The Failure of Freemasonry: And How to Revive the Fraternity

“Masonic membership in the United States has declined every year since 1959,” California Freemason and co-host, of The Masonic Roundtable, Jon T. Ruark tells us. A survey has been set up to enable Freemasons to report on their experiences of the fraternity, and what they would like more of, find inspiring, dislike, and so on. If you are a member of the fraternity you can fill it out here.

Let’s be blunt. Lodges and Grand Lodges are failing Freemasons — badly. But Freemasons are also failing themselves. And that might be worse.

Some Personal Experiences:

Let me mention a few points in my own Masonic journey that may resonate with you. Not long after becoming a Master Mason, I approached the Master of the Lodge, and asked if I could give a talk on Freemasonry. Until then, all of the talks had been on tax law, men’s health, and I forget whatever else. It struck me that, at dinner, Brothers talked enthusiastically about Freemasonry, but as soon as they went back into the Lodge, the discussion ended. Then it was either hours of the most tedious “business” discussion imaginable, or talks on subjects that had little to no relevance.

I gave a talk on runes and stonemasonry a couple of months later, relating it to Freemasonry — because, after all, my knowledge of the fraternity was not as strong as I would have liked, at that time (2002).

What became almost immediately evident was that even the older Freemasons I had written off as having no real interest in the Mysteries, immediately came alive. Several Brothers approached me after to tell me of their interest in mythology and other related subjects. Several asked the Worshipful Master when I would speak again. I gave a couple of other talks, and another Brother or two also, later, gave talks, and the next Worshipful Master also got the Director of the Masonic library to give the Lodge a tour (many of the brothers didn’t eve know there was a Masonic library and museum in the building where they met — today, I am sure that many still do not).

A while later I left the country. Returning a few years after, I visited my Mother Lodge one evening, quite enthusiastically. But that enthusiasm was soon strangled by the Lodge meeting. Yes, it was great to see some old friends. But the actual meeting consisted solely of “business” — as tedious as anything imaginable. Worse, it went on for an entire four hours. Four hours of nonsense. Four hours of mediocrity. Four hours of something utterly irrelevant to my life. At 10pm we finally went for dinner — some of us. The Masters had to have another, private meeting. By 10:30, hungry, with the Masters still not having arrived, and having not ordered food, I left.

If this were my first Lodge meeting would I have attended again? No. No. No.

Solutions to the Problem:

(1) Freemasons expect the Lodge to be the place they go to learn about Freemasonry. It’s just that simple.

I attend a martial arts class. I go regularly. I pay my dues early or on time, even though, annually, it ends up being way more expensive than my Lodge. But I attend and pay my dues without any hesitation. I want to do both. Why? Because martial arts is the focus of my martial arts class. Freemasonry, in contrast, in not the focus of my Lodge. If my martial arts class behaved like my Lodge, I’d have quit after a month.

Lodges need to do more than keep business to a minimum (though that’s essential). They need to make Freemasonry the focus of the Lodge. Every meeting should have a talk on Freemasonry or a related subject. Other subjects could include: esotericism (e.g., schools of Eastern and Western esotericism), symbolism and semiotics, ancient philosophy, ancient religion, ancient cultures, world mythology, monastic tradition, martial arts, exercise and diet for men.

(2) Educate new Freemasons to be leaders, not managers.

The problem is not, when all is said and done, with Grand Lodges and Lodge Masters. The problem is the Brethren. When meetings are boring, it is because no member has stepped up to the plate to give a talk on something of relevance. That is a fact.

As Seth Godin has pointed out in his book Tribes (probably every Freemason should read Tribes, by the way), leaders act like underdogs. They change things. Masonic hierarchy serves a purpose only if it functions to pass down knowledge. The problem is it has ossified. It’s a fossil. It is worse than useless. No real knowledge is passed down. Instead it serves only to keep new Masons from acting on their own initiative.

New Freemasons need to be strongly encouraged to make use of resources such as Masonic libraries, and to do their own research. Lodges should require that they give a short talk not long after being made a Master Mason — just a few minutes; enough time to require work, but not enough time to overwhelm them. They need to be told that it is expected that all Freemasons will give talks, join in discussion in Lodge, etc. Older members need to hear this too, and should be told to take the lead.

(3) Freemasons need to be rebels.

Simply, it is not up to everyone else to make Lodge interesting. If it isn’t interesting to you, then give a talk on a subject, or bring in someone who can — a Masonic scholar; an author on spirituality, myth, etc.; a martial artist; a physician who can teach about health, diet, weights, etc.

(4) Table Lodges and communal meals.

After even a short talk, Brothers should enjoy quality time, dining or feasting together, to give members a chance to talk, discuss the lecture or fraternity, etc.

(5) High quality ritual, etc.

