How To Preserve and Stimulate Freemasonry

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

  — Charles Darwin


Change is a brutal fact of life. If Freemasonry is to thrive in the 21st Century, it must face this brutal fact and learn to adapt. But, in adapting Freemasonry, we must also have a firm grasp on what not to change. And, to do this, we need to articulate what it is about Freemasonry that should never change; for, knowing this, we are liberated to embrace change without fear. The key question, is not should we change, but what should we change.

Without question, we must never compromise our core principles. Core principles are timeless and unchanging. But Freemasonry, like every institution, must grapple with the difficult question of what should change in response to a changing world, and what should never change no matter the cost. We must know the difference between what is sacred, and what is not; between what should never change, and what should be always open for change; between, quite simply, “what we stand for” and “how we do things.”46

In spite of the mythical Landmark47 to the contrary, “change and innovation” has been a hallmark of Freemasonry since its inception. Freemasonry’s willingness to change has been a source of its strength and vibrancy for over 300 years. Change was the very essence of Enlightenment philosophy; and, it is upon this philosophy that Freemasonry is founded. It is ironic that a society founded on a new style of thinking that dramatically changed the world is now itself a prisoner of its own orthodox dogma and stagnant traditions.

Early in Freemasonry’s Time Immemorial era, it lacked formal structure, having no governing body, no fixed meeting times or places, no approved ritual, no list of recognized lodges. Then, suddenly, on June 24, 1717, four independent lodges fundamentally changed the landscape of Freemasonry by unilaterally declaring the formation of the Premier Grand Lodge of England.48 Other masons soon formed other grand lodges, with a second in Ireland in 1725, and a third in Scotland in 1736, beginning Freemasonry’s Grand Lodge era.49

In addition to the innovations in its organizational structure, numerous and substantial changes were made to the Masonic ritual. Early records suggest that originally there were only two masonic degrees. At some point, almost certainly by 1728,50 the innovation of the Hiramic legend was introduced as the third degree of Freemasonry. And it was not until 1772 that William Preston formalized51 the degree lectures so familiar to American Masons. In little more than a few decades, both the structure and the ritual of Freemasonry in England changed considerably. 

American Freemasons were also great innovators. At the Baltimore Convention in 1843, American lodges declared that only Master Masons were members of the lodge, and excluded Entered Apprentices and Fellow Crafts from participating in lodge meetings. In many jurisdictions, Entered Apprentices and Fellow Crafts were even denied the privilege of a Masonic funeral service. Grand Lodges standardized and fixed rituals based on Thomas Webb’s work, and created grand lecturers to inspect the work of subordinate lodges, whose mission was to suppress all deviation from the official ritual. We in our time have also been witness to fundamental changes, the most notorious of these being the introduction of one-day classes that turn poor, blind candidates into 32º Masons in the span of a few hours.

Whereas some changes made throughout our history were merely changes to “how we do things,” others, like one-day classes, show an astounding willingness to compromise our core principles. Inevitably, ill-conceived changes result in a destructive misalignment between “what we stand for” and “how we do things.” This is why it is so important to differentiate between timeless core values, which rarely if ever change, and noncore practices,”52 which are the operating practices and cultural norms that should never stop changing.53 Change is essential for survival, but we must know what to change, and equally importantly, what to preserve. 

Preserve the Core (What not to change)

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

  — T.S. Eliot, Four Quarters

According to the Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras, authors of the Business Week best-selling book, Built To Last, “a key step in building a visionary company is to articulate its Core Ideology.”54 It is essential to not confuse core ideology with noncore practices.”55  Core Ideology is the combination of an organization’s Core Values, which are “the organization’s essential and enduring tenets, not to be compromised for financial gain or short-term expediency”56 and its Core Purpose, which is “the set of fundamental reasons” for an organization’s existence.57 Taken together, these concepts define “who we are” and answer the question “what is important to us?” 

