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by Bro. S. BRENT MORRIS 33° G.C.
THE SIREN SONG OF SOLICITATION
to The Northeast Conference on Masonic Education and Libraries
13, 1983 A.D., Newark. Delaware
To the Sirens first shalt
thou come, who bewitch all men, whosoever shall come to them. Whoso draws nigh
them unwittingly and hears the sound of the Sirens’ voice, never doth he see
wife or babes stand by him on his return, nor have they joy at his coming; but
the Sirens enchant him with their clear song.
has undergone many changes during the twentieth century, the most dramatic and
troubling of which are the changes in the size of our membership. From 1900 to
1930, we experienced constant growth and expansion, from 840,000 to 3,280,000
members (a 290% increase). The Depression and a changing social order took their
toll as we lost 25% of our membership (from 3,280,000 to 2,460,000). Then
another spurt of growth brought two decades of increase, from 2,460,000 to 4,
100,000 (up by two-thirds). Finally, from 1960 to 1980 we have endured a 21%
decline to our current size of 3,250,000. A cottage industry has been
established among the writers in the Craft devoted to analyzing, explaining, and
projecting these figures, and as yet no universally accepted theory has
resulted. The ultimate concern in all of these studies (and this present work
included) is to insure that our gentle Craft survives the recent attrition and
returns to growth and prosperity.
commentators are either rosily optimistic or depressingly somber in their
analyses. The Pollyannas, on the one hand, cheerily proclaim that no institution
founded upon principles as noble as ours can ever perish (and then they
carefully avert their eyes from the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, and
other withered orders). On the other hand, the Jeremiahs gloomily project our
losses and conclude that at most two more generations will know of us first hand
(and these doomsayers choose to ignore the well‑established cyclic nature
of our membership and demographic trends in ‑our population). What has
been lacking most often is a calm study and a long‑range analysis.
recent years, some of our officials have given careful, thoughtful study to our
latest declines, and have sought to provide more than simple boosterism as a
solution. In Kansas on March 14, 1979, M.W. Brother W. Nolan Artz, Grand Master
of Masons, waived restrictions on the time between degrees, on all proficiencies
before advancement, and on the number of candidates per conferral. This was done
for the explicit purpose of bringing in 5,000 petitions. In Illinois in the
same year, Grand Master Vance C. van Tassel granted an “amnesty” to all
candidates who had allowed the time limit for their proficiencies to expire.
These Illinois Brethren were then permitted to advance without examination.
In Iowa and other jurisdictions, the “fellowship Night” is a popular way to
introduce Freemasonry to prospective candidates. Illustrious Brother David O.
Johnson, S.G.I.G. in Oregon, said, “Our attitude toward the non-solicitation
of members is one of our greatest deterrents to membership increase.” In each
of these examples, however, our leaders have been lured by the siren song of
solicitation: if it were only easier to get men into Masonry, our problems would
Brethren are to be praised for their courage in breaking with hidebound
audition. M.W. Brother Bruce H. Hunt, P.G.M. of Missouri, said that “all this
means that there are Grand Masters who are aware that something is wrong, and
they are searching for a solution to the problem.” It is my opinion,
though, that their solutions err in attacking the problem from the Wrong end.
There is nothing sacrosanct about the Masonic custom of rigid
non‑solicitation, but it is a custom we should be wary of tampering with.
is no stranger to Freemasonry, but it usually comes in small, nearly silent
steps. We should not be afraid to consider alterations, but we should decide if
they will produce merely procedural or truly fundamental changes. For example,
removing the Volume of Sacred Law from our altars would leave us with an
organization that would just no longer be Freemasonry. Then again, requiring
each and every bill to be approved by a separate motion would lengthen our
meetings, but would have little other effect. Somewhere between these examples
of the ultimate and of the trivial lies the question of solicitation.
non‑solicitation is not a Landmark (not even Mackey included it in his
silly list). It does indeed deter membership growth, but so does the
requirements that petitioners believe in the Grand Architect, that they be
educated enough to appreciate our ceremonies, and that they be able to pay our
initiation fees. No one suggesting solicitation (or any of the other
accelerations of the membership process) wants an indiscriminate flood of
candidates. They only want a way to approach carefully selected potential Masons
and to encourage them to seek our Light. Not only do I think that this approach
is misguided, but I also think that it may divert our energies from other, more
any discussion of solicitation, we must bear in mind that only “improper
solicitation” is forbidden. Most American jurisdictions implicitly, if not
explicitly, forbid any form of invitation, though many think it not improper to
hold “Friendship Nights.” W. Brother Harry Carr of England sums up the view
that the British. and I share on this sort of “non‑solicitation.”
motives may be wholly praiseworthy, the proceedings and their environment may be
completely dignified and respectable, yet, to our English way of thinking, this
must surely be the most flagrant kind of “improper solicitation.”
the determination of propriety is tricky, if not impossible.
more than two centuries of a strict interpretation of ,,improper
solicitation,” it would be difficult, at best, for us to operate discreetly
with even modest liberalization. Who has not seen, and been appalled by, the
eager booster from some collateral body thrusting petitions into any and all
unoccupied hands? Once we allow our members to proselytize, now soon before
annual goals and quotas are set? How soon after this do we give awards to Lodges
showing the biggest increase or medals to the Brother signing on the first line
of the largest number of petitions? And when after this do we become
indistinguishable from the service clubs, save in name and regalia?
protest our radicals, “we want nothing of the sort! We want only a means to
cautiously invite carefully screened candidates.” In the words of Brother
would find men more concerned with the Order and more dedicated to service and
attendance. It would tend to weed out the lukewarm and to strengthen our
Organizations’ basic structures.
these protestations, I most fraternally and firmly disagree. M.W. Brother Dwight
L. Smith, Past Grand Master of Indiana, said it better than I ever could:
who thinks a program of invitation could be controlled, discreet, dignified, so
that only men of high caliber would be invited, is living in a fool’s
paradise. [What] reason do we have for thinking that our membership at large,
representing all walks of life and all strata of society, would confine its
efforts to the cream of the community?”
have too many Lodges with failing memberships that would desperately latch upon
this sort of plan as a short-term solution to long-term, fundamental problems
(problems that they don’t want to face).
a change in our membership procedures has no particular guarantee of working.
Now the dissensions should start: “But look at service clubs like Rotary,
Kiwanis, Lions, and so on, and fraternities like the Elks, the Moose, the
Eagles, and others. They can solicit members, and they show no ill effects from
it!” But, when we look at them, we find breeds apart from Freemasonry.
former groups are businessmen’s clubs, usually holding brief luncheon
meetings, having no ritual, and emphasizing direct community service. The latter
fraternities are social clubs (“poor men’s country clubs,” if you will),
usually holding many social affairs, having little ritual, and encouraging
community service (but not as their major activity). Freemasonry, on the other
hand, is a fraternity open to all moral men, usually holding lengthy meetings
after work, having an elaborate ritual, and emphasizing individual reformation
as the means to community improvement. There are only superficial similarities
between these clubs and Freemasonry, so any comparisons are not likely to offer
proper place to look for such comparisons is with an organization that is as
much like Freemasonry as possible. It should have at least the following
characteristics: a broad base in the community; a female “auxiliary” like
the Eastern Star; several collateral branches; something similar to the Shrine
for boisterous fun; and “junior branches” for the children. It turns out
that the perfect candidate for such an analysis is the Independent Order of Odd
Freemasonry and Odd Fellowship are British imports, though the Odd Fellows are
about 80 years younger in the United States, having been started in 1813 in
Baltimore. The moral and ethical teachings of the Odd Fellows are so like those
of our Craft as to be indistinguishable, and, to an outsider, Odd Fellow ship
simply seems to be a less elaborate version of Freemasonry. Each state (with a
few minor exceptions) has its own Grand Lodge of Odd Fellows, together with a
Grand Encampment of Patriarchs, and a uniformed, military Department of
Patriarchs Militant. For the convivial there are the Samaritans, for the ladies
there are the Rebekah, and for the boys and girls there are the Junior Lodges
and the Theta Rho.
major organizational difference between Odd Fellows and Freemasons is that the
Odd Fellows have a national Sovereign Grand Lodge that controls every branch of
the order, except for the Samaritans. Like the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows
maintain an impressive number of orphanages and retirement homes, and their
charities have done much to relieve the sufferings of mankind. Here then is the
only proper organization for comparison with Freemasonry.
