Vol. XVI No. 2 — February 1938

The “Perfect Youth” Doctrine

The fourth of the “Old Charges” first printed in Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723, contains these words:

Only Candidates may know that no Master should take an Apprentice, unless he has sufficient employment for him and unless he be a perfect Youth, having no maim or defect in his body, that may render him incapably of learning the Art, of serving his Master’s Lord and of being made a Brother, and then a Fellowcraft in due time. . . .

This paragraph was not an invention of the days in which it was first printed; in a large number of the old manuscript constitutions of operative freemasons appear similar prohibitions of taking an apprentice not “sound in his limbs as a man ought to be.”

Necessary in operative days, when Masons labored at stone-cutting and stone-setting, needing all their strength and virility to do the hard physical labor, the requirement was retained when Freemasonry became wholly Speculative. And for many years, men less than perfect—that is, without a hand, a foot, an arm, a leg, even a finger—were denied admission to the order.

After the Civil War, a new spirit of liberality crept into the American Craft, and more and more were the old operative requirements laid aside, in favor of what has been factitiously called “The Doctrine of the Wooden Head,” which sets forth that it is much better to have a man with a wooden leg in the Fraternity than one with a wooden skull—a sarcastic reference to perfect bodies being admitted, when occasionally the mental equipment was sadly lacking.

But in spite of modern ideas, a trend to liberal construction and the undoubted fact that many maimed men have been initiated, without becoming charges upon the Fraternity, a certain undercurrent of strict conformity to the old law has persisted.

Discussion of the “Doctrine of the Perfect Youth” has raged for years in the Masonic press. Grand lodges have legislated upon it. Grand leaders have orated about it. Grand masters without number have been called to rule upon the question “Can John Smith’s petition be accepted, when he lacks the third finger of his right hand, has no left thumb, is lacking a little toe?”

The arguments for a “strict interpretation” usually boil down to this: if the Craft changes the old requirement it is (1) making an “innovation in the body of Masonry” which masters and grand masters have sworn they will not and (2) if the Craft may alter this Old Charge, it can also, by analogy, alter any of the other Old Charges, and Freemasonry may soon elect by majority ballot, hold meetings in the public square, admit women to membership and remove the Bible from the altar.

The matter was further complicated by the great Mackey, who (in all innocence, doubtless, of what he was doing to the Fraternity) compiled a list of twenty-five Landmarks, of which Number 18 reads: “A candidate for initiation must be a man, free-born, unmutilated, and of mature age.” A substantial number of grand jurisdictions in this country (nearly half) have adopted Mackey’s Landmarks as their own. A minority have devised their own lists of landmarks. In many, if not in most of these, the “Doctrine of the Perfect Youth,” in one set of words or another, is incorporated. Hence the argument that to “let down the bars to the maimed is to alter or go contrary to a Landmark.”

The arguments for a liberal interpretation of the old physical perfection law are many. They include a reductio ad absurdum, in which the proponent of liberality inquires: Is a man who wears glasses “physically perfect?” How about the candidate who has a gold tooth, or false teeth? If a child gets his finger caught in a door, and grows up with one nail on one finger missing, is he “physically perfect?” If the loss of the first joint of the little finger of the left hand does not disqualify, why “should the loss of the second joint of the first finger of the right hand, or the whole hand?”

He who would be liberal further contends that the mere declaration by Mackey that certain requirements are landmarks does not make them so, and that the adoption of a “set of landmarks” by a grand jurisdiction, while giving to these pronouncements all the force of law, cannot make them landmarks. According to the “liberals,” Mackey’s list stultifies itself, inasmuch as his twenty-fifth Landmark states “These landmarks can never be changed.” As they have been changed repeatedly, obviously they cannot be true “landmarks.”

Further argues the liberal construes of the old law, there are many maimed men who are no more likely to become objects of charity than those who are sound; doctors, lawyers with one leg or one arm; legislators blind in one or both eyes; distinguished citizens who are deaf or palsied, and so on. Finally, contend the liberalists, if a man with a wooden leg or artificial hand is good enough for a church to accept a man into the fellowship of God, the Masonic lodge ought not to deny him who would follow a speculative philosophy devoted to the inculcation of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, merely because misfortune has robbed him of an arm or leg. “Better a wooden leg than a wooden head” is usually the concluding argument.

