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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

When Builders Built

“What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.”
— John Ruskin
I came across a lament from a Brother Mason over the weekend, and I'd like to share it with you:
"A half century ago, and I am told that even today in some areas, Grand Lodges were ultraconservative, ruled by what properly be called cliques—due to the practice of the Grand Masters appointing their prodigies at the bottom of the official line, who with the passage of time, eventually became Grand Masters of Grand Lodge and, in turn, appointed future Grand Masters and, thereby, denying the Craft in general the right of selection of their governing officials. This undemocratic policy may have resulted in securing some outstanding men as Grand Masters, but it also guaranteed obtaining many incompetents in that office, whose only qualification was being that fortunate appointee of a friend to whom a permanent obligation was obvious. Since it was custom to appoint PGMs as chairmen of the more important committees, and to elect them as Grand Treasurer and Grand Secretary, the entire operating fabric of Grand Lodge was a “closed shop” and woe betide him who would seek to disrupt the plan. Change was opposed by the vested interest and innovation was not only frowned upon but it was usually bitterly contested, and prevented. A new idea had to have more than merit to have a chance of being adopted. Support had to be secured from the PGMs, which was difficult and seldom obtainable. “Change not the ancient landmarks” was more than a cliche, but was the rallying cry of opposition by the majority of the entrenched leadership..."
It sounds so familiar, doesn't it?

It was written 44 years ago, back in 1974, but it was really referring to the period of the late 1920s when Freemasonry was going through an enormous explosion of popularity and membership gains — what we think of today as its 'Golden Age.' But it could be written today just as well.

So who wrote these words? Most American Masons have never heard of him these days, and yet he was one of the most important members of the fraternity during the 20th century, and perhaps of its entire 300 year modern, speculative history.

Allow me to introduce you to J. Raymond Shute II of North Carolina. The reason he's so important is because he didn't just sit on the sidelines and bitch and moan and expect "somebody else" to improve the fraternity. Shute loved ritual and was endlessly fascinated by the huge variety of Masonic rituals and systems that had developed around the world after 1717. In 1930, he and a group of North Carolina brethren founded North Carolina Lodge of Research No. 666, AF&AM, believed to be the first American lodge of that type to be formed. They nicknamed it 'Nocalore' to make the name less cumbersome, and they also adopted that moniker as the name of their published collection of papers.

And then they went to work.

Shute was still in his twenties when they began. He had joined the fraternity at 21, and became Master of his lodge just three years later (in case you think that's a new development these days). In later years he called the group of brethren who worked with him at the time 'The Innovators,' and their research lodge soon organized a Correspondence Circle to build their network of interested Masons far beyond the borders of just North Carolina. In a world long before Internet communications and fast, cheap overseas travel, Shute and The Innovators scoured the world for lesser known Masonic degrees and organizations. They collected their findings under the aegis of Lodge 666, and those documents and research materials today can be found in the 'Shute Masonic Collection' in the Southern Historical section of the Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Out of that group clustered around that one single lodge sprang the overwhelming majority of the smaller, more specialized Masonic bodies in North America, most of which still meet each year at Masonic Week near Washington, D.C. each February. Many were imported from Europe, while a few were homegrown, or at least American hybrids. But consider the scope of the list:
  • Allied Masonic Degrees (originally the Supreme Quarry of the World, Masons of Tyre)
  • Knight Masons of Ireland
  • Knights of the York Cross of Honour
  • Red Cross of Constantine
  • Societas Rosicruciana in Civitatibus Foederatis
  • Priestly Order of the Temple
  • Knights Beneficient of the Holy City
  • The Operatives
  • Order of the Bath
  • Society of Blue Friars
And just as a bonus, they also helped to corral various, conflicting Chapter and Council degrees floating around in the U.S. into a more standardized format. For the stray rituals that wouldn't fit anywhere else, or that were regarded as too obscure or defunct, they also formed the Grand College of Rites to publish those rituals in their annual Collecteana.

And they accomplished almost all of this between 1931 and the mid-1940s. Note that out of all of those organizations, only one — the Priestly Order of the Temple — is not alive today. All the rest are still very active. In fact, the Allied Masonic Degrees has been the fastest growing Masonic body in the U.S. for the last fifteen years, and the SRICF is expanding rapidly as well.

The Innovators included Masons who were enormously active and influential during their time: J. Hugo Tatsch, Harold Van Buren Voorhis, Dr. William Moseley Brown, Ray V. Denslow. Many of them were also involved with writing articles for The Builder magazine, which went defunct in 1930.  So, Shute was far from alone, but he was the glue that bound them together. He was the one who always wanted to know more, discover more, accomplish more.

And that's why I'm telling you about him now. We are almost 80 years beyond the days when Shute and the Innovators accomplished their incredible feats of research, organization, and building — and we are living off the fruits of their labor, no more and no less than those of us who take for granted the majestic temples our brethren built for us in the 1920s. They were dreamers, builders, visionaries, storytellers... and leaders. They expected the very best of the fraternity, and then they went out and made it happen.

