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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Wrap Up: Masonic Society's 2017 Conference, Lexington, KY


This is really lengthy, but I've been working on it for 10 days.

I’ve been unconscionably remiss in not following up after the the Masonic Society's 2017 Conference, "Centuries of American Freemasonry" in Lexington, Kentucky September 8-10. Dr. John Bizzack (right), the members of Lexington Lodge 1, and the Kentucky’s Rubicon Masonic Society along with the other organizers did an incredible job at arranging what was one of the very best and most useful Masonic symposiums I’ve attended in a long time. Even the graphics and other printed materials were all beautiful and top flight. And the Festive Board they hosted at the nearby Spindletop Hall is something I wish I could pick up and transplant into at least one location in every jurisdiction of America to show others how to do it at least once. There were at least 85 attendees from 13 states and Canada, and if you weren’t there, you should have been. 

The overall theme to the whole event was to look forward to the future by using our past as a vast history lesson.


Thomas W. Jackson led off on Friday with his keynote, The History of the Future of Freemasonry. At 83, Tom’s been a Freemason for 54 years now, and during that time he’s seen some of its greatest successes. Anyone who’s spent time with him knows he’s well traveled, experienced, respected, and loves this fraternity. He’s also, on occasion, given to a pessimistic outlook about it in the US. I’m not hurting his feelings to type that out loud, as he freely admits it himself. But he's experienced so much that it becomes a bitter comparison sometimes to come back to US shores.

Tom didn’t quote this, but Isaac Disraeli once wrote, "It is a wretched taste to be gratified with mediocrity when the excellent lies before us." Tom’s speech asserted that external threats have always endangered us, but we are facing our greatest failure today, and the threat this time is internal, not external. This is no Morgan, no Holocaust, no conspiracy theory this time. And it has nothing to do with numbers of members. If Masons have lost our influence on society, it’s because we became something we were never intended to be in the first place. Our influence going forward needs grow out of respect for Freemasons, not how many members we have. 

Mark Tabbert followed Tom, and I'll explain later why I'm saving Mark for the end.

California’s Jordan Yelinek gave his presentation, Developing Lodges in the 21st Century, on starting a new lodge from scratch. He has been giving this Grand Lodge program all over his state, and there have been 14 new lodges chartered there in the last year alone. Starting a new lodge is not difficult as a process, although it certainly is in practice. It takes dedication and a common goal from at least the minimum number required. California held leadership retreats and surveyed 5,000 Masters and Wardens to identify what THEY want for the fraternity. ALL men want real true friends, to learn, and to make a difference in the world around them, whatever that may mean to them individually. If we can’t (or AREN’T) fulfilling that, or helping them to fulfill it, we are failing at what we do.

Consolidations don’t work, especially when two weak lodges form. They create a bigger weak lodge, never a better one. California found that while 70% of all of their members considered themselves to be “very engaged” Freemasons, they never attend lodge. If a lodge looks like crap, people are repelled. This is all common sense, brethren. If a Mason has no reason to come back to lodge, he won’t. And if you can’t convince your lodge to fix itself even with your help (and don’t just bitch, get in there and shovel coal, too), then stick a flag in the ground and start a new one. If it succeeds, encourage imitators, not bigger membership. If it fails, go out in a blaze of glory by showing what you were attempting to do.



Friday night’s Festive Board at the Lexington's Spindletop Hall was, as said above, tremendous in every way. 


The surroundings were ideal, the food excellent, the program just about perfect, and the conversation was hearty and positive. I urge any lodge to find the local historic mansion or library or catering site or other exquisite location and hold at least one event like this a year. Or six. Or twelve.





Andrew Hammer's speech that evening, The Heart, Mind and Soul of Freemasonry, only reaffirmed what I have known about him since he first began writing and speaking: that all he and the thousands of Masons who have bought and read his little volume Observing the Craft have wanted all along is the opportunity and the freedom to established regular, recognized American lodges that demand higher standards of behavior, manners, and what used to be called the "gentlemanliness" that most men once voluntarily sought to attain for themselves. Many still do want it. If Masons today want to be an organization non-Masons admire and seek to emulate and even perhaps join, why can't a handful of Masons at least be permitted enough flexibility to create such a lodge? 


Andrew didn't say it, but elitism is what Freemasonry was always intended to be from the start, and it's not he same thing as "snobbery," not at all. An ashlar cannot by definition polish itself. It needs patterns to model itself after at least, with the help of likeminded craftsmen. And hundreds of cookie-cutter lodges across a state do not provide the sort of encouragement and standards countless disappointed men seek. The truth is that variety and affinity lodges of all types are the only future our wider American Masonic fraternity has if it is to be anything but a tiny, boutique clutch of practitioners, no more significant than a monthly gathering of Japanese tea ceremony enthusiasts.