All ritual tools and paraphernalia should be clean and well-kept. People should have learned their ritual parts well. Things should look good.

Final Words:

I would say that 95% or more of the fraternity is very interested in Freemasonry, ritual, symbolism, myth, etc. So are potential members. No one will join for friendship (people are connected on Facebook), business contacts (LinkedIn) or meals. Just won’t happen (or won’t last if they do). People will join Freemasonry because they want to learn more about Freemasonry, more about symbolism, the Mysteries, and so on. If that is the focus, Freemasonry will be healthy. Maybe the numbers won’t grow. We live in a different time to 50 years ago. But by making Freemasonry the focus of the Lodge, it will lose fewer members, and it will create an experience worth attending and paying for.

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15 thoughts on “The Failure of Freemasonry: And How to Revive the Fraternity

  1. I posted this response on another blog that strikes me as relevant to what you have shared today.
    That blog is at http://hedgemason.blogspot.com/2016/03/blinded-by-light-resolving-freemasonrys.html

    [All too often, I suspect masons have come to experience a freemasonry which is mediocre.]

    I cannot recall the number of times in 26 years I have used the word mediocre in connection with Freemasonry… and mediocrity rules the day as Freemasonry is concerned.

    When fear, intimidation, and manipulation are utilized by a so-called leader, that is NOT leadership. Freemasonry is a voluntary association often run in the manner an ineffective, selfish CEO runs a business model that refuses to pay a livable wage, exception being that no wages are paid to anyone, neither literal nor symbolic.

    [As for creating deep and critical divisions within the craft, do we not have them now?]

    Yes, I too have seen the divisions in American Freemasonry over 26 years; divisions that remain in place due to dictatorial, ineffective leaders that seem unable to simply inspire the Craft that has voluntarily given authority to a Grand Lodge charged with managing/ supervising only.

    As Bro. John Williams of the Phylaxis Society has stated in a series of articles titled “Masonic Growth”, Grand Lodges make Lodges, and Lodges make Masons… Grand Lodges could stand to stay in their lane and allow lodges the room to do more of what they (the lodges) should be doing, namely making and instructing Masons.

    And please know that I do realize there is no easy fix, but I do know that failure to learn from and follow Ecclesiastes 12: 1-7 will not produce any positive result.

    Fraternally,

    Raymond Sean Walters

  2. Thank you for another great article Brother Millar. This reminds me a conversation that I had with another Brother, where he said “Freemasonry as an institution won’t last forever, but that’s okay, because the oral tradition will.”

    Almost immediately I came to an aha moment that brought to mind the ancient Hindu ritual of Agnicayana. In this ritual the Brahman Priest recite mantras that have been passed down “mouth to ear” for tens of thousands of years. They recite the mantras for 12 days while circumambulating under a straw pavilion, and at the end of the 12th day the world is considered now purified. The Brahmans exit the pavilion and burn it down, thus leaving no trace other than the oral tradition.

    From my current perspective, I see the Masonic fraternity as a vehicle that is meant to pass down a similar oral tradition. If and when the organization ceases to exist, it will carry on in new form with the mysteries in tact.

    This response may seem a little of base from what you meant to convey in your article. I have noticed that some brethren just lack the depth for interest in esoteric subjects, but I try to keep an eye for those that have that interest and assure them that that aspect of the Craft does exist. If another Brother at my lodge hadn’t done the same for me (took me to a lecture being given Timothy Hogan), then I probably would of lost interest in Masonry along time ago.

  3. Who are Freemasons and why do they not accept women maybe they are a piece of the past better left there

    1. That’s what Eastern Star is for. (Think boy scouts vs girl scouts) Even if Freemasonry accepted women into the blue lodge, it would become quite awkward. Many of the brethren choose not to discuss why they don’t “accept” women in the lodge not because they don’t want to touch on the subject but because of the oath they took in regards to the initiation process. Alas, these days it’s no secret and can easily be found if you search hard enough. You’ll likely find that it’s highly unlikely the process would work well for a woman. With that said though, your comment (respectfully) makes it sounds like we as a group have some vendetta against women, that is not at all the case. But to be frank, it’s nice to just simply hang out with the guys and enjoy some Camaraderie that’s become a rarity these days.