Like the fundamental ideas of a great nation, church, school, or any other enduring institution, core ideology in a visionary company is a set of basic precepts that plant a fixed stake in the ground: “This is who we are; this is what we stand for; this is what we’re all about.” Like the guiding principles embodied in the American Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .”) and echoed eighty-seven years later in the Gettysburg Address (“a . . . nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”), core ideology is so fundamental to the institution that it changes seldom if ever.58

But while Timeless core values should never change; operating practices and cultural norms should never stop changing.59  The great paradox of change is that successful adaptation begins by knowing what should never change. Organizations that have achieved long-term success have a fixed anchor of guiding principles—their core ideology— around which they can more easily change everything else. They know the difference between what is sacred and what is not, between what should never change and what should be always open for change, between “what we stand for” and “how we do things.”60 Again, change is essential for survival, but the key is to know what to change, and equally importantly, what to preserve.

Freemasonry’s Core Purpose

The starting point for articulating Freemasonry’s core ideology is to describe its core purpose—its “fundamental reason for being.” An indication of a well-conceived core purpose is that it is a compelling and unique statement61 that is only true for Freemasonry. Can you answer the following question? Freemasonry is the only organization that {fill in the blank}. Was your answer compelling? 

Ask the average Mason to explain what Freemasonry’s mission is and you will invariably get the reply “to make good men better.” But is the generic mission to “make good men better” unique to Freemasonry? Of course not! Most human institutions seek to make good people better. But we have been repeating this convenient light-weight phrase for so long that we no longer try to say anything more profound, which should give us little reason to wonder why, as Brother Jackson laments in his essay What Are We Trying to Save?, “the vast majority of our Members do not even know what to practice.”62

In contrast, if I were to capture Freemasonry’s core purpose in a single timeless sentence that distinguished it from other organizations, and would resonate with both its most luminary members of the 18th Century as well as a young prospective candidate in the 21st Century, it would be this:

Freemasonry promotes a universal system of morality that prepares good men to craft better societies. 

This simple statement capture the essence of Freemasonry, and that it is the only organization that can claim a centuries-old tradition of attracting the finest men from across races, faiths, creeds, and nations to labor together for a better world. 

Freemasonry’s Core Values

The next step is to define Freemasonry’s core values—those “essential and enduring tenets” and “guiding principles” that answer the question “what is important to us?”63 Core values cannot be dreamed up by a committee; you can only discover those values that already exist.64 It is equally important to understand that you cannot “install” core values into people. Core values are not something people “buy into.”65 People must be predisposed to holding them. The critical key is that we must attract and then retain those men who already share our values, and let those who aren’t predisposed to sharing them go elsewhere.66 This is what it means—and why it is vital—to properly guard the West Gate.

Freemasonry’s core values flow from its unique moral philosophy: belief in a Universal Creator and a shared destiny; toleration that transcends partisan politics and sectarian religion; an educational tradition that teaches progressive thinking; integrity in thought, word, and deed. They are found in our cardinal virtues: Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice. The simple words “brotherly love, relief, and truth” also elegantly capture the heart and soul of Freemasonry’s core values. 

In conclusion, Freemasonry is a worldwide brotherhood that for centuries has sought to transcend the divisiveness of sectarian religion and partisan politics through a progressive moral science founded on the profound truth that we all share a common origin and destiny, and therefore have an imperative to live together in harmony. In practice, it is a convivial society that employs a unique initiatic experience to form a close and intimate fraternal bond founded on ancient traditions and ceremonies that unite brothers together in a harmony of enlightened Fellowship.

“But core ideology alone, as important as it is, does not—indeed cannot—make a visionary [organization]. An [organization] can have the world’s most deeply cherished and meaningful core ideology, but if it just sits still or refuses to change, the world will pass it by.”67 Collins and Porras note that they found that it is precisely when organizations confuse core ideology with specific noncore practices that they got into trouble. When organizations cling too long to noncore practices, they fail to adapt and move forward, and ultimately risk failing altogether. 

