Vol. XXI No. 11 — November 1943

Why Is a Fee?

Few more important questions face a new lodge than the setting of its fees and dues. Presumably the grand lodge sets a minimum sum below which the degrees of Freemasonry may not be conferred, but there is no limit upwards. A lodge may, and some do, set their fees for the degrees above the general average.

Some brethren ask “what are fees for? Why do we charge any fee?”

The obvious answer, of course, is that a man seeking to join any organization should pay for the privilege. But men are not asked to pay for the privilege of joining a church. A second answer which has more the color of reason, is that a man who seeks to join an organization which possesses property, a bank account, securities, resources, should contribute towards their increase, that he may stand on a par with his fellows who have saved these amounts.

A practice which apparently is increasing in popularity is to set aside in a special fund all fees received from initiates (less, of course, any sum which grand lodge law requires to be deducted and sent to grand lodge). Sometimes this is a charity fund, some times an emergency fund. When fees are covered into a charity fund, the by-law creating it is usually so framed that the lodge either (1) may never spend the principal or (2) may not spend the principal without due notice being given all members of a motion to spend it and a two-thirds or three-fourths vote.

Emergency funds made from initiation fees may not as logically be hedged about with provisos preventing their being spent; an Emergency fund which cannot be spent under a month in an emergency is misnamed. Hence the trend is away from Emergency funds and towards charity or relief funds, or in some cases, endowment funds.

The argument to a petitioner that all he pays as a fee goes into a relief or charity fund is unanswerable. When a lodge must answer the question “what do you do with the fee I pay?” by saying “Oh, we just use it towards the general expenses of the lodge” the petitioner may well wonder just why he must start his Masonic career by handing over a sum which may be anywhere from five to ten times the amount of a year’s dues.

There is a tendency in bad times to lower the fees and in good times to raise them. Grand lodges as a rule frown on both practices in the sincere belief, backed up by statistics, that high fees do not keep unworthy men from applying for Masonry, nor low fees attract good men to the Fraternity. Agreed that one good man may be able to pay a certain sum and not a higher one, it is obvious that other good men will be able to pay any fee, and still other good men can pay no fee at all. To lower fees, therefore, because “times are hard, and men cannot get the money” is merely another way of saying “times are hard and certain men cannot get the money.” Because Masonry is not an organization which caters to any one class, or alters her rules for admission for any classification of men, grand lodges usually look on lowering fees to attract candidates as a debatable practice.

Certain lodges begin their labors with very high fees, frankly and designedly intended to discourage the man of very modest means. Such lodges argue: “Money is no measure of a man. A very rich man may become a very poor Mason and a very poor man make a very fine Mason. On the other hand, while money is not a man’s measure, in the long run success is a measure and money marks its size. Thus, of ten thousand men who ride in automobiles, the finest and best may ride in a second-hand flivver and the meanest and worst in a Rolls Royce. But as a class the riders in second-hand flivvers will not compare favorably with the class which rides in Rolls Royces. Therefore, we will set our fees high, knowing that the class of men who will not be discouraged from application by very high fees, are apt to be high class men.”

With the truth or falsity of this argument these pages have nothing to do. Masonically, the only purposes of fees for the degrees made legitimate by long custom are (1) to instill into the applicant a measure of value for the privilege he seeks (2) to enable him to pay his pro rata of the lodge property and (3) to enable him to enjoy participation in a charity, endowment or emergency fund.

A moment’s consideration will show that (2) is usually more an argument than a fact. A lodge with ten thousand dollars worth of securities and five hundred members has a “cash in” value of twenty dollars per member. A twenty dollar fee, then, would put the initiate on a parity with the other members of this lodge. But the fee is not twenty dollars, but the minimum set by the grand lodge, or the maximum set by the lodge itself.

A new lodge may have no property whatever. The charter members may have contributed ten dollars each towards a general fund, but the first initiate is asked a certain fee, always much higher. All of which seems to reduce the arguments which will bear scrutiny as to “why is a fee” to two; to instill the initiate with the idea that what he is getting is worth, a certain amount of money or, to contribute to fund which has fixed uses. Anyone with even an elementary knowledge of logic can punch holes in the argument that the amount of fee asked can possibly be a real measure of the value of what the initiate will receive for it — i.e. the three degrees and the right to belong to a lodge.

In every grand lodge are small country lodges charging the minimum fee, and larger city lodges charging a much higher fee. Yet small country and wealthy city lodges confer the same degrees, and a membership in one lodge gives no more or greater Masonic rights than in another lodge.

Moreover, how can one value in terms of money that of which he knows nothing, and about which he can have but the vaguest ideas? To say that “Masonry is worth fifty dollars” is to do no more than mouth words; the intangible cannot be valued in terms of cash, and what is worth much to one man may prove valueless to another.

Our sense of values is largely governed by need. The man dying of thirst would give all he owned for a pint of water; he who can have it by turning a spigot will not pay for it — indeed, expects it free, as a right, with every meal he buys! There are Freemasons who would not sell their possession of the degrees and membership in their Mother lodges for any amount of money; should they, who may value it as beyond price, have received it for the same fee as the man who “buys” his degrees today and is dropped N.P.D. within a year or so?

All of which seems to reduce the real and only Masonic reasons for fees for the degrees to one: to contribute to a charity, endowment, or emergency fund.

What then, is to be said of the far too general practice of lodges of putting the fees into the general bank account and counting them as income, the use of which is to defray the expenses of the lodge?

With a majority of all lodges following this practice it must appear ungracious, at least, to write disapprobation of the practice. Yet either the foregoing paragraphs are mistaken in the conclusion they reach, or lodges are making a mistake in using fees as income.

The real excuse for using fees as income is found in dues too small to support the lodge. It is easier, from the unthinking standpoint ofjohn Smith and Jim Jones, to cover fees into income, than it is to raise the dues and cause them to pay another dollar or two or three yearly.

The temptations which follow covering fees into income funds are obvious. In depressions, with members being dropped, income reduced and fixed expenses continuing as usual, income from fees seems extremely desirable; hence the tendency to turn the eyes away from certain defects in certain petitioners and elect them . . . to get the fees! In good times, with petitioners crowding the West Gate, the tendency is to say “we suffered from financial starvation for many years; now is our time to make up the depleted bank account; he is probably as good as the next applicant, anyway.

Agreed that this is all wrong, should never be, is more or less unthinkable when boldly stated; the fact remains, use of fees as income tempts lodges to get fees . . . elect good men if possible but get the fees. And as a result, of course, the lodge suffers in the end, and where lodges suffer, so does Freemasonry.

“Would you, then, abolish all fees?”

By no means! These pages are no argument against fees; only against their improper, unworthy, uneconomic and decidedly illogical use.

There may be churches in this world which refuse to admit the casual worshiper from the street, unless he pays pew rent, pledges a certain sum weekly or otherwise supports the organization. The vast majority of churches, however, admit any worshiper within their doors, and accept as members those found worthy, without money and without price.

Yet churches, even as lodges, must be supported. The point is they are supported by what their members pay, not what initiates pay to become members.

What is all right for a church is not necessarily all right for a lodge and vice versa. The church usually depends wholly on voluntary offerings for support; lodges universally charge dues. The church practically never has an initiation fee; lodges always have.

To change either the dues or fee system in lodges would not be practical; it probably would not be wise. But a change in the reason for fees and the use made of them, has been found very wise where it has been tried.

By all means should lodges charge fees for the degrees — the minimum fixed by grand lodge or the maximum the traffic will bear. But the fee should be used, and the petitioner told it will be used, for a fixed purpose of charity, endowment or emergency, and covered into the funds used for that purpose, and not diverted to save members an honest — because adequate — yearly dues to support the lodge, pay rent, heat, light, salaries, buy supplies, entertain members and all the thousand and one incidental expenses inseparable from running a successful lodge.

Some lodges have what they call “Paid life memberships” or “Perpetual memberships” by which, on payment of a certain lump sum, the member becomes dues exempt for the rest of his life. If the sum is large enough to pay an income equal to dues, and the funds are wisely and carefully invested, these usually have proved real assets for the lodge.

Many members buy such memberships from pride regardless of their economic value. Thus a man of sixty, who normally may have but a ten year’s life expectancy, could well say to himself: “At six dollars a year dues I will probably pay only sixty dollars to the lodge before I die.” Yet he buys a perpetual membership for two hundred dollars from pride in and love for his lodge.

But he would not buy it if the lodge said to him: “this two hundred dollars will be used to buy refreshments, compensate the secretary, purchase aprons and pay rent.”

What is the difference between such a situation and that of the initiate whose fees are used, not to invest so they will pay interest for charity, but to “buy refreshments, compensate the secretary, purchase aprons and pay rent?”

To some men Freemasonry is just another society; something to belong to; a provider of good times; a good asset for a citizen.

To many others Freemasonry is something high and holy, a profound spiritual influence, a rock to tie to, a safe anchorage from the storms and stress of daily living, at once a help and a hope.

The former may indeed find nothing incongruous in valuing the three degrees and lodge membership in terms of dollars and may truly believe that “it’s worth fifty dollars to be a Mason.”

But just how that lodge member who finds in Freemasonry something spiritual and therefore beautiful, and who wishes his friend also to have it, can be willing to say: “We charge you fifty dollars for all this and then use your money to buy coffee and sandwiches,” passeth understanding!

The Masonic Service Association of North America