Is Masonic “work” one solution to America’s increasing social divisiveness?
Is Masonic “work” one solution to America’s increasing social divisiveness?

Is Masonic “work” one solution to America’s increasing social divisiveness?

When Masonry grew from medieval stone cutters and builders of the operative kind into the speculative gentleman’s Masonry which we know today many initiatives and modernizations were created to complete the mystery teachings which founded the organization in the first place. In other words, the group grew, lodges banded together for strength and cooperation and then they met the needs of the growing membership by modernizing as needed. To claim that modern Masonry has come down to modern times unchanged is both false and foolhardy.

Early Masonry was during the creation of the Grand Lodge of England an elitist group that was heavily influenced by the Royal Society, a group of high-status artisans, scientists, politicians, and a few members of the royalty. Not everyone who was a member of the Royal Society was a Mason, but the influence and overlap were significant.

During the decade following the Grand Lodge of England’s creation, several factors contributed to the spread of Masonry around the globe. England’s emergence as an empire required significant funding and military support. Traveling military lodges spread Masonry, mostly in the officer ranks during winter quarters where military operations were few due to weather restrictions in many parts of the empire.

Other factors influencing the spread of Masonry were its handling of the big reveal, that is the many pamphlets exposing the “secrets” of the order. By now the modernization of the rituals and the recent creation of the third degree were well established. The operative lodges in Scotland, Ireland, and England which resisted the speculative influence either died out or converted, mostly the former. The competition for the time and influence of the status-craving public in England drove many to petition for the many degrees of Masonry, even more so when the Craft spread to France, which created a multitude of so-called higher degrees.

This same set of circumstances for the most part drove the same results in Scotland and Ireland, with their Grand Lodges granting petitions for lodges in many of the same areas which England had been previously doing so, creating jurisdictional challenges for lodges conducting the degrees often while waiting a year or more for a warrant enabling them to legally work.

Our first president, George Washington fell into the minority and was raised by a lodge without at the time a warrant to work. Many traveling military lodges crossed jurisdictional boundaries which created Masons not affiliated with the areas but still recognized as proper Masons, just without the social support of the locals who often were unaware of the processes taking place in their localities.

Several of the famous Masons involved in the creation of the United States were citizens of high status and often wealthy. Ben Franklin was not usually associated with wealth, but he was one of the highest-status citizens the United States has ever produced as well as a famous Mason. However, it is insightful that in his autobiography he never mentions his involvement in Masonry.

A few high-status Masons fell hard upon their treason as did Benedict Arnold of the Revolutionary War, famously betraying his fellow Mason and commanding officer George Washington who used the Masonic membership as a kind of quality control for appointing and promoting his officers. To this day calling someone a “Benedict Arnold” holds a very nasty connotation.

Masonry moved from most of its membership being high status to a more common man of good character membership after the Revolutionary War. The shift was slow, but clearly, as the frontier moved westward Masonry was front and center, and the shift in requirement from high status and wealth to mostly good character with an emphasis less on wealth and status is observable over time. This contributed to the increased volume of the membership as well. Masonry grew under this new paradigm.

The bedrock of Masonry, an educational foundation based on the time-worn principles of the seven liberal arts and sciences coupled with character building was often as not ignored by the majority as worthy of real effort, instead substituting ritual memorization and then joining other Masonic groups such as the Christian themed York Rite, popularized out of Ireland and spread by military traveling lodges during the French and Indian war and never losing popularity for several decades. For the newly minted Masons, this seemed enough, and the character work so well recommended in the ritual observed by so many before them was often ignored.

Britain engaged their former colony by invading the US in what became the War of 1812, burning Washington and nearly subduing our nation until a feisty former POW from the Revolutionary War faced down the veterans fresh off beating Napoleon at Waterloo in the battle of New Orleans and turned the tide of the war towards the US. Andy Jackson went from controversial wartime leader to instant fame and was off to win the White House, come hell or high water. He got a little of both, claiming he was robbed in one campaign of the White House and later serving two terms.

Likely the most famous Mason in the eyes of our nation in this era was Jackson, who was controversial to say the least. Known for his fiery character which befitted his Scottish feudal ancestry he participated in several duals. He was known for military enlisted discipline which even in those times was considered extreme. Several events are known today but in those times were likely not as well known.

He was subject to time limits through military contracts for his troops for their service, which when expired the men were free to leave. In a few instances, historians have found Jackson used illegal measures to extend the contracts, one of which seems factual where he hung six who left when their time was up to keep the rest whose time was nearing from leaving.

