In 2001, within weeks of his 70th birthday, my father was diagnosed with a particularly nasty form of cancer that had a very low 5-year survival rate. In spite of this bleak prognosis, he recovered his health and lived another 13 happy years. His survival was by no means a miracle; rather, his cure was due to a radical and severe treatment regimen involving chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. The regimen nearly killed him. And, if he had not been an exceptionally strong man, possessed of a good heart and fighting spirit, he would surely have died. He suffered. The treatments made him ill, and he lost a great deal of weight, but he survived. And while his experience with cancer changed his life, it did not change the man. My father remained to his core, the same man I always knew him to be. After his recovery, he reveled in his time, found a new perspective on life, and looked forward to a bright future. The treatment regimen was painful, but his courage in facing the brutal truth that confronted him allowed him to prevail. My father just recently passed away, peacefully in his sleep, not from cancer but from old age. Although my father was not a freemason, he has been and remains my guide and inspiration, and I dedicate this work to his memory.
Freemasons have been fretting about the demise of Freemasonry for over half a century. The causes blamed for its decline are seemingly endless; the solutions to address it, sadly few. Many changes—reforms—have been tried in a desperate attempt to reverse the perceived problem of membership losses. But have these reforms helped … or harmed Freemasonry?
I first offered Reform Freemasonry! with an exclamation point back in 2007, but in this final revision I have changed the punctuation to a question mark. Do we really need to Reform Freemasonry to keep it relevant and make it successful in today’s society? I now think not. With the benefit of a few years of reflection, I have come to understand that I had mistaken the symptoms of the disease afflicting Freemasonry as the disease itself. Declining membership is not our problem.
The good news is that I believe that the disease afflicting Freemasonry is curable. But treatment will not be easy. Like a radical treatment regimen for cancer, it will be painful and may even cause the patient to become more ill over the short term. But the patient is still strong; is possessed of a good heart and a noble sprit; and, if it can face the brutal truth with courage, it will prevail.
Freemasonry liberates man from superstition and dogma so that he can embark on an unfettered quest for the Truth. For centuries, this core aspect of Freemasonry has resonated with the greatest minds of the ages. The enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, from America’s Founding Fathers, to the philosophers, scientists, astronomers, and mathematicians of The Royal Society, all found meaning in Freemasonry.
Freemasonry first declared itself to the world with the formation of the Premier Grand Lodge of England in 1717, and since that time has enjoyed phenomenal worldwide growth. At the center of almost every major American city stands a substantial masonic edifice. These magnificent masonic buildings stand shoulder to shoulder with cathedrals, museums, and the world headquarters of global corporations. Notably, these buildings were financed in large part though cash donations from members of a fraternity who felt that Freemasonry was worth their sacrifice.
So important was Freemasonry to our forefathers that at one time it was not uncommon for a lodge’s annual dues to be the equivalent of a week’s wages or more. Membership in a colonial lodge was often so highly prized that joining fees could exceed a month’s wages. In addition to paying dues to cover annual operating expenses, these Freemasons also donated extensively to capital funds to raise their masonic edifices.
Today, however, many of Freemasonry’s once elegant buildings are in a state of decay while the masonic organizations that own them struggle to meet mounting repair and maintenance expenditures with dwindling revenue streams. In the midst of this crisis, the typical freemason today bristles at paying meager annual dues that are usually less than a month’s cable bill. Consider: 30 days of television means more to some of our members than an entire year of Freemasonry. Why does the typical mason today no longer feel obligated to support his lodge or grand lodge? Perhaps a better question is what has changed—or failed to change—about Freemasonry that it no longer commands the enthusiastic support of its members nor appeals to the young men of today?
Freemasonry in the United States is locked in a steep, half-century-long decline in membership. Even the inventive one-day classes have done little to reverse this trend. Over the last 50 years, the Grand Lodge of Ohio has lost almost 200,000 members, and every year suffers the net loss of another 5,000. Typical lodge attendance rarely exceeds a small percentage of a lodge’s membership. Lodge buildings crumble as lodges struggle to bear increasing property costs with decreasing resources. Freemasonry’s public image is more due to popular novels like The Lost Symbol and movies like National Treasure than the truth. Young men, inspired by these fictions, are finally seeking out Freemasonry, and some even join our fraternity in one-day classes chasing these fantasies, but then only discover the truth about Freemasonry in America today and quickly melt away.
The question is: do we need to reform Freemasonry so that it can once again attract young men actively seeking an organization that offers something to believe in?