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by Bro. S. BRENT MORRIS 33° G.C.

The Case Against Easing Masonic Membership Practices

Presented to The Northeast Conference on Masonic Education and Libraries

May 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.


—Circe to Odysseus

The Odyssey



Freemasonry 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.[1] 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.

Most 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.

In 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.[3] 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.[2] 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 be solved!

These 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.”[5] 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.

Change 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.

Certainly 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 needed reforms.

In 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.”


The 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.”[1]


Indeed, the determination of propriety is tricky, if not impossible.

With 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?

“But,” 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 Johnson,


we 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.[6]


With 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:


[anyone] 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?”[11]


We 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).

Such 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.

The 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 much illumination.

The 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 Fellows.

Both 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.

The 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.

In 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.)[8] No study of Masonic membership trends can be considered complete without analyzing this virtual demise of the Odd Fellows.

One 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


of 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.…[10]


This 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 enough.

Odd 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.

Before 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.

By 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.”[7] Knowing all this, we still wonder why our members seek involvement in the collateral bodies.

It 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.

American 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.

Low 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:


size 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.[9]


The 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.

American 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 solicitation.

Grand Master Poynter summed it up:


There 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.[9]


Freemasonry 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.