Such treatment of fellow citizens smacks of tyranny rather than freedom but was either forgotten or forgiven by the voters who put him into office after he treated fellow Mason Davy Crocket to a career-ending political smear campaign over the issue which became known as the “trail of tears”. The face of Masonry in his era is remembered for some very un-masonic conduct while serving as president of the US and as a commanding officer in wartime.

When an organization grows and if it survives for enough years, it will always face difficulties and often challenges to its very existence. Masonry was no exception. The so-called Morgan affair in the third and fourth decade of the eighteen hundreds saw many Masons without the social resources either educationally or without enough wealth or social status succumbing to the petty political tyrants of the day who wanted to subvert the group for eternity.

The crux of the issue was that Morgan claimed he was going to publish the “secrets” of the fraternal order. That there existed in circulation numerous publications which already did just that was irrelevant to the ambitious politicians of the day who rallied the citizens with slanderous slogans and repudiations of the Masons. Masons who were up to the challenge of defending the group were in the minority. Most Masons fled the Craft, and numerous lodges were closed. The ambitious politicians almost succeeded in killing Masonry in the US. Morgan was rumored to have left the country but was never heard from again.

Taking the masses of citizens by the ear and creating fear through propaganda, slogans, and lies is a time-honored pattern that is used to this day for political gains. The common Mason found surrender preferable in the face of the mob and left their lodges in droves.

The Civil War era saw Masonry recovering from the Morgan affair and the trail of tears which divided America as much as the slavery issue. Masons on both sides used their influence to avert the war which was unfortunately inevitable. Most wars are fought over influence and power, either for control of resources or for political gain and this war was no different, it just had the cloak of morality regarding slavery as its rallying cry.

Shortly after the war mechanization eliminated the excuse for slavery as a viable economic path, let alone a political one. But mechanization didn’t arrive soon enough for those wanting control of the population and a far more brutal war than had been seen before tore the US apart despite the many voices trying to avoid the conflict, Masonic and others. It divided religious groups at the national level and at the local level. It hit American society on every front, and it hit hard.

Masons participated on both sides of the Civil War of course. The stories of the efforts of Masons on both sides to comfort another man from the opposing side are legendary and inspiring. Funerals to bury brothers were held jointly after battles. Both sides saw inspiring levels of heroism for the brothers of the opposing forces. Both sides of the conflict had significant numbers of Masons in their midst. The estimates are the Union had nearly 10% Masonic membership with the Confederate membership among combatants estimated to be slightly higher.

Masons were blamed simultaneously by both sides for creating the war and for continuing the war. Petitions in some areas of the country for Masonic membership soared for those conscripted, hoping it might help their experience if captured or killed. Masonry and character building were replaced in many areas by survival issues while character building was mostly an afterthought during a war.

Military traveling lodges proliferated, often accused of creating Masons who otherwise never would have qualified if they had petitioned their home area lodge, suggesting both a quality of character issue by some as well as a threshold of popularity not being met by others who were considered to have circumvented the regular procedure for gaining entry. This may simply have been a bit of whining about the loss of petition control for entry rather than a true quality control of character issue. 

The next upswing of mass petitions for the degrees of Masonry was seen in what Mason Mark Twain dubbed the “gilded age”.  What historians now call the progressive era saw the proliferation of social groups, including civic and service groups which were created. Masonry saw an up tic as well and benefitted from the surge of members.

Masonic membership grew as less controversial Masonic leaders like Theodore Roosevelt rose to prominence. Well known now for his involvement in conservation as well as his Rough Rider exploits, our institution and reputation seemed on the repair from the controversies of the previous one hundred years of Jacksonian politics and the Civil War along with the Mormon issue which saw Masonry contorted into controversial religious drama.

Then we had two world wars. Few group ideals survive such drama.

In 1944 while WWII was still raging the Masonic Service Association (MSA) was one of many groups trying to help the troops and sailors serving in America’s military. Sometimes a seemingly small thing can have huge consequences or unintended consequences at the same time. Masonry had many top-level commanders among the leadership of the Allied combatants. Many of the men who fought were either part of the fraternity or had male members who they knew were Masons, with fond memories of those family members and the activities the fraternity supported.

The MSA published and distributed over 700,000 copies of a book that not only promoted Masonry as an ideal institution but gave a paperback fast-read example of great character stories combined into one fictional story from the WWI era, targeting the fathers and grandfathers of those fighting WWII. The effect was enormous and is touted as potentially the driving factor for the huge influx of petitions following WWII.

With the lodges swamped with petitions, social activities proliferated, and in many cases, the “work” suffered or was ignored completely. The “it’s a secret” with a wink and a smile was offered to many kids of Masons as well as their wives. The potential for a generational landslide of Masonic understanding and ancestral goodwill was lost with each “wink” and excuse for not relating how very honorable and worthy Masonry really is to the families as well as the public in general.