  4. Excellent observations. Masonry is no exception to what all other spiritual traditions have been going through; the loss of esoteric core and becoming superficial, ceremonial-exoteric mass movements. I am a new Mason and recently joined a Lodge in a struggling rural district in Canada. The membership completely dried up and only due to two PM’s and their dedication, effort has been put into finding new members. Despite the difficulties and sorry state of affairs, our conversation has been esoteric from the get go. It didn’t took me a long time to figure out that for some members the esoteric aspect is completely unknown. They shrugged when I mentioned the OTO, Crowley, Golden Dawn etc.- never heard of that and never been interested in it. I do not consider these brothers to be ignorant, as it was always obvious for me that not everybody is speaking the language of perennial philosophies. Reading and understanding complex metaphysical principles is one thing: being able to communicate and pass them on is quite a different issue all together. The language of traditional metaphysics has been greatly compromised by the New Age and there’s a great deal of mixing of the two that sometimes results in confusing messages. I feel that it is up to us, esoteric Masons to clarify and reinvent the language of esoteric knowledge and bring it back into the Lodges. I also feel that this is part of our greater Work and articles like yours are an excellent starting point.

  5. This is an impressive thought piece on many levels. I live in a far off land that far too many ion the USA confuse with Austria, that is unless they have a relation who served in the Pacific in WW2. Yet the problems that beset Freemasonry in one nation are common to all, even in Australia. Indeed, at least since 1929 there has been an ongoing issue here of arguing – more ritual work or more lectures on masonic issues and themes only. But we do not have to limit ourselves bin that way and, for example as a member of the Victorian Speaker’s panel I gave more lectures last year on WW1 and the ANZACs than I did on Freemasonry. WE can and should discuss other issues – men’s health, philosophy, analytical thought (well that is philosophy)… So thank you for the article and PLEASE, more more more.

  6. All of the above is what we expect and strive for in the Lodge. However, we have to get members in the Lodge before we can expose them to our work. So, let me tell you a story about another organization I belong to, the Elks. I belong to an Elk Lodge that has to turn people away, We just have far to many members. People want to be part of this organization. They want the fellowship, our Lodge has about 6000 members. How do they do this, simple; we have a bar. We keep it open and we monitor it. We socialize then we do our work. We created a space where, all members can seek fellowship and want to be there. Inducements work.

  7. There is perhaps another strategy which you might consider (I have seen this model used in England). To wit:
    1. Form a masonic study circle which is dedicated to the ideals to which you aspire – e.g. the study of esotericism in Freemasonry, the practice of meditation within lodge, etc;
    2. After a couple of years, when it is apparent that the Study circle has been running well and gained a large number of committed, enthusiastic members – form a Lodge, dedicated to putting those ideals into practice, the founder members of which are drawn from the Study circle;
    3. After another couple of years, visitors to your Lodge go away feeling inspired to spread your ideals within their own Lodge, whilst your Grand Lodge notices that your new Lodge is actually doing something right in the way it attracts new members and enthuses current ones, and decides that the Lodge and its members ought to be commended and encouraged.

    I am personally aware of a regular lodge that follows this three-point strategy, although it is only half-way through point 3 i.e. it inspires members of other lodges, but it is only tolerated by the Grand Lodge. I believe the problem lies in the fact that whilst there are a significant number of forward-thinking progressive masons who would go for this sort of thing, the rulers of the Craft are of the old guard who are naturally resistant to new ideas.

  8. Forwarded to an officer of a New Jersey lodge, which is basically doing what you are advocating and experiencing a significant revival. Two other features: This lodge has opened a community room/cafe in its basement, open to anybody who walks in, and presents a lodge “open house” once a year, with a general interest program and a tour of the entire lodge — no area is off limits. Admission is nominal & all proceeds benefit some non-Masonic worthy cause in the community. Inactive members are being reactivated, inquirers are showing up and joining.

  9. Our lodge does an excellent job. We have an outstanding attendance, we spend more time on Masonic education and or topics of Masonic interest. As a result our lodge is not only growing but getting much stronger. Our age range is from 21-96 and we all enjoy our brothers company. Our “work” is smart, clean and well practiced.

    We do a few things differently that have now been adopted by other lodges, for one we have festive before the meeting, and allows for fellowship and further discussion afterwards.

    We have included all new members and always welcome them and their input. Our WM highly encourages us to visit other lodges, and learn. This I turn brings not only new ideas to our lodge, but also new education.

    As I stated out growth has been very encouraging and we actually need more seating. My point on this is because of our visiting other lodges, our brethren from other lodges visit us and regularly. Our JW and stewards do an amazing job. All this and I forgot to mention we are not a big city lodge we are a country lodge.

  10. Fascinating,
    I am a NZ Freemason and have similar experiences.Our countries membership is shrinking at an alarming rate The Lodge,and its members should be the focal point around which Freemasonry exists.
    Don’t wait for “Grand Lodge” to provide you with the reason for existence or the way forward. You will wait until the moon is cheese before these monoliths of our making can react.
    Freemasonry is a state of mind and a way of life, and the world is waiting for us to invite them in. I agree that a lot of ceremonies are so sterile and boring that it is no wonder a good number of members leave. The social fabric of society has changed , and we have to change with it or die.

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