Anyway, I can't compliment everyone enough for the entire evening.


On Saturday, Alan Casalou’s presentation looked at the damaging effects that 20th century bigness have had upon American Freemasonry. Once we moved out of 18th century taverns, and then out of our 19th century town centers, we settled into our bigger and bigger “cathedrals” built in the last century. As much as I personally love them architecturally and historically, our grandest temples represent almost all that has subverted and eroded us as a fraternity. Throughout the 20th century, the vast and overwhelming majority of men felt that receiving the Master Mason degree was the ultimate experience the fraternity offered, and then never went back again. Attending lodge didn’t mean you were a Mason—a dues card did. Yet my own recent research has shown me, here in Indiana, we had several lodges with well over 1,000 members and even more than 2,000 in the 1920s. Nobody had to attend to be a Mason—we even tell them that in the EA degree today. Alan pointed out the avalanche of sheer idiocy (my term, not his) that got enforced by grand lodges, in part because of the human sea of members who knew nothing about the fraternity they joined. California forbade publishing Masonic papers in the 1920s, and banned tracing boards in the 1950s. Lodges of Research were specifically created in the US to control what was written about the fraternity at the GL level. It would take the anonymity of the Internet to finally upturn that grip on information nationwide (or almost, anyway). 

And even today, there is a US grand lodge that still enforces a recently enacted rule that doesn't even permit the open discussion of any Masonic ritual besides their own, much less a demonstration of one—even if it's from a jurisdiction THEY recognize as regular! 

As our membership skyrocketed and more and arguably “rougher” men poured in unchecked and unbalanced by more refined or educated or successful ones, the mania of obsessive rule making only exploded and GL rule books became thicker and thicker, as GLs stopped relying (or were able to rely on) the judgement and common sense of their own members. Alan didn’t say it, but when “Did his check clear?” and “Does he have a pulse?” replaced “How long have you been friends with him?” and “What does the community think of him?” GLs couldn’t rely on members to be the best and do the best anymore. And then the “best” of men in communities saw no reason to join anymore. And the cycle only perpetuated itself. 

Dr. Oscar Alleyne gave his presentation about Clandestine Freemasonry the US, and I have written a quite long entry about it before HERE. I earnestly recommend every jurisdiction to consider inviting Oscar to give this same talk to their own members, and as much as I don’t like to pick on anyone, I especially encourage Prince Hall grand lodges to do so. It should be given at both the Conference of Grand Masters and the Prince Hall Conference of Grand Masters, because this is a problem that continues to grow because of the Internet. Bogus “leg o' mutton" degree peddlers are at least as old a phenomenon as 1752, and they’ll never go away. But American Masons need to get ahead of this ongoing problem, and Oscar does it better than anyone. New “masonic” or “Illuminati” bogus groups pop up on a weekly basis in my email inbox alone, and they are damaging to the entire fraternity.

Patrick Craddock’s many years of research and work at creating bespoke Masonic aprons that harken to an earlier age has permitted him to spread that knowledge and interest to Freemasons all over the country. If you have seen his high quality, handcrafted aprons at The Craftsman's Apron based on historic, symbolic designs, you know the detail he puts into each one. The result has been his program, “Admit Him if Properly Clothed: Three Centuries of American Masonic Regalia.” Patrick’s presentation is an excellent one, and like Oscar’s, I encourage you and your lodge, district, or grand lodge to invite him to give it in person. 





In 2016, Jon T. Ruark sent out an appeal for responses to what he called the “Ultimate Freemasonry Survey,” and on Saturday, he gave his most extensive presentation of his results and analysis to date (he did do a much shortened version earlier this year at Pennsylvania's Academy of Masonic Knowledge, but he wasn’t quite finished with all of his collating and dot-connecting yet). Jon received 2,300 responses to his survey, and given the inherent bias in an internet-circulated poll taken this way that had zero support or assistance from a single grand lodge anywhere, certainly it has built-in lopsided results. But if you are the person who counts Masonic success by numbers and believes in analysis projections, things don’t look at all good as soon as 2027, and they look like an institutional gravesite no later than 2040. By then, we’ll all be able to meet in a phone booth. If anyone can find an antique phone booth on Ebay by then.

