By John Bizzack, Ph.D.

Lexington Lodge No. 1, Masonic Study Group, Rubicon Masonic Society


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If you are unsure of your role in life or feel like you don't know the “real you,” then according to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, you may be experiencing an identity crisis. He coined the term identity crisis and believed that it was one of the most important conflicts people face in personal development. [1]

Identity crisis can be taken beyond that which only people experience. Businesses, corporations, organizations, systems, and certainly institutions like Freemasonry can experience identity crisis as well. In the case of Freemasonry, some believe it is more akin to role confusion.

Those who emerge from the adolescent stage of personality development with a strong sense of identity are well equipped to face adulthood with confidence and certainty – simply put, there’s less role confusion. Unresolved crisis leaves individuals struggling to “find themselves.” Looking at Freemasonry across the United States today, it’s not difficult to see the fraternity struggling in much the same way.

The multiple factors contributing to the loss in membership which started in the late 1950s has been analyzed, written about, and endlessly debated. Today, it is quite easy to see how the loss of interest by society in Freemasonry and the decline in the general quality of the Craft can be attributed to Freemasonry’s relentless concentration on membership numbers. [2]  In essence, this counterproductive attention to keeping membership rolls high is what has no doubt thrown the fraternity into role confusion, and yes… resulting in identity crisis.

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Where our great fraternity once attracted prominent captains of society at all levels, for decades we have too often witnessed the acceptance of many who became only part-time or on paper members. We then act puzzled about those we subsequently find were not fully qualified when they petitioned. Failing to draw from an attractive pool of leaders who could provide the leadership like in our past, which had formerly contributed to motivating other exceptional men into the fraternity, offered an artificial assurance that every able bodied man deserved to be a Freemason. [3]   

The proliferation of lodges in many jurisdictions during the years that membership swelled, ultimately led to the deterioration of the appearance and maintenance of our facilities, as those unworthy members fell to the wayside and lodges failed to attract new qualified generations to pay the bills, maintain the facilities, perform quality ritual, shore up Masonic education and create an atmosphere of fellowship. Just looking at the outside and appearance of many lodges today hints at the circumstances and condition of the inside, and possibly even the quality of Masonry being practiced therein.

The fraternity fought back for decades; however the wrong battles were picked in this conflict between changing times and the precepts of the Craft. Instead of strengthening the elements of what it is that makes Freemasonry extraordinary;  the commitment to taking only good and qualified men and making them better, and practicing Freemasonry as the system it was intended to be, role confusion took root and continues to incubate to the detriment of the fraternity.

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The rush to sign up new members, the inclination to make it easier to become a member and be awarded the degrees of Masonry, the failure to recognize the economic self-destructiveness of keeping dues at the economically unsound levels,  the lowering or disappearance of dress codes, quality, standards of protocol and in many cases, simple gentlemanly behavior inside and outside the lodge, all subsidized the evolving damage that has taken place by allowing the attitudes of American society to intrude and infiltrate the thinking of Masonic leadership. Ultimately, Freemasonry began to look very ordinary; something it was never designed, much less intended to become.

As if that was not enough, we saw the fraternity stand blindly as fingers pointed and blame attributed only to the changing environment of American culture, attitudes, and politics as the primary reason for dwindling membership. For decades, our reaction caused us to lose this battle – perhaps, more appropriately said, we lost the opportunity to return Freemasonry to the prominent levels it once enjoyed by leading the fraternity into the very identity crisis that was going on with the rest of society instead of serving as an example for society to stand firm or change to fit our precepts. [4]

Society continues to win this battle today as we see the fraternity water down its teachings, training and education, and entry through the West Gate to the lowest common denominator. We’ve become more politically correct and a willing participant in diluting what was once most exemplary in American society.

