The Program in Pennsylvania
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.