America in 1900, Odd Fellowship had 11,400 Lodges and 870,000 members to
Freemasonry’s 11,700 Lodges and 839,000 members. Odd Fellow membership was
then 104% of Masonic membership. Around 1915 Freemasonry’s membership caught
up with that of the Odd Fellows, when both had about 1,500,000 members. Odd
Fellowship, however, started losing members in the early 1920’s, and the trend
accelerated during the Depression. While World War II led to an increase in
Masonic membership, the Odd Fellows continued declining, until now they have
fewer than 160,000 members in the United states, an 82% decline from 1900! (By
contrast, Craft membership today is more than 390% of its membership in
1900.) No study of Masonic membership trends can be considered complete
without analyzing this virtual demise of the Odd Fellows.
of the important explanations for these figures is the membership bases of the
two groups. John H. White, Grand Sire of the Odd Fellows in 1888, said that
American Odd Fellowship is composed
the great middle, industrial classes almost exclusively; Masonry [is composed]
of all grades of society, from the titled and wealthy of this and foreign lands,
to the humblest laborer.…
partially explains why the Depression, with its crushing effects on the working
class, had much harsher results for Odd Fellowship, but it does not explain
Fellows can solicit members for their Lodges, and certainly we must assume that
they used this and every possible means to prevent their decline. Following the
arguments presented for soliciting Masonic candidates, the Odd Fellows, by their
solicitation, should have found men more concerned with their Order and more
dedicated to service and attendance; they should have weeded out the lukewarm
and strengthened their organization’s basic structures. After the Depression
and the War passed, if indeed solicitation were the panacea it is claimed to be,
our proponents should have expected a spurt of growth in Odd Fellowship, until
today it should have been a healthy, thriving, and prosperous organization. The
facts, however, stand in stark contrast to the expectations. Unless we can
explain why solicitation did not save the Odd Fellows, we cannot begin to hope
it win work for us.
we change this time‑honored custom of ours, a custom that has served us
well enough to produce such Craftsmen as Rudyard Kipling, Omar Bradley, J. C.
Penney, Norman Vincent Peale, and Harry S Truman, we should consider if there
might, just might, be a few other problems we want to face first. For example,
our regulations on dual membership were largely written when we were a small
town, rural society with little population mobility. Today, these rules ignore
the strong attachment for the “Mother Lodge,” and all but encourage a man to
become inactive in the Craft once he moves from his hometown. Little real
education is to be found in our fundamental units, the Lodges; a member must
have the perseverance to seek further light himself, or give up the search. Our
Grand Lodges encourage and support ritual perfection, but treat education and
research as unwanted stepchildren.
long‑standing practice, there is virtually no rewarded activity in the
Lodge that does not involve either presiding or ritual. Further, our consuming
concern with the appearance of propriety has led to a Puritanical stuffiness in
our affairs. Nearly one hundred years ago, Brother Rob Morris, Poet Laureate of
Freemasonry said, “The Order with us has too much of the pulpit, and too
little of the table. A due intermixture of both was what the Craft in olden time
regarded.” Knowing all this, we still wonder why our members seek
involvement in the collateral bodies.
is possible for a Brother to become Master of his Lodge without ever having seen
or given any thought to program planning. Our meetings all too often become sad
examples of the triumph of procedure over substance. Imagine for a minute a
typical Lodge meeting where there will be no degree work, only one ballot, and
routine business. In 45 minutes a very competent Master may be able to open the
Lodge, to approve the minutes, to pay the bills, to read the correspondence, to
ballot on the petition, and to close the Lodge. A less able Master may take much
more than an hour to do this, which is essentially nothing. I realize that all
of these are important to the functioning of a Lodge, but for the busy man who
has worked all day and who has left his family at home to rush to the meeting,
there must be a sense of betrayal. With the possible exception of the ballot
nothing of substance was accomplished, and this scenario is repeated countless
times throughout our Lodges.