A steady and major attempt has been made to buy our way back into good graces through worthy efforts of many jurisdictions, and certainly by appendant bodies. Relying on this strategy is a mistake. Freemasonry cannot merely be a collection agency for public charities. If Freemasonry and our appendant bodies put the same energies into all that is necessary for the Craft to genuinely reclaim its former stature in society as they have in collecting for its various charities, then the proud, long-standing assertion that Freemasonry and appendant bodies are responsible for millions a day being given in relief might possibly double. 

Thomas W. Jackson Right Worshipful Grand Secretary 1979-1999, Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania

Thomas W. Jackson Right Worshipful Grand Secretary 1979-1999, Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania

Thomas W. Jackson, one of the most well-traveled and respected observers of Freemasonry around the globe,  has noted how we have spent millions to salvage what we’ve lost with no success, and yet with all the evidence showing failure for decades to successfully confront the challenges, we continue to beat the same dead horse.

There are clearly pockets of successes in all jurisdictions in North American Freemasonry, but it can be safely said that we remain a very loosely confederated fraternity in many ways. A return to what is popularly called “traditional” Freemasonry has offered successes across the nation. When we look at what might be behind these successes, we find they simply do the opposite of what has been the drifting practices we so often see today throughout the Craft.

They steadily guard the West Gate. Their lodge membership is intentionally small. Dues represent the true cost of membership.  Education takes longer in order to be comprehensive and is on-going long after degree classes conclude, which is more formally organized and often take months to complete.  They offer frequent fellowship gatherings outside of lodge, have fewer and shorter business meetings, adhere to agreed dress codes, enforce Masonic etiquette and protocols - thus more closely following Freemasonry as the system it was intended to be.  Importantly, a return to an emphasis on fraternalism inside and outside the lodge is observable.

Are these practices elite? Of course they are. They should be. Elitism is far from a negative term when it comes to practicing what was meant to be Freemasonry.  Yes, the fraternity should be open to all – all good and worthy men, and yes, all those good men should be given the opportunity to learn about and practice Freemasonry as a system – a system that offers more than has been generally offered over the last several generations – a system that returns to the traditions that once made this the noble institution it once was.

Traditionalism in Freemasonry carries no earmarks of an identity crisis whatsoever. Traditionalists do not suffer role confusion. Traditionalists do not acquiesce nor seek permission from society to practice its precepts or shrink from the laudable responsibility of using the proven principles of the Craft that can indeed make good men better through the system it offers to do so. Traditionalists are not unsure of their roles as a Freemasons.

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The only thing that diminishes the many textures of Freemasonry in the eyes of our society is Freemasons who allow it.

Can it be expected that all Freemasonry adjust to the traditionalist approach? No. Too much of parochial lodge cultures stand in the way. There are many members of the Craft today who know little or nothing about the true history and traditions of the Craft, much less its protocols and practices as they were intended.  Many know only what they were exposed to by previous generations, and in some cases, that has not proven to be very much.

Should this prevent or dissuade the small, but significant movement within the institution towards a more traditional approach? No. In fact, moving towards more traditional Freemasonry was spawned by dissatisfaction of the direction taken over by the Craft over the past several decades.  Furthermore, it may be the only practice today that has the ability to genuinely keep Freemasonry alive as the system it has always been intended to be.

A Freemason today who is unaware of what is often called the “traditionalist movement” within the fraternity serves as an illustration of the problem. There’s certainly an ample and legitimate supply of writings on the topic which is easily accessible.  No one expects or requires all Masons to go along with, much less like the principles behind traditional Masonry. However, disagreeing with it because of unawareness or lack of knowledge brings to mind a quote by Mark Twain: The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.

Looking at just the last fifty years or so of North American Freemasonry, it should be easy for most to see the underlying reasons why some lodges thrive while others face continual decline. The lodges that are steady and those that thrive suffer no role confusion.  

1 - Erikson, E.H. (1970). Reflections on the dissent of contemporary youth., International Journal of Psychoanalysis

2 - Thomas W. Jackson, The Identify of Freemasonry, The Voice of Freemasonry, Vol.30, No.3, Grand Lodge of Washington, DC.

3 - Ibid

4 - Ibid