This Association made an exhaustive investigation into the law and practice of the forty-nine grand jurisdictions of the United States, relative to the physical requirements of candidates. In addition, it sought the opinions of grand masters, past grand masters, grand officers, the country over.

As a result of this investigation, it develops that:

Jurisdictions reporting (or stating in law) that determination of physical qualifications of candidates is left to judgment of lodge — 22

Jurisdictions reporting (or stating in law) that determination of physical qualifications of candidates is left to the master — 10

Jurisdictions reporting special consideration given to Servicemen maimed in war — 4

Jurisdictions reporting that artificial arm, leg, foot, hand, brace or other mechanical device does not disqualify, if with it candidate can conform to degree requirements — 21

Jurisdictions reporting grand masters with power to issue dispensations modifying physical qualifications — 13[1]

Jurisdictions the physical qualification laws (or laws and decisions) of which can be classified as STRICT — 22

Jurisdictions the physical qualification laws (or laws and decisions) of which can be classified as LIBERAL — 27

Hundreds of letters were received in reply to requests for opinions, which request contained also the promise not to quote by name those who replied. From these, six are here excerpted—two grand masters who are “strict interpretationists” two who are “fairly liberal” and two who are “very liberal.”


I can see no good reason for liberalizing the laws relative to the physical requirements. It is true that injustice may be done to many good men. Every rule and regulation is bound to work its hardships. The laws of the land as enforced cause many good people to suffer. Yet, the needs of the majority are usually taken care of. I feel this way in regard to our present physical standards. As soon as a change is made, the question will always be “Where will we stop?” It will be, in my estimation; a movement in the wrong direction, which through constant change may break down that which is believed to be for the benefit of the Fraternity at large; namely, a strict requirement on physical standards. I believe, in other words, that while injustices may be done individual cases, it is a safe-guard against the tendency to allow personal judgment to take the place of the now open prohibition.

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I hold to the teaching I received as a young man from my father, that it is not within the power of any man or group of men to change a Landmark. That the preservation of a Landmark is a sacred trust. In our Charge to a Master Mason we state, “the Ancient Landmarks of Masonry, entrusted to your care, you are carefully to preserve, and never suffer them to be infringed, or countenance a deviation from the established Usages and Customs of the Fraternity.”

When I was installed as master of my lodge, I was asked, “Do you admit that it is not in the power of any man or body of men to make innovations in the body of Freemasonry?” My answer was “I do.” Because of this charge, and because of my answer to the above question, I could not justify any change in the 18th Landmark. I must therefore hold that a candidate be “without maim or blemish.”

Fairly Liberal

Since we are now purely speculative in nature, it would seem that the old rigid requirement of physical perfection is no longer necessary, in that we now build with thoughts, words, motives and deeds, which sum up and make for conduct. To prescribe that a candidate must have no physical defect or imperfection would seem to be unfair to, and lay a great injustice upon, one who, in everyway, rates high mentally, morally, and spiritually.

If one has part of a finger or toe missing, or even the whole thereof, or is slightly deaf, or the sight of one eye is impaired, said defect would not in the least prevent such a member from being the finest type of Mason and a distinct credit to the Fraternity. Verily, one so physically imperfect would be a far more desirable and worthy member than one who comes to us physically perfect, but whose real character and conduct later bring disrepute and disgrace to the Craft.

Of course, certain physical defects and imperfections are of such a nature as to prevent a candidate from complying with and conforming to certain ritual requirements, and all such should be refused.

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While I feel that the physical requirements should be liberally construed, nevertheless, I do not feel that the bars should be let down to such an extent as to allow crippled or maimed persons to become members of the Masonic Fraternity. I feel this way for two reasons; first, that all candidates should be physically able to participate in and conform to the ritualistic work of the three degrees; and, second, that all brothers should be physically capable of earning a livelihood for themselves and their families at the time they join.

It is my idea that if a man is otherwise well qualified, and has a slight dismemberment, such as the loss of a little finger, or some other slight defect in his body, that this in itself should not be a bar, but instead, it is the moral and mental qualifications of the individual that we should be more deeply interested in.

When it comes to a person who has lost a foot, hand, arm, or leg, I do not feel that it is advisable to liberalize Masonic law to that extent.

If it were possible to make an occasional exception, it might be all right, but if such exceptions were made generally, I feel that in the end it would have a serious result upon the Fraternity.