And Stimulate Progress (what to change)

Brady: “Why is it, my old friend, that you have moved so far away from me?”

Drummund: “All motion is relative.  Perhaps it is you who have moved away—by standing still.”

  — Inherit the Wind

What great organizations must do in addition to preserving their core ideology is stimulate progress. This is what the authors of Built To Last call the “genius of the AND,” which “is the ability to embrace both extremes of a number of dimensions at the same time.68 On the one hand, great organizations are guided by a set of core values and core purpose, which change little or not at all over time, and, on the other hand, they stimulate progress through change, improvement, innovation, and renewal in all that is not part of the core values and purpose. Core values and core purpose remain fixed, while operating practices, cultural norms, strategies, tactics, processes, structures, and methods continually change in response to a changing world. 

With a clearly articulated core ideology, leadership becomes an exercise of aligning strategies, tactics, policies, operating practices, cultural norms, processes, structures, and methods with the organization’s core purpose and core values.69 The key learning is that to maintain alignment, organizations must continuously adapt to a changing world by being willing to modify their noncore practices. You always preserve the core, but in so doing must never fail to also stimulate progress.70

Collins and Porras offer five specific methods for organizations to both preserve the core and stimulate progress.71 There are as follow:

  1. Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs), which mean organizational commitment to challenging, audacious, inspiring, but ultimately attainable goals.72 The best modern example of a BHAG was President Kennedy’s 1961 vision to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth. In 1961, it was an audacious dream; on July 21, 1969, with one small step that dream was realized.73
  2. Cult-like Culture, which means that the culture energizes those who “buy into” the organization’s core ideology, and rejects those who don’t like a virus. In other words, protecting the West Gate with extreme selectivity.74
  3. A willingness to experiment, often in unplanned and undirected ways, to find new and unexpected paths of progress. This was Freemasonry’s origin, and the hesitancy of its grand lodges to give subordinate lodges the freedom to experiment is the primary reason for its stagnation and decay.75 
  4. Homegrown management that promotes from within.76 
  5. An attitude that good enough never is—the embracing of a continual, relentless, primal drive for organizational self-improvement.77

In defining our core ideology, we made clear what were not on the list, and therefore, subject to change. Items not on the list include protocol, procedures, by-laws, practices, and some traditions: in short, anything that is not core. There are some non-core traditions that today are strikingly not aligned with our core ideology. 

Practices that waste valuable time without providing a concomitant benefit are ripe for reevaluation. Many practices could be changed without legislation. For example, distributing minutes, committee reports, and grand lodge communications to members in advance (either physically or electronically) instead of reciting them aloud, saving valuable time. Many such noncore practices have a life of their own because they “are the way things have always been done,” having gained a false aura of importance by the mere passage of time. Freemasonry should respect its members’ valuable time. 

Guiding members with talent towards those roles where their talents can most benefit the lodge also makes sense. Rote memorization prowess does not always correlate with good leadership skills. How many potential good leaders have we turned away because of our insistence that each leader must also be a proficient lecturer in order to be qualified to serve? And how many men with good presentation skills who could deliver an inspiring lecture sit silent on the sidelines because they do not wish to “go through the chairs?” Both men, and their lodges, and our candidates suffer by our non core practice of measuring the mark of a leader by the number of lectures he can recite from memory. Do lodge inspections truly facilitate our core values? What is more important: having lodge officers focus on performing at annual inspections for grand lodge representatives and visiting dignitaries, or involving the most talented lodge members to portray the best possible degree for the candidate? Our core ideology provides clear answers to these questions, yet our cultural norms and practices are not aligned with our core ideology. 