Masonry seems to have trapped itself into several self-destructive practices.
Fifty years ago, our fees and dues were significantly higher in relation to
salaries than they are now. After our frightening decline during the Depression,
we did not want to risk losing any candidates because of their inability to meet
the fees, and so they remained fixed. With the deluge of new members after World
War II, there was then no need to raise fees and dues, as expanding rosters kept
Lodge incomes up. We became complacent and believed that a steady flow of new
members was normal and would always keep us financially solvent. But, as
initiations declined and inflation raged, we found ourselves ever more strapped
for money. Now, with an older membership, many of whom are on fixed incomes, we
do not raise our dues for fear of losing members nor do we raise fees for fear
of losing candidates.
fees and dues discourage Lodges from splitting, for a large membership is often
essential to financial survival. As M.W. Brother Ernest Poynter, Grand Master of
Maryland, said at the 1964 Conference of Grand Masters:
begets size, so that already overgrown Lodges continue to grow like weeds and,
like weeds, the bigness chokes out those members who had sought friendships and
Masonic sociability—who had been fired with desire to work on committees or in
the chairs, but soon find that there just isn’t anything for them to do.
results are larger, impersonal Lodges and the gradual financial paralysis of our
Craft. We are like small children whimpering during a thunderstorm: unaware of
what is really happening, unsure of what to do, and frightened by the apparent
chaos of nature.
Freemasonry is currently experiencing difficult times (surely not our first, nor
our worst, nor our last). We are unable or unwilling to distinguish between the
merely procedural and the truly fundamental.
Rather than undertake the difficult (and likely painful) task of deciding
which of our time-honored, well-loved, and decrepit procedures are discouraging
activity in the Craft, too many of our “leaders,” blinded by numbers alone,
frantically grasp at the first, the most obvious, and certainly the poorest
solution: the solicitation of members. The national debt cannot be retired by
printing more money, nor can our problems be cured by opening the floodgates of
Master Poynter summed it up:
is nothing wrong with Masonry that cannot be quickly cured by forward-looking
Masonic leaders who will have the courage to discard ancient, worn out
formalities and to institute fresh and modem approaches to the problem of
creating an attractive and desirable new image of Masonry for our many Brothers
who have grown “passive and complacent” largely as a result of our failure
to provide aggressive and progressive leadership.
has undergone many changes during the twentieth century, and will doubtless
undergo many more, but if our leaders will indeed lead and not just conserve, if
they will look at long-range solutions and not at short-term problems, if they
will seriously reflect and not merely react, then these future changes can only
strengthen our gentle Craft and guarantee our Light for future generations.
1. Carr, Harry. The Freemason at Work.
Sixth and revised edition. London: A. Lewis, Ltd., 1981.
2. Grand Lodge of Illinois, A.F. & A.M. Proceedings. Springfield: Grand Lodge, 1979.
3. Grand Lodge of Kansas, A.F. & A.M. Proceedings. Topeka: Grand Lodge, 1979.
4. Homer. The Odyssey. S.
H. Batcher and Andrew Long trans. New York: Dodd, Meade, and Co., 1959.
5. Hunt, Bruce H. A Masonic Review.
St. Louis: Grand Lodge of Missouri, 1979.
6. Johnson, David O. “Turning the Craft Outwards.” The New Age, vol. 89, no. 11, Nov. 1981, pp. 14–17.
7. Morris, Rob. The Poetry of
Freemasonry. Laureate Ed. Chicago: Werner Company, 1895.
8. Morris, S. Brent. “A Fraternal Abstract of the United States:
1900–1980.” Manuscript, Columbia, Md., 1981.
9. Poynter, Ernest L. “How May we Overcome the Passive and Complacent
Attitude of so Many of the Craft?” Conference of Grand Masters of Masons in
North America. Proceedings. February,
1964, pp. 70‑76. Washington: Conference of Grand Masters, 1964.
10. Ross, Theo. A. Odd Fellowship:
Its History and Manual. New York: M. W. Hazen Co., 1888.
11. Smith, Dwight L. Why This Confusion in the Temple? Silver Spring, Md.: Masonic Service Association of the United States, 1970.