Freemasonry that by right

it should. 

    This leads to the all important question, "Why has this

situation come about?" The real problem in trying to answer

this question is that there is no easy answer. We, as a

Fraternity, have reached the point where far to few of our

members have even the faintest idea of why they are

Freemasons, let alone, have any real knowledge about our

history and heritage.

    To those of you who are "ritual purists" please do not let

my next statement shock you. But the real truth of the

matter is Ä we have come to depend on the ritual as the

basis for Masonic knowledge. The ritual does not make

Masons. It only makes members! We cheat, wrong and

defraud any candidate who is left hanging at the end of the

3rd Degree, having heard a lot of words and really not

knowing what they mean. Until the Degrees are explained

to the candidate he has no idea of what he has gone

through. To suggest that the explanation is complete with

the lectures of each Degree is again burying our head in

"Masonic Sand."

    Let me stress Ä no one loves the ritual more than I do.

The ritual has an important place in the life of the person

who is becoming a Mason. But, that place is not the "throne

from on high" from which there is no more to learn.  In my

opinion, it is far easier to memorize and recite the ritual

than it is to study the history and meaning of Freemasonry.

So, we tend to be far more comfortable in working the

Degrees than in working with the candidate to teach him

what our beautiful craft is all about.

    Has this always been so? The answer, of course, is no.

But we have drifted so far away from true knowledge within

our Fraternity that now it is very difficult to try to turn the

tide. But we are going to have to do that very thing!

    What are in fact the origins of Freemasonry? Where did

it begin? How did it reach the present state in which we find

it today?

    Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could answer these

questions in ten words or less. We can not. We can only

surmise what in fact may have happened.  Historically, of

course, Freemasonry did not begin with the forming of a

Grand Lodge in London in 1717. Quite obviously, there had

to have been Lodges to be formed at that time. So, they

must have had some history prior to that date. When did it

all begin? We simply don't know.

    One thing has always bothered me with the explanation

we are usually given. That is: Why did the ancient Guilds of

Cathedral builders need such an elaborate method of

recognition. Why would they have needed signs and words,

if in fact our early origins were with tradesmen plying their

skill in building cathedrals? That they would wish to keep

secret the method by which they constructed a building

might perhaps be possible. But, they were out in the open,

visible to anyone who wished to come near the building and

certainly not in any danger from an outside enemy. So why

would they need to have methods of recognition that would

not have been known to the casual observer?

    This question has always intrigued me. Please let me tell

you right now, I do not know the answer. One of the better

theories that I have read concerning this matter is in a book

by John Robinson entitled, Born in Blood.  John Robinson

will be your guest lecturer later this year. He has much to

offer and I hope you will make every effort to attend and

hear this very fine man present his theories on the origins of


    Let me just say briefly that his theory is that

Freemasonry very likely began with the suppression of the

Knights Templar in the year 1307. At that time the

Templars were crushed in France, but by the delay of the

King in enforcing the edict in England and Scotland many

escaped. It is Mr. Robinson's theory that they went

underground and had to devise a method of recognition

enabling them to travel safely and to establish safe houses

where they would have an opportunity to rest and refresh

themselves. It also gave them the ability to recognize each

other as members of the order! While the suppression of the

Knights Templar may or may not have anything to with early

Freemasonry, it certainly makes more sense to me that

secret signs and words in this type of environment were far

more necessary than with the simple workman plying his

trade in building a cathedral.

    Just one more thought from this particular theory. The

suppression of the Knights Templar occurred on October 13,

1307. The particular day of the week was a Friday and ever

since that event Friday the 13th has been considered to be

the unluckiest day of the year.

    Now, the suppression of the Templars was crude and

bloody but it was not an unusual event in those times. War,

pillage, and confiscation of property were a way of life.

There were other orders in existence who had their troubles

as well. What was there about the Knights Templar that

made them known and recognized and respected? Why do

I say respected? Because there wasn't any rejoicing at their

suppression. Instead the day is remembered as unlucky! The

only conclusion that I can reach is that this order held the

respect of the people and their destruction brought about

the omen of bad luck.

    Why were they so respected? Obviously, there is no

absolute answer to that question, but one could surmise that

if they were indeed practicing the principles of Freemasonry

they would certainly have had the respect of the people!