Even the text of our ritual is noncore. Masonic ritual is not sacred script, and to suggest otherwise veers dangerously close to blasphemy. It was written by men to teach a code of ethics and transmit our core values. And the text has been in a continuos state of change ever since the first word was writ down. In the rest of the Masonic world, rituals vary greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and even within the same jurisdiction, although all the variations are readily recognizable as fruit of the same tree.78 Yet some Masons become so fixated on the precise delivery of ritual that they seem to elevate the individual words, right down to pronunciation and even punctuation, over the meaning behind the words. In It’s About Time, The Masonic Information Committee Task Force noted that following World War II, “Masonic tradition became locked in ritual as an end, not as a process.”79 It would be a mistake to gloss over this small phrase, for it illustrates the extent to which how far out of touch many of today’s Masons are with the core purpose and values of our Craft.

The exact phraseology and punctuation in our ritual is not our core purpose or values; it is merely the means by which we transmit them. The unique moral code taught by our ritual is what is core to Freemasonry. Esteeming rote memorization skills through annual inspections subordinates the importance of what we stand for—teaching, understanding, and living the unique moral code contained within our ritual—to how we transmit it. This system merely encourages the vanity of letter-perfect ritualists who seem more concerned with impressing other masons with their ritual prowess than instilling our core values into candidates. 

Another practice of American grand lodges that is inconsistent with our core ideology is the prohibition of the possession of “unauthorized” ritual books. In many American jurisdictions, it is a masonic offense for a member to possess any written ritual.80 Masonic Codes prohibit possession of the same plain English translation of our ritual81 that any non-mason can purchase at the bookstore or find in the public library. Accurate versions of our ritual are readily available on the Internet; official European rituals are available to mason and non-mason alike; yet, we Americans cling to our ciphers and threaten members with punishment for possessing legally published books. 

But the most damaging noncore tradition of all, in my opinion, is the uniquely American practice of existing lodges obstructing the formation of new lodges. New lodges are the single, best, hope for the Craft. But older, established, and all too often decaying lodges, perceive new lodges—wrongfully—as a threat. Masonic leaders, lamenting our decline, are willing to significantly compromise our most fundamental traditions to grow membership through one-day classes, but then erect near insurmountable barriers to the formation of new lodges, in spite of the evidence that new lodges have proven to be a very effective means to attract new candidates to Freemasonry, candidates who otherwise showed no interest in joining older established lodges. Noted masonic scholar, Harry Carr, pointed out this oddity about American Freemasonry almost 50 years ago, and it remains true today.82 The great tragedy is that there are a growing number of young masons eager to form new lodges of their own, and these new lodges would be uniquely positioned to attract new young candidates, yet we suppress this enthusiasm—the very quality the authors of It’s About Time challenge us to champion. 

Each of us has a responsibility to steward our respected fraternity into the future, calling on our own spirit rather than deferring to those of our predecessors. We must exercise the same determination that we admire and celebrate in our heritage. 83

Our practices are not aligned with our goals. We want members to attend lodge, but we drive them away with tedious meetings. We want to teach men to be better through our ritual, but we won’t let them place this treasure in their private libraries. Grand lodges want more dues paying members, but they make it difficult to form new lodges that could more effectively attract new members. And again, ten years ago the authors of It’s About Time challenged us to reexamine every program, meeting, or event, but what have we accomplished since their challenge?

As we work together, we must ask each other how a program, a meeting, or an event improves and demonstrates our experience of being a Mason.84

A renewed willingness to innovate is essential to Freemasonry’s survival and revival. Grand lodge leadership needs to empower local lodges to explore and find new practices that work better for today, while preserving the core purpose and values of our past. The point is to both preserve the core AND stimulate progress. It all comes down to knowing the difference between what is sacred and what is not; between what should never change, and what should be open for change; between, quite simply, “what we stand for” and “how we do things.” If we can better align “how we do things” with “what we stand for,” we can motivate legions of enthusiastic new members for generations to come. “We have not a moment to lose.”85

A Willingness To Experiment

With a solid understanding of what is core, organizations become empowered to experiment, often in unplanned and undirected ways, to find new and unexpected paths of progress.86 The willingness to experiment is the evolutionary theory, whereby progress is made by undirected variation and natural selection. This process can be likened to “branching and pruning.” “If you add enough branches to a tree (variation) and intelligently prune the deadwood (selection), then you’ll likely evolve into a collection of healthy branches well positioned to prosper in an ever-changing environment.”87 “If well understood and consciously harnessed, evolutionary processes can be a powerful way to stimulate progress.”88 In Built to Last, Collins and Porras defined five simple tactics for instilling an evolutionary process.