In my new book Heritage Endures about Indiana's Masonic bicentennial this year, I talk about our great achievers and visionaries from our own past. In particular, I write a lot about Dwight L. Smith and all that he accomplished and left behind for us between 1940 and 1993. His works Whither Are We Traveling? and Why This Confusion In The Temple? continue to challenge and inspire Masons today, more than 50 years after he wrote them. And they were mere footnotes to his enormous Masonic accomplishments.

All of those men are gone now. It's a new age, a new century, with new horizons to conquer now. And that means one thing.

You and me and all of the rest of us are today's Dwight Smiths and Ray Shutes. It's up to us now to take up the torch, to lead, to build, and to see a vision of what can be, instead of just strip mining our own past and living off of what we inherited. 

Just as important, it's up to all of us to record what we have lived through, to document and preserve those events and past achievements before they die with us, so that others can learn from what came before. I woke up earlier this month to discover I'd been a Freemason for nineteen years, and I've seen so much come and go in what seems to me to be just a tiny sliver of my own lifetime. We have lived history ourselves, even when we didn't realize it at the time. You and your lodge and your experiences are important, because history is what happens when you aren't paying attention.

Texas congressman and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn once famously said, "Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one." Ray Shute was impatient and expected his fraternity to be better than it was in 1924. So instead of carping about the leadership, or the ' good old boys,' or his grand lodge, or their egos, and its politics, he decided to go out and improve Freemasonry, and he convinced a group of likeminded brethren to do the same. They didn't expect "somebody else" to present them with a pre-digested, ready-made course of Masonic enlightenment. They didn't complain about the lack of "esoteric education" in their lodges. They didn't break the rules or stomp off and start a competing storefront 'Grand Lodge of Chapel Hill Incorporated.' They worked within the system, dreamed big, worked very hard, and then they left American Freemasonry better than they found it. 

The only consequence is what we do.

(Read J. Ray Shute's own encapsulated memoir of those formative years on the website of the Grand College of Rites HERE.)


  1. Would he be proud of those Masonic Week groups today?

  2. Thank you for the write up Chris. Too few have heard of his contributions. Robert Mullis St. Andrews 1A AMD Monroe NC.

  3. Harold Van Buren Voorhis should be mentioned as one of the group. He was an executive at Macoy at one time When I was a student at Harvard I wrote him what I'm sure must have been a naive letter about Masonry and back came some books and a good natured letter. He wrote more than a dozen books on many Masonic themes, including Rosicrucianism and Prince Hall.

    1. I listed Voorhis right after Tatsch, and I was aware that he had gone on to Macoy's in the 40s and 50s. They were such a powerhouse group of dedicated and enthusiastic men. It was so sad that Shute gave up in the early 1950s, a victim of the medal seekers, title-grabbers, and backbiters who took over the very groups he brought to life. Why do esoteric orders ultimately attract the types who prefer degree tourism and self-aggrandizement instead of true seekers of knowledge and self-improvement? Don't know how to prevent that.

    2. If you look at the typeset (the first letter of most chapters) in the book (The Builders) printed by McCoy Publishers, which Voorhis ran. It is the NoCalor press letter art. Shute sent it to him, I am sure. That's is what they used in the book. Voorhis, Shute, J Edward Allen corresponded up until their deaths. Even after Shute withdrew from Masonry in the 50s. Great men.

    3. The problem with American Lodges that I've experienced is that it is presented as a good old boys network, so when a brother starts reading and presenting metaphysical, esoteric, and other topics beyond the minutes, reports, or requests that usually benefits them or those they know they will claim that you are changing masonry then become hostile to you. I've known people intentionally try to get lodges' charters pulled, brethren framed, and brethren expelled by kangaroo courts, because they weren't status quo and for no other reason.

  4. Its encouraging to see the health of the Craft in Europe. For example, in Paris the main stream bookshops have sections on Freemasonry and the number of new titles is extraordinary. The Grand Orient and the Grand Lodge have excellent restaurants. The world conference at the Bibliotech Nationale is mobbed. The reading room at the Grand Orient is full of researchers.

  5. May I translate this article and read it in my lodge?

    1. Certainly. Anyone is free to use anything I post on this blog in lodge or in print. I just ask that you tell folks where you got it from.

  6. Great, it will be read tonight in Tijuana, Mexico :)

  7. The Societas Rosicruciana in Civitatibus Foederatis descended from the Societas Rosicruciana In Scotia and was chartered in the US by Bro. Albert G. Goodall in 1880. Although Bro. Shute is a remarkable Mason he was only instrumental in the founding of the NC College of the Societas Rosicruciana in Civitatibus Foederatis, not the society itself. A College is similar to a Valley in the Scottish Rite.


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