Very Liberal

I am heartily in accord with those who believe in liberalizing the old law. As I see it, there is no reason for keeping a worthy man out of the Fraternity simply because of a physical defect, which in no way relates to his Masonic fitness.

While it is true that such a defect might interfere with his conforming to the letter of the ritualistic requirements, he could learn those requirements as well as anyone else, and if unable to perform them, could at least know what they were, and in case of a later examination could describe them.

In this state it is provided that the candidate shall have “no maim or defect in his body that may render him incapable of learning the art and becoming perfect in the work, but physically able to conform literally to what the several degrees may require of him.” However, it is further provided that “where the defect has been so supplied by artificial appliances that the applicant is able by the use thereof to conform to what the degrees require, the grand master may, by dispensation, authorize the reception of his petition if satisfied that the petitioner will not, by reason of such physical defect, become a burden upon the Fraternity.

I have already had two requests from lodges for a ruling in this matter. One candidate has lost his left arm above the elbow, the other his right, below. While I have not yet rendered my decision, it is my intention if I find these candidates to be highly qualified and not likely to become a burden upon the Fraternity to approve the conferring of the degrees in both instances. This shows how strongly I feel upon the subject.

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I am firmly of the belief that as far as speculative Masonry is concerned, physical requirements should only be of such a nature that would prevent a person becoming a member who by reason of any physical affliction might become a charge on the Fraternity. Although it may depart from some of the ancient usages and customs of the Fraternity, I think such departure is justified in this case as in many others where we depart from the operative to the speculative.

For instance, I am absolutely helpless with tools. I have no mechanical ability at all. If I were to rely on such talents to join our Fraternity, I would never have the privilege of belonging. The necessity of being well equipped physically for manual work is no longer a requirement, nor do I believe that the necessity of being able to give certain signs is as important as it used to be. We have far more definite and sure methods of identification than we used to have. So long as the ideals of our Fraternity are not hampered or interfered with by the relaxation of any strict rule conceived in times of operative Masonry, I believe we should keep pace with the times.

It is interesting to note that in a majority of the letters, opinion follows the practice—strict, fairly liberal, or very liberal—of the jurisdiction to which the writer belongs. In a substantial minority, however, those who reply are out of sympathy with the practice in their jurisdictions, when such jurisdictions are strict. In no case did a letter come from a fairly liberal jurisdiction indicating that the writer would return to the days of strict interpretation.

(Note — Fractions are disregarded in the following percentages )

Replying Strict Fairly Liberal Very Liberal
Grand Masters 33.3% 30.1% 36.6%
Past Grand Masters 31.8% 35.4% 33.0%
Grand Lodge Officers 22.8% 26.3% 50.9%
District Deputies 35.0% 7.5% 57.5%
Influential Brethren 33.7% 23.5% 42.7%
AVERAGE 31.3% 24.5% 44.1%

The above percentages become more illuminating if the “fairly liberal” and the “very liberal” are combined; they then contrast with the “strict” interpretation list as follows:

Strict Liberal
Grand Masters 33.3% 66.6%
Past Grand Masters 31.8% 68.4%
Grand Lodge Officers 22.8% 77.2%
District Deputies 35.0% 65.0%
Influential Brethren 31.3% 68.7%

Summarizing these statistics, it is found that — Of Grand Masters, Past Grand Masters, Grand Lodge Officers, District Deputies and Influential Brethren replying:

31.3% are strict interpretationists.

68.6% are more or less liberal interpretationists;


44.9% of jurisdictions are strict in interpretation.

55.1% of jurisdictions are more or less liberal in interpretation.

The trend seems to be largely toward a more liberal interpretation of the old laws; certain it is that it is much easier now, than it was not so very far in the past, for men who have suffered physical misfortune to receive the degrees. In many jurisdictions the matter is still one of debate, and the practice liberal or the reverse according to the predilections of the grand master called upon to rule. Of some it is said “He would admit the armless and legless trunk, so big is his heart”; of others it is noted “He cannot see that a man with a finger joint missing can properly give the grips and signs.”

What do you, who read or hear this, think is the best Masonic practice?

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  1. One of these grand masters must have consent of jurisprudence committee before issuing dispensation. Another acts only after a report from a district deputy.

The Masonic Service Association of North America