But those “numbers” didn’t really interest most of the Masons in that room, because we don’t count Masonry’s success or death by dropping beans in a jar. Jon will be making his results (and I believe a follow up that is planned) in a later publication. As a result, I’m not going to blurt them out here. He did the work, the results are his to share or hold back as he sees fit. But there were several figures I found just interesting enough that I WILL drop here. Just to set the stage:
  • All 2,300 of his results were from self-declared Masons (no real way to verify, but he didn’t include anyone who didn't say they were). 
  • The average age of his respondents was 45. 
  • 72.8% were married, 69.5 have kids, with an average income of $25-75,000 (just 12% made $100-250K)
(Jon also asked if his respondents had a declared religious preference, just out of curiosity, since we require a faith in a Supreme Being. It was a major issue for a very long time in the fraternity, both inside and outside of the US, so this is just an interesting observation: out of all of his respondents, 17.5% were Catholic. I have long suspected this, being raised as a Catholic and educated by Jesuits—though I attributed it to post-1966 Vatican II longing for the old Latin Mass and love of ritual and ceremony. But we're far enough away from those years that it's probably not the reason these days.)

But for our symposium, here were the money figures: 90% said that “Masonic Education” was “very important” or “important.” The vast majority of them specifically noted they wanted “esoteric” education. Out of those members who described themselves as being “disengaged” with the fraternity, 56% received NO education in their lodge. Pay attention to this.
  • 92% WANT “brotherhood.”
  • 80% liked ritual
  • 83% want “history”
  • And less than half want “higher degrees” 
I shared these numbers with a friend over the weekend who said they are almost identical with the results found in a recent survey by a large appendant body in the US.

Of course, all of these numbers are nice to have, and reaffirm what scores of us have yammered about for decades. But no one has ever figured out the role of the individual Freemason in all of this “wanting” and “preferring” and “very important-ing.” Masonic “education” (whatever that is) can’t be spoon-fed to our members. It can’t be shined in their eyes by some app on their phones. It can’t be found in a single article or book, or even a whole shelf of books. It has as much to do with improving ourselves and real human interaction as it does with some external person or force improving us—arguably more, MUCH more. 



So, John Bizzack, Cameron C. Poe, Richard A. Graeter and I took part in a panel discussion and audience back-and-forth about the future of the fraternity. As the ostensible moderator, I insisted that we NOT engage in any barstool air-bending about “Ya know what’s wrong with this fraternity…” Yes, we know. We ALL know. The conversation was a nuts and bolts, nitty gritty one about what does a single lodge do to either remake itself, fix itself, or give up and start again from scratch. The resulting discussion was constructive and worthwhile, hopefully for everyone. I hope somebody was taking notes, as I was busy.


To sum up, the overall thread that ran all throughout this event by accident or design was a very basic one: Excellence. Quality. Freemasonry is shrinking, but that’s probably all for the best. And history tells us, it is inevitable. Alan Casalou’s presentation centered around the phrase we have all heard countless time, “That the tender branch thereof will not cease.” (Job 14:1-12). On the eve of its first Revolution, France had a thousand lodges. Just seventy-five throughout that entire country survived the Terror. There's a big, fat lesson in there for all Freemasons going forward as each year's statistics roll in and long faces get longer.

Mark Tabbert’s talk on Friday morning brought up events and periods and developments from US Masonry’s history that few may have been aware of before. Mark has studied fraternalism on a much wider scale than just Freemasonry, and he can often see insights that Masons may not, and may never have. 

He mentioned a scandalous event in Vermont that predated the Morgan Affair in the 1820s, and despite all the press Morgan received nationwide, it was the earlier incident that nearly wiped out Freemasonry in that tiny and still young state. If we as modern Freemasons believe that we are living through rough times and woe is us that we have a budget shortfall this year over our state’s industrial-sized charities, consider this. The Grand Lodge of Vermont was saved by just two individuals and preserved by those two men for 20 years. Their entire state membership plunged to a mere 30 Masons at its worst. 

Yet, what was said by a Vermont Mason in the very darkest moments of their history? 
'Better we turn away unworthy men than to accept them just to survive.'
How about proposing that for your Grand Lodge’s motto next year? I'll second it.


3 comments:

  1. Regrettably I could not be there due to prior official visit commitments. The direction that so many are looking to just may help wo reform our organization into something more dynamic and interesting. I'm in agreement that quality of membership (defined as quality of the person as well as quality of the organization) is more important than quantity. I'm really looking forward to next year's conference!

    Jim Barr, KYGCH
    MIGM, SC

    ReplyDelete
  2. Was a great conference, and I really enjoyed all the speakers

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was unable to attend this year and feel like I really missed out after reading about it. If another such event is planned for 2018 please send out a date. I think this will be a great boost for younger brethren seeking more light.

    Sincerely
    Daniel Gale Young
    Milton 947 secretary

    ReplyDelete

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