Knowing Our Purpose

      by Hon. John Randolph Martin 32
      Lately much has been written about the true purpose of freemasonry as 
      either a charity or a fellowship and the difficulty in renewing our 
      fraternity and refilling our ranks. The argument between charity and 
      fellowship misses the point and shows why we are having trouble with the 
      renewal of masonry.
      Until we start concentrating on the true purpose of freemasonry, we 
      cannot expect to fix what needs to be fixed, if anything. That is because 
      we are trying to repair the engine of our masonic ship by changing the 
      propeller or refashioning the bow. The real engine that keeps masonry 
      going is its true purpose. The true purpose is not fellowship nor is it 
      philanthropy, although these are the propellers that can drive it through 
      the water. Nor is it one-day classes or affinity lodges, although these 
      can be a well-fashioned bow to help us plow through the water. No, the 
      true purpose, the engine of the ship, is currently too often overlooked. 
      This purpose is to provide a rite of passage for acceptance of a man into 
      Western Society. Somewhere along the line in our history as an 
      organization, we started to miss the point.
      What do the "Iron John" Drum Beaters and the Promise Keepers and the 
      young men who are confused by trying to fit into our "new" society with 
      its "feminist" rules all have in common? They are looking for the same 
      thing that all other males in all other societies on the planet are 
      looking for: recognition and inclusion as a man into adult society. This 
      is also a part of the need for "male-bonding" that popular psychologists 
      tell us about. It comes from a shared, ritualistic or actual, 
      life-or-death experience. Clearly, this sounds like our fraternity.
      At this point, it may be well to define a rite of passage.
      A rite of passage in the anthropological sense is an initiation into a 
      group or fraternity like freemasonry that is composed of adult males. The 
      fraternity conducts the initiation ceremony, the rite of passage, and 
      provides a continuing membership for the initiates after the ritual is 
      completed. Becoming a recognized member of this group of adult males gives 
      the men full adult status in their society. In some societies, this rite 
      of passage can be an important requirement for marriage and status as the 
      head of a family. In most societies, the rite of passage may be of lesser 
      importance but is still necessary psychologically for the men to 
      participate in full manhood.
      We conduct such an initiation into Modern Western Civilization. 
      Freemasonry, providing a rite of passage into manhood, developed as 
      Western Civilization modernized in the 1700s. As our predecessors 
      developed a civilization that became a pan-European culture and then a 
      global culture, freemasonry provided a rite of passage that spread and 
      established itself as a part of that culture.
      How does this knowledge give us the tools to regain our position in 
      Western Civilization and avoid extinction? If we recognize that we are 
      first and foremost a group that provides a rite of passage, we will make 
      changes, if any, that are needed to improve ourselves as providers of such 
      a rite. For example, if we advertise, we will advertise ourselves as what 
      we truly are, and this advertising will work because it will tell everyone 
      in society why they need us.
      Men will see that they need us as one of the rites of passage to become 
      whole male members of the society at large, fulfilling that psychological 
      and sociological male need. Women will see that they have nothing to fear 
      and much to gain from their men becoming masons. And the society at large 
      will see that we are a healthy, natural part of a pluralistic and tolerant 
      This is where the argument between our purpose as a philanthropy or a 
      fellowship falls short. Trying to present ourselves as a religiously-based 
      fellowship often makes us look like a competing religion. Also, trying to 
      present ourselves as a philanthropic group can makes us look like a 
      competing charity.
      Even though we may legitimately think that we are a fellowship or a 
      philanthropy or something in between, the rest of society can see that we 
      are a group of adult males conducting a rite of passage. The more we 
      present our fraternity as something other than that, the farther we stray 
      from the acceptance that we can have by emphasizing the obvious. For 
      example, rites of passage are generally done in secret, and no one expects 
      anything else. To claim to be something else can make us look to the 
      outside world as if we are hiding something dangerous with our "secretive" 
      In much the same way, trying to boost numbers with one-day classes or 
      affinity lodges misses the point if we do not stress that this initiation 
      means something: that it is a rite of passage for our civilization. Rites 
      of passage must be a little tough, even if they are only ritualistic and 
      not a true "torture to your flesh".
      We can survive and prosper conducting a rite of passage to adult 
      manhood in Western Civilization. We do not have to accept everyone. True 
      rites of passage have restrictions, and ours does, too. The man must be 
      "free born, of lawful age and under the tongue of good report." Not 
      everyone in a given society qualifies for the complete manhood initiation 
      nor do all men attempt or pass the tests of the rite of passage. But the 
      religious and political leaders of the society all recognize the rite of 
      passage for what it is and often support it even if they are not members, 
      because they can see that it is a threat by the way it truthfully presents 
      With the greatest love and concern, we must take a new look at 
      ourselves. Whether factual or not, we have heard our brethren talk about 
      lodges that might gain a thousand members using one-day classes and yet 
      lose hundreds per year from disinterest. Other brethren say that we have 
      nothing for young members to do but study ritual and suggest that we need 
      something else, like affinity lodges, where men of like interests can 
      gather within the mason order.
      These arguments miss that first purpose of freemasonry is to make 
      freemasons. In nature, reproduction is essential as the means of 
      continuing life. In our case, initiations insure continuation. This should 
      be easy, but we have over-analyzed and over-emphasized our non-initiation 
      functions to little avail. Why has this not been a success? Because 
      providing an initiation into manhood is the primary reason that we exist. 
      Most men take our initiation ceremonies, go on to other endeavors and 
      continue on with their lives with fond memories of the lodge and an 
      occasional beneficial act. But a few continue learning and performing the 
      rituals, and this maintains our ability to perform the rite of passage 
      that is the reason that we continue to exist. 
      If young men are disappointed with our business meetings because we 
      seem to discuss only paying bills and with our other meetings because they 
      are mostly for learning ritual and teaching proficiency, they are missing 
      the point. And so are most of us. We concentrate on these things because 
      this is what we are. We provide a rite of passage, not exclusively, but 
      I am NOT saying that this is the only thing that we should do! I am 
      saying that if we concentrate on our ritual and our performance and our 
      primary purpose, our lodges will survive, the craft will survive and there 
      will be plenty of masons and lodges for all the other affinities and 
      This may sound like it is just too simple a solution, but once we 
      identify our true purpose as performing a rite of passage, our efforts in 
      retention and renewal can be directed toward changes, if any, that will 
      more likely to result in improvements.
      (Brief Biography) 
      Brother John Randolph Martin is a United States Administrative Law Judge in Houston, 
      Texas, and worked as an attorney in South Carolina for many years. He has 
      earned a BA, MA and JD from the University of Oklahoma. Judge Martin is 
      also a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army Reserve and served 
      overseas in both the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm. Judge Martin 
      was raised in Dentsville Lodge No. 398 in 1982 in Columbia, SC, and 
      received both his Scottish Rite and York Rite degrees during the next 
      year. He is now a member of Orange-Charlestowne Lodge No. 14, Dalcho 
      Consistory, South Carolina Commandery No. 1, and the Omar Shrine, all in 
      Charleston, SC, as well as the Philalethes Society and the Texas Lodge of