The Program in Pennsylvania


Copied from the September 1989 issue of Knight Templar
magazine.

THE PROGRAM IN PENNSYLVANIA
           by
Sir Knight David L. Marshall

     Legend would have us believe that Masonry originated in
the time of the Old Testament - near the end of the
construction of King Solomon's temple, or around 1005 B.C.
Wherever and whenever we started, what we are left with
today is a social fraternity professing to be one of the few
places still remaining where a man can go to improve
himself.
     However, in a single generation, the youth of our
country have found affiliation with such an organized body
of their peers to be unnecessary and even undesirable.  So
the changing views of society continue to chip away at
things as we have always known them; like the Catholic
priesthood, the two-party political system, and countless
fraternal organizations, some believe our Masonic order is
going the way of the dinosaur - dying along with its
membership.
     In truth, the system as we know it is rooted in the
craft guilds of the workers who constructed the grand
cathedrals of Europe during the Middle Ages, when the rules
of geometry and the building trade were held as closely
guarded secrets, reserved exclusively for the qualified
master stonemason.  Exactly where and when the Masonic order
came from, before the systems of the York and Scottish Rites
were standardized, has been lost in antiquity.  Yet it is
known that the teachings and principles of morality that are
at the heart of Freemasonry's existence come from the days
of Euclid and Plato and even as far back as the great
Egyptian dynasties.  And so we Masons claim to have the
oldest and largest Fraternity in existence in the world
today.
     Now, though, a nationwide constituency that peaked in
1959 with over four million people has dropped to under
three million in recent years.  The decline in Pennsylvania
has gone from 258,000 members in 1960 to the present
190,000, comprising approximately 550 Lodges that are
merging with greater and greater frequency.  Today, there
are roughly 50,000 members in the Pittsburgh area where I
live, yet the landscape is dotted with vacant buildings
having Masonic emblems above the door and "for sale" signs
out front.
     That Freemasonry has lasted as long as it has when
other fraternities such as the Knights of Pythias and the
Independent Order of Odd Fellows have all but fallen by the
wayside is a tribute to our strength and appeal.  So why
then is the greatest and oldest Fraternity in the world
slowly eroding?  A discussion with the membership identifies
many of the problems.
     A sometimes self-defeating complication built into the
system is an unofficial commandment that says members may
never solicit others, and that Masons generally do not
preach about the order to outsiders.  The character of the
individual member is thought to be enough to attract
newcomers.  It is said that a man truly interested in
joining will seek out someone who he suspects is a Mason and
inquire about the order himself.  In the past, that
confusing technicality has caused many members to sit back
and wait to be asked, while a prospective member might fear
that to inquire might be grounds for rejection - truly a
"Catch 22" situation.
     In addition, many elderly members, in particular,
maintain the veil of secrecy when questioned, clinging to
the old ways and refusing to divulge any information about
the organization.  In these times, though, when people are
so well educated and question everything from their doctor's
diagnoses of their ailments to the sticker price of an
automobile, few will sign up for something without knowing
what it's all about.
     Freemasonry is accused of ill deeds, corrupt
activities, and political manipulation by people with little
or no knowledge of the organization.  Not a religion, it
does stress the basic universal truths and values taught by
all the world's great forms of worship.  Masons are
admonished to recognize the brotherhood of all mankind and
to befriend and assist even those who are not members.
     In order for the required two members to endorse a
petition and vouch for a candidate, they must certify that
they have both been acquainted with him for a specified
amount of time.  This brings up an additional point that
seems to be causing the rate of new incoming membership to
dwindle.  Anyone who has an element of transience in their
career as they climb the corporate ladder, or who must move
frequently to follow the industry or profession of their
choice, is going to find it difficult to break into
Freemasonry.  In addition, many men prefer to wait until
they settle down before pursuing the Craft.  And, as
everyone knows, the changing conditions in today's workforce
have created the most mobile generation since World War II.
     With the aid of a modern computer, the chief officers
of the Ancient Fraternity in Pennsylvania had already
calculated the year when Masonry would disappear in this
state if the rate of decline was permitted to remain the
same.  In 1984, officials in the organization warned that if
the average age of a Mason stayed near retirement age and
the trend continued, in ten years an additional 50,000
people - or more than one quarter of the total membership -
would be lost.  It was speculated that to wait just five
more years would put Pennsylvania Freemasonry in the
position of not having enough people to help recover from
the losses.
     With the point of no return rapidly approaching and the
membership on the verge of being too low and too old to
supply new interested candidates, the Grand Lodge of
Pennsylvania pioneered a bold and, some say, provocative new
scheme called "Project Solomon II" - a copyrighted,
professionally produced public relations program.  The
project goal has been an attempt to identify several major
causes for the Fraternity's failure to attract new members
and then to deal with the items pinpointed on that list.
     At its inception in early 1985, the designers of the
project had hoped to regain the 50,000 members lost since
1963 in just 5 years; this herculean effort would require
one member in four to bring in a new petition to meet the
goal of 10,000 new members per year.  Keep in mind that this
mark did not represent any growth for the Fraternity - it
would just stop the outward flow, the deaths that
outnumbered new petitioners.
     What makes the endeavor so controversial among the
long-established portion of the membership is that
Freemasonry has always been concerned with the quality of
its constituency rather than the quantity.  There have been
peaks and valleys in our numbers before and many felt the
Fraternity should wait out the storm and let the problem
take care of itself.
     Among several modifications taking place alongside the
new program as it was instituted was a major change in the
ritualistic form.  Where once a candidate swore to an
ancient oath of secrecy and allegiance under the symbolic
penalty of death, now a more modern version exists
threatening only expulsion from the Fraternity.  The
severity of the penalty as it formally existed was viewed as
being barbaric by Freemasonry's detractors, and its symbolic
aspect was seldom referred to when critics chose to denounce
the organization.  So, the leaders of the Fraternity in
Pennsylvania have bowed to the adverse comments and thus
removed some, at least, of their critics' ammunition.  The
move has been received with mixed feelings and is often
mentioned during discussions in the social room after
meetings.
     Another recent change has been an alteration of the
physical requirements.  Previously, one had to be in
possession of all of his limbs in order to be admitted.
This prerequisite may have been a carryover from the days
when men needed their hands and legs to perform the physical
labor associated with stonemasonry.  In the case of missing
digits or toes, it was sometimes necessary to secure a
special dispensation.  Yet while a petitioner had to meet
certain physical qualifications in order to join
Freemasonry, the subsequent loss of a limb was never grounds
for expulsion.
     These requirements, and the need for others like them,
are now viewed as having outlived their useful purpose.  And
so, those qualities not affecting the inner man - the
character - are being modified to suit the times we live in.
Today in Pennsylvania, people with all sorts of physical
abnormalities, whether from birth or accident - including
some who were rejected years ago - are being received into
the Fraternity, even in wheelchairs.  The only difficulties
experienced so far seem to have to do with a deaf candidate
during a portion of the ritual where he might be unable to
read lips and at the same time be without the use of a
hearing aid.  Regardless of the membership's feelings about
the many changes that are coming to pass, the waiving of any
physical requirement is universally accepted and welcomed.