by Christopher HodappOn March 26th, the Grand Lodge of Ohio F&AM conferred the Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason degrees on a total of 780 candidates as part of a statewide One Day Class at several locations. Naturally, the Masonic Intertube discussion boards, Twitbook, and Facetwit sites went mildly berserk over the news. As many as 780 may sound, it's only about 10% of the record 7,700 Masons raised by the Grand Lodge of Ohio at a similar statewide one day event back in 2002.
Even though these types of mass membership events originated thirty years ago, they continue to remain controversial within the fraternity. Indeed, many online discussions that took up the subject over the last couple of weeks sounded every bit as vitriolic as they did twenty years ago.
The first 'Grand Master's Class' was held in 1992 as a two-day festival by the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia . In that single event, their small jurisdiction raised 113 candidates — an astonishing 55% of all of DC's candidates for the entire year of 1992.
Despite having no internet in those days, it didn’t take long for the word to spread. By the next February, DC's event—the first mass raising of Master Masons of its kind—was the heated talk of the Conference of Grand Masters. The practice picked up steam nationwide in a startlingly short time, especially for an institution as resistant to change as Freemasonry. By 1998, the Grand Lodge of New Jersey trumpeted that 96 lodges participated in their first one-day degree event, and raised 434 new Master Masons.
At the time, the bulk of Freemasons worldwide were aghast, and more than a few foreign grand bodies grumbled about perhaps withdrawing recognition of their U.S. counterparts that had held such mass raisings. While similarly massive events were overwhelmingly typical of degrees conferred on large classes of Scottish Rite members, the vast majority of Masons agreed that they were wholly inappropriate for new initiates into the fraternity. The three Symbolic Lodge degrees—especially for the Entered Apprentice and the Master Mason—were particularly considered to be individual and deeply personal experiences. At best, critics alleged, men made Masons in a day or two would undoubtedly be the fastest ones to leave. They would fail to become proficient in the required memory work. If they remained members at all, they certainly would cease to participate, much less take on the requirements to become officers. Lodges that relied on such classes to do all of their degree work for them would quickly lose any ability to confer their own degrees forever. In short, the naysayers claimed, the entire fraternity would be both cheapened and robbed—from the candidates themselves, right down to the lodges and their own members.
Ohio's Record-Setting Class of 2002
By 2001 at least thirty-one U.S. grand lodges had conducted one or more of these events in varying permutations. Then in April 2002, Ohio left everyone else in the statistical dust, setting the astonishing record of initiating, passing, and raising 7,700 Master Masons in multiple locations throughout the state in a single day. Throughout the seven years prior to their first enormous Grand Master’s Class, the state of Ohio had raised a combined total of 10,341 Master Masons in the traditional, individual manner. Their 2002 Grand Master’s one-day event nearly doubled their entire prior seven-year membership increase in just a matter of hours. The rest of the Masonic world’s nose-counters bolted straight up in their collective seats and took notice.
Ohio’s colossal one-day increase was never again equaled anywhere. They staged two more such events in 2003 and 2005, and studied the after-effects at the end of 2006. In a little more than five years, one-day Masons raised at their three events alone represented more than 10% of Ohio’s total Masonic membership. While their two subsequent classes never came close to equaling their enormous premiere event, other jurisdictions still looked enviously at Ohio and judged them a triumph. Numerically speaking, anyway.
One of the major criticisms from the start was an assumption that one-day Masons would not go on to become active lodge participants, proficient ritualists, or officers. “Easy in, easy out,” was the oft-repeated, doleful warning. But several jurisdictions that amassed enough data over time were able to disprove that assertion.
A study was conducted in 2001 by Paul M. Bessel for the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia, which was the first of its kind to analyze the long-term results of such conferrals. Their grand lodge was unique, since they had conducted two-day degree events annually for eight years and had the data to analyze. Bessel found that the retention and participation rate of members initiated, passed, and raised in the slower, traditional manner, versus the Grand Master’s Class candidates, were statistically identical. Subsequent years demonstrated the same results, clearly disproving objections based only upon fears that dejected Master Masons who were disappointed or unimpressed by their one day experience would vanish faster than their traditionally raised brethren.
Other jurisdictions that bothered to investigate their own circumstances and results came to the same conclusions. Ohio did its own study in 2007, five years after their record setting class. In the three Grand Master’s Classes held between 2002 and 2005, they found that 8% of one-day class members were serving or had already served as lodge officers. That worked out to more than 1,000 officers in their 534 lodges, or almost two officers per lodge. The actual numbers among lodges varied—several reported as many as five of their current officers were one-day members.
In addition, lodges reported an average of 15% of one-day members attended meetings regularly, which was virtually identical to (and often greater than) the participation rate of traditionally made Masons. Numerous lodge secretaries expressed the belief that one-day classes had actually “saved” their lodges.
More recently, a 2015 study of current lodge officers in Washington State revealed that one out of six officers are one-day class members.
As of 2017, my own Grand Lodge of Indiana has raised a total of 6,976 Master Masons via one-day events since its first in 1997. Of those, 3,958 still remain Masons across those twenty years. Many have been officers and Worshipful Masters, and all have simply been as active or inactive as their traditionally-made brethren. To date, there have been several grand masters all across the U.S. who received their degrees at one-day events.
Tens of thousands of U.S. Masons have been initiated, passed, and raised in one-day classes, and the loss of them due to inactivity and demits is no better or worse than traditionally made members. In Indiana’s case, figures clearly show that one-day Masons have actually remained members in a substantially greater percentage than those traditionally made.
That which was lost
The philosophical question as to the loss to the candidate of a more individual, transformative, initiatic experience is what cannot be measured. What has been commonly echoed by men who received the accelerated degrees is that they returned to their own lodges and discouraged their officers and fellow members from sending future candidates to them. So in their own way, one-day classes actually encourage lodges to increase their proficiency at conducting degree work, and not abandon it, as was initially feared by some.
Retention and participation comes down solely to the way the members are treated and mentored once they start attending their lodges, and rests on the interest and dedication of each individual Mason. A one day class conferral of the three lodge degrees doesn't let the lodge and its members duck their responsibility to provide a trusted, knowledgable mentor to those brethren who need more coaching and education, not less.
Maybe more to the point is that we don't have two classifications of Master Mason in this fraternity. If at their next meeting after their raising they are referred to by ostensible brethren as ‘McMasons,’ ‘Blue Lightenings,’ or ‘One Day Wonders,’ receive no mentoring follow up, and suffer through dull stated meetings with no Masonic education and un-Masonic infighting, they will be unlikely to send in their dues renewal in December.
One-day classes were developed largely in response to the screams of lodges over membership losses and their own inability to confer their own degree work. So, those early massive classes did exactly what the lodges begged for—they brought in new members, by the bucketful. One day classes will only end if lodges stop demanding them. As I've said repeatedly, if you have a visceral reaction against the practice, fault the lodge who sent him to the class, not the candidate who is now your Brother.
The lodges that failed to keep them coming back managed to accomplish that part all by themselves.
This isn't the first time I've tried to tackle this topic, and probably won't be the last. Have a look at: