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
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
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
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
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
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
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?!