    My conclusion is that Freemasonry has existed for a very

long time. Not perhaps, as we know it today, but as an order

of men doing good work where they were permitted to exist.


    This observation is not to be taken in the context of the

claims of many Masonic writers, such as: Masonry goes back

to the times of Solomon or even Noah and the flood. In

Masonic writing we must be very careful when making

claims like this. Many times ancient symbols, which have in

more recent times been co-opted by Freemasonry, are

mistaken as evidence of early Masonic existence .

    Let me give you one example. The All Seeing Eye on the

one dollar bill is certainly well known in Masonic circles and,

unfortunately, has mistakenly been interpreted as a Masonic

symbol. It is in fact an ancient symbol which was taken into

Freemasonry in far more recent times.

    This lack of understanding of ancient signs and symbols

has, in my judgment, misled many Masonic historians into

false conclusions. The study of history, particularly, where

the written word was not used requires a well trained person

when interpreting its meaning. That is why we need to do a

far better job of interpreting early Masonic history than we

have done in the past.  If Masonic history began in earlier

times than we normally talk about, it is obviously going to

make a reconstruction of our past difficult because we have

very few written records to go by. Remember these were

times when few people could read or write. So, we don't

have minutes of early Lodge meetings available. Also

remember, if their very lives were at stake, that was another

strong inducement not to put very much information into

written form!

    The purpose of my tracing this obscure part of our

history is simply to say to you that I very strongly believe

that there was a far more significant purpose to the origins

of Freemasonry than simply erecting buildings! I do believe

that Freemasonry evolved into that stage, during its

development, but the Cathedral builders reflected a time in

our history and not its beginning!

    Let me carry this thinking one step further and bring it

into the late 1700's. Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire did not

join a workers guild! They joined what they believed to be

an educational society which was called, "Freemasonry."

These were extremely intelligent men who had no time to

waste on things that were not important to them, and yet

Franklin was an active Freemason and Voltaire joined only

shortly before his death! What was it that they saw in

Freemasonry that eludes us today?

    Well let's focus our thoughts more on modern

Freemasonry and see what we can determine. It has been

said that Freemasonry in Europe was for the elite and in

America for the masses. With the great numbers of

members that we have attracted over the years, there seems

to be a certain amount of truth in that statement. Today we

tend to overlook the fact that even though our numbers are

dwindling we still have in excess of two and one-half million

Freemasons in the United States alone.

    It would seem that when Freemasonry caught fire it did

so in massive numbers. In the 1920's we were in the three

millions in membership. In the 1950's and early 60's in the

four millions and have been on a decline ever since. But, if

we look at the membership in the 1700's, when by any

standard of measurement Freemasonry was certainly at its

most influential peak, there were not very many

Freemasons! Lodges were small, intimate and every Brother

knew every other Brother.

    With larger numbers, perhaps also, came the seeds of

our own downfall.  It is very difficult to have personal

knowledge of each Brother when our numbers are so large.

One of the most frequent complaints we hear in

Freemasonry is a Brother saying that "I was in the hospital

and no one came to see me. The chances are no one even

knew he was in the hospital!

    We also have an extremely mobile population. It is no

exaggeration to say that somewhere in the 30% range of the

members of each Grand Lodge live somewhere else, other

than the Jurisdiction in which they where raised.  How do

you keep a personal relationship with a Brother when you

don't even know where he is?

    It would seem to me that one of the greatest mistakes

we have made in Freemasonry is to try to run it as we did

in the 1700's. You can't run an organization with a few

thousand members the same way as you do one with

millions of members. It just can't be done!

    We did not develop, through Masonic education, the

training programs, the communication, the leadership that

was necessary to deal with these vast numbers. When we

talk about the "old days" when all of the leading men of the

town were in Freemasonry we overlook the fact that the

town was very small and everybody knew everyone else.

Now we have vast cities where people don't know everyone

else. Yet we still think of Masonry in terms of those earlier

times. It's impossible not to conclude that we simply have to

do a much better job of communicating with and educating

our membership!

    It is no secret that we have thousands upon thousands of

books on Masonry and for the most part the one thing they

have in common is that they are unread. We have to find a

way of developing material that will be used in the Masonic

community. Realistically we have to get right down to the

Blue Lodge Level and insist that every Lodge must offer a

course in Masonic education.