  1. Give it a try—and quick!
  2. Accept that mistakes will be made.
  3. Take small steps.
  4. Give the people the room they need.
  5. Mechanisms—build that ticking clock!89 

The fifth point bears some explanation, as it is often where leaders fail. It is not enough to merely “set the tone” but leaders must actively put in place practices that stimulate and reinforce evolutionary behavior.90 It is not enough to just tell members to “cast off negativism;”91 leadership must also take the affirmative steps to make it happen. The fourth point also bears emphasizing, for without the latitude to experiment, progress cannot happen.

A renewed willingness to innovate is essential to Freemasonry’s survival and revival. Imagine the excitement, energy, and enthusiasm that would be created if Grand lodge leadership empowered local lodges to explore new ideas. Below is the beginning of a list of ideas. Some of these ideas are echoed in other publications, like Laudable Pursuit92, while others are novel. The point is to preserve the core AND stimulate progress.

  1. Encourage the birth of new lodges. Encourage these new lodges to meet in existing lodge buildings, and thereby breathe new life into our wonderfully constructed, but woefully underutilized, masonic facilities. 
  2. Allow old lodges to retire. Not all lodges are capable of surviving indefinitely. Perhaps, for one reason or another, a lodge simply can no longer attract enough new young candidates to continue. Such lodges should either be encouraged to consolidate with other lodges, or (and perhaps preferably) be allowed to adopt a “retired” lodge status. 
  3. Drive decision making down to the local lodge level, decentralizing as much as possible the organizational structure of the grand lodge. The grand lodge should evolve into a supporting role, providing materials and assistance when needed.
  4. Establish a shorter progressive leadership line, at both the grand lodge and local lodge level; permit nominations from the floor and the opportunity for nominees to briefly address the members to explain their vision for leadership. 
  5. Separate lecturing from leadership. We need excellence in both, but not necessarily in the same individual mason. Leadership is about guiding the operation of the lodge. Lecturing is about conveying our fundamental teachings to our candidates. Both critical functions deserve to have the very best men dedicated to their achievement.
  6. Encourage candidates to take their time taking the degrees, presenting lectures at meetings following the conferral of the first sections of the degrees. This avoids overwhelming the candidate with too much ritual in one evening, and lets him ponder the experience before hearing a lecture explaining it. 
  7. Institute rigorous investigations for all petitioners; increase degree fees and annual dues; and, strengthen proficiency requirements, recognizing that when we make becoming a freemason “cheap and easy” we strip from it that which any man of integrity would value.
  8. Allow lodges to adopt alternative ritual workings and design their own candidate education programs.
  9. Replace mandatory ritual inspections with voluntary ritual competitions. 
  10. Revise or eliminate the time-consuming protocols and habits that do not add value to the lodge experience.

The above list is by no means exhaustive. It is merely meant to illustrate—and provoke—the creative thinking that can occur once you know what is core, and through such articulation, what is not and therefore open to change. It all comes down to knowing the difference between what is sacred and what is not, between what should never change and what should be always open for change, between, quite simply, “what we stand for” and “how we do things.” If we can effectively align “how we do things” with “what we stand for,” we should be able to motivate legions of enthusiastic members for generations to come. And, this is the topic of the next section, Something To Believe In.


A Cult-Like Culture

The next section tells about how to build a cult-like culture.

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