The expected good of one very well-placed book, The Lion’s Paw, which had such success with the WWII generation was lost as society fell away from the “we” generation of the progressive era and entered the “I” generation during the 1970s.

The Harvard scientist and professor of public policy, Robert D. Putnam documented the decline of the many fraternal, civic, and veteran groups in his now famous book, Bowling Aloneand then followed it up with the lengthy and highly detailed and evidence-based book, The Upswing showing how we can recover from the damage we have seen from the demise of such worthy democratic groups.

These two books are not for the casual reading paperback quick-read crowd as the details and evidence cannot be reflected in a slogan or short paragraph effectively. To understand the history and the consequences you must do the work and wade through the material, digesting the contents. It’s the only way and this prevents many from such efforts with claims of a lack of time. Such efforts fall well into the realm of the seven liberal arts and sciences Masons have for nearly three hundred years proclaimed as the path for character mastery.

Masonry has experienced the same decline in population as the other groups which still survive but with its over three hundred years of organized history of survival during the many cycles of social history for such groups, Masonry is poised to lead the way back toward prominence and prosperity if the membership wants to do the work. Leadership by example is the only way, one Mason at a time, and that path is not simply memorizing rituals or flashing a few slogans. It is demanding work that is related to the degrees we all hold dear.

Recently a book was published on economics by Ray Dalio, The Changing World Order: why nations succeed and fail. The content of this book is 555 pages of data and analysis of the last five hundred years of economic cycles for several western countries and Asia. It gives parameters for how other countries became world powers economically and how they subsided. It is very persuasive in its analysis by the author who was a very successful hedge fund manager and is in his field a high-status individual, often called an expert. He is in the 1% in wealth distribution as well, which is a topic of interest in today’s divisive politics. If the data is correct the direction of America’s economic outlook is on a downward trend unfortunately. It does not have to stay that way though.

Incidentally, Putnam quotes that progressives can’t offer solutions, “Certainly neither the proliferation of high schools nor the reinvigoration fraternal organizations is the solution to today’s problems”. In my opinion, Putnam doesn’t understand the nature of the “work” Masons are called on to do individually while cooperating within society. I believe he underestimates the power of the collective Masonic body when enough Masons do the work and then engage in the changes needed.

One example of the sudden change in the “I, we, I” curve demonstrated by Putnam in his book, The Upswing is very telling. In the words of one POW who had left for Vietnam in 1965, and returned to America in 1972, “We came home to quite a different world it was like Rip van Winkle waking up after nearly 6 years in a prison camp. It was just unbelievable that our culture had changed to that point.” The “I, we, I” cycle had changed society that radically and just that fast. This pattern is a very powerful lens through which to study the cycles of society. I lived through this group of years and didn’t fully realize the changes at the time.

Putnam continues, “In short, the Seventies were a decade in which people stopped aspiring to fix society and started to think only of fixing themselves.” The Seventies became the decade of “Me”. We have yet to cycle out of the individual as the sole emphasis at the expense of our country and back to a society’s betterment path while maintaining our freedoms.

To do so will take work and the work can only be done one individual at a time until a core of willing participants having successfully done the work emerges into solid groups which can affect our country positively and return us towards a better world than the selfishness and petty slogan driven politics we have seen crushing the middle class and volunteer groups the last few years.

Masonry is not the only path to do the work, but it is a time-proven path, and it is credible if history is a guide.

Dividing society is always easier than building or rebuilding a society. Dividing leads to selfishness and rebellion or the support of coups as we have seen recently. Building tears down petty fiefdoms and is only accomplished by those who are not intimidated by progress and a future of prosperity for all citizens.

The “We” cycles are challenging for groups and require very able-bodied citizens to lead and to build, in this case, to rebuild social trust and then to rebuild our trust in the seven liberal arts and sciences which have suffered at the hands of politicians in recent years declaring higher education as unworthy of good citizenship. Political sides debate if basic science is worthwhile, and they push polarization over degrees from universities, preferring trade schools and religious K through 12 educations over public education, with corresponding dismissal of the regulations maintaining some form of quality in the religious education programs, further reducing citizenship building.

These issues are not easy and will need many citizens to participate in the solutions necessary for our return to prominence if we are even able to after the subversion by our cycle of “I, we, I” and the corresponding fracturing of American society driven by the political, religious, and economic fundamentalists.

Masonry provides a blueprint for renewed individual revival in the service of society while maintaining the freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights, which we all hold dear. It is time-tested and proven over several social and economic cycles.

However, with many Masons today choosing not to do the work recommended in the rituals we weaken steadily, and at some point, we will cross the point of no return.

Paul R. Swanson, 32°   

February 02, 2023