    If they don't have the resources within the Lodge to

provide that education then it must be done either by

another Lodge or at the district level. We can no longer turn

out members who do not know anything about our

Fraternity. The price we are paying for that mistake is

clearly evident today! Programs can be developed but it

does require commitment on the part of the Grand Lodge

Ä but, more importantly, commitment, on the part of

knowledgeable Masons within each Lodge who will actively

accept the responsibility to see that all Masons are taught

about the Fraternity.

    Certainly Grand Lodges can be of tremendous help in

developing a program common to all Lodges within their

Jurisdiction Ä a program that would be at least enough to

whet the appetite of the recipient so that he would want to

do more on his own Ä but one that would teach him basic

Masonic information!

    During a recent study by the Masonic Renewal Task

Force one of the issues that kept repeating itself over and

over again was the lack of interest by our present members.

    The membership of Freemasonry can really be divided

into three groups.  If you will, imagine three side by side

circles or, as I call them, a snowman lying down, the largest

circle being the base which is the greatest percentage of our

membership and largely inactive, a smaller circle in the

middle which would be the body with a somewhat active

membership; and the tiniest circle of all, the head, with the

smallest group of Masons and the most active. 

    It is with the large, inactive base that our attention

should be directed.  The deaths occurring are roughly the

same in number as the new members being brought in, so

one offsets the other. Where we are losing our members is

in the two categories of non-Payment of dues and demits.

Surveys have shown that of this very large base of

membership, when asked why they pay their dues, 33%

responded "to maintain membership" and 15% didn't even

know why! These are the ones who, through lack of interest,

are now leaving Freemasonry. This group I believe

represents the residue of the "aura of Freemasonry" that

used to say to a man "You Should Belong." Many joined

believing this. Now we have a group of men who never quite

knew why they joined and over the years have never found

out why, have reached that point where, either through lack

of interest, or cutting back financially have no incentive to

remain in Masonry. They have been around for years and

have never been active and now see no need to stay a

member. We are losing that group. We are not replacing

them and unless and until we can find a way to

communicate intelligently  with them and show them a

reason why being a Freemason is important they will

continue to drift away. It is inevitable!

    But the good news is we can do something about this

situation! We can do something about lack of interest and

that my Brothers is the challenge facing Freemasonry today!

At the very least inactive members should be invited to

attend the instructional classes for new members that we

have already talked about.

    Let me not present Freemasonry as all doom and gloom.

It most certainly is not. We have a tremendous amount of

good work going for us. Let me share with you some words

from our May 1991, Short Talk Bulletin entitled, "And The

Greatest Of These Is Charity." This quote is from that Short

Talk Bulletin which was written by S. Brent Morris, a well

known Masonic author:

    "A study of Masonic Charities is a study of the evolving

needs of the American society. When food and shelter were

immediate and almost daily concerns, Masons responded

with firewood and the fruits of their harvests.  When care of

the aged, widows, and orphans were worries, Masons

erected retirement homes and orphanages. When education

was needed, Masons built schools, and when these basic

needs moved ever farther from common experience, Masons

turned their philanthropy to crippled children, burn victims,

the speech and language impaired, cancer patients, and


    It is very clear that when Masons are challenged, they

will respond! These are visible challenges of people needing

help. Now we must accept the invisible challenge of Masons

needing greater understanding of the history and purposes

of the Craft!

    Perhaps Freemasonry could never be more graphically

described than in another quote from a Short Talk Bulletin.

This one is entitled, "Ellis Island - The Golden Door" and

was written by a man who is not a Mason, Mr. Dennis

Hearn.  Mr. Hearn worked very closely with members of the

Grand Lodge of New York and did a great deal of research

into the history of Freemasonry as the Ellis Island project

developed. His association with Masons led him to this


    "The Freemasons among our Founding Fathers brought

to their work the ancient Masonic Landmarks of Truth and

Brotherly love, and they fashioned a constitution which, by

the depth and strength of its conviction, embedded those

principles in the conscience of a nation. While we as a

people have not always lived up to them, neither have we

been able to ignore them".

    Those are very beautiful words to describe Freemasonry.

Isn't it time we reintroduced ourselves to the meaning of

Freemasonry and got back to living and practicing this

beautifully descriptive picture of our order?!