Vol. XXV No. 6 — June 1947

The Sword in the Stone

Among the great treasures of English literature are the Arthurian Legends; probably Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is the most popular version.

It is here that we learn of Arthur, the bravest of the brave, the mightiest warrior of them all, drawing the great sword Excalibur from the rock in which it had been magically fixed. Thousands had tried it, none had the strength, or the wit, or the character, or the purity of heart, or the necessary combination of all, until Arthur laid hand upon it and drew it from the stone.

This great feat so impressed his fellow Sir Knights and countrymen that the old legend — that he who could draw the sword from the stone should be ruler of all England — became a true prophecy. Arthur was made King.

A delightful legend, and many the poem and book and essay which has been written upon it!

Freemasonry has her “sword in a stone,” too, and he who can pull it from its tricky fastness may be, if not ruler of all England, at least a great grand master of his grand lodge.

Indeed, Masonry has many swords in many stones, and many are the men who try to draw them forth. Now and then a mighty one succeeds and some fortunate lodge has a great leader, some lucky grand lodge an inspired grand master.

In Arthur’s day, he who tried to pull the sword from the stone and failed did but drop back into the crowd from which he came — alas, in Masonry, those who put their hands to the sword yet move it not, too often are as rewarded for their attempt as better men are for their success, and go on to that place from which leadership is exerted, be their own never so fainting and ineffectual.

Lodges succeed greatly when greatly led. Grand lodges which have a steady succession of grand masters of vision, daring, understanding and leadership, become noted, a pattern for others to follow, respected and venerated throughout the land. Grand lodges, like lodges, deficient in the caliber of those called to high places, must content themselves with a much more modest place, a reputation doubtless spotless in its purity, but low in its intensity.

Freemasonry in this country selects its leaders in one of two ways, whether in lodge or grand lodge.

  1. Officers are appointed by the reigning master or grand master and then “progress through the line” by the suffrage of their brethren to the East or Grand East.
  2. Officers are elected to the lowest position in the “progressive fine” of lodge or grand lodge, and, again by the votes of their fellows, gradually climb the long ladder to reach the Oriental chair.

There are a few exceptions; grand masters are chosen by election “from the floor” in two grand lodges in the United States; in two others the “progressive line” consists of but two stations — deputy and grand master. In all particular lodges the line is at least three years in length — junior warden, senior warden, Master. In most grand lodges the line is at least four years in length; junior and senior grand wardens, deputy grand master, grand master. In many others it is much longer.

There has long been discussion and amiable argument as to whether a long line or a short one produces the best leadership; whether the “appointive-then-elective” system gets better men than the "wholly elective” system. No one has proved that one system is better or worse than the other. Proponents of both ideas freely admit the faults of the system each advocates; and agree that at times either system brings to the East or Grand East some brother less well-qualified than he might be. Per contra, both schools of thought point to the distinguished Masters and grand masters their systems have brought to position of leadership.

No criticism is implied here of either system, or of the brethren who have their customs and stick to them. We are here considering not criticisms but facts; a condition, not a theory.

With many men of different minds upon so important a matter, it seems obvious that there must be much that is good in both systems. Either may, both do, produce great leaders. Either may, both do, at times elevate to the East some brother who is not a leader, not qualified to plan, not an asset for the body which, for one reason or another, has finally put him in the seat of greatest responsibility.

Unquestionably many brethren are appointed in line by Masters and grand masters, because the appointing officers honestly believe that their appointees are the best possible men to be Master or grand master so-and-so many years in the future.

But at times other reasons than “the best man for the job” may have a controlling influence. If in grand lodge “up state” had a man last year, this year “down state” has to be considered. Last year the grand master appointed a brother from Whosis County. This year Whatsis County puts forward its claims! If the jurisdiction is one with only one large city, the rest of the state all smaller towns, frequently the urban and suburban elements in the Masonic population must be considered. Some jurisdictions recognize this openly; thus in Delaware (with a two-man short line) the deputy comes one year from Wilmington, the next from some other part of the state; grand masters in New York alternate between New York City and some other locality.

One grand lodge chooses its appointive officer always from a different district, so that all districts are always represented in the grand lodge line. As some districts are rich in Masonic material and others less so, some grand masters have a much wider latitude of choice than others.

Politics, which never should, but frequently do, afflict grand lodges, plays a part; lodges in one or more districts get together and support this year a candidate from the “Steenth District,” on pledge that next year all the votes in this coalition will go to the candidate from the “Tweenty-steenth District.”

In lodges, Masters do not always let the facts prevail against personal friendship. The Masters dearest friend may be a good Mason, a grand fellow, a wonderful brother, yet entirely unfitted by training, predilection or even education to be a Master. The Master may not be able to see this because of loyalty to and love for his friend. The friend gets appointed — the lodge eventually gets a poor leader.

It is idle to argue that lodge or grand lodge is not compelled to elect the appointed brother, or advance the elected brother. In grand lodges where these systems prevail, they prevail and that is all there is to it. Doubtless, should the appointed officer commit a murder, run off with the grand master’s wife, or hold up a bank, he would not be elected, but his faults must be very obvious before he is rejected in grand lodges or lodges where the long custom of many years has determined that the brother once in the line is destined to go through.

Conditions can be — but seldom are — changed, as far as appointments and/or elections go. Tampering with the established order of things does not necessarily result in improvement.

A certain grand lodge with eleven officers in the elective line decided to shorten it by making the four lower officers appointive. The theory advanced was that this would reduce the “politicking” and “electioneering” which had formerly prevailed.

The first grand master with an appointment to make under the new system appointed a brother from his own lodge. The second grand master, not to be outdone, appointed a brother from his own lodge. Whereupon the grand lodge, not too blind to see that this meant that hereafter only eleven lodges could ever hope to have grand masters in a self-perpetuating grand lodge, promptly returned to the old elective system!

Miracles do happen and the old order does change and give way to the new — sometimes. But speaking realistically, the two systems appointment followed by election or election straight through — are not apt to be changed.

If, then, both systems have their faults as well as their virtues; if neither system produces, generally speaking, a consistent supply of great leadership; if neither system is apt to be changed, then to secure a steady succession of those who can pull the sword from the stone requires a new attack from another angle.

Any reasonably intelligent man can be taught almost anything, provided he wants to learn. Leadership is not, as some have supposed, wholly a matter of the invisible spirit, with which a man is bom. It is not wholly to be considered like red hair, or color-blindness, or an inborn flair for mathematics. Leadership can be learned.

If the problem is attacked from the inside; if every brother elected or appointed at the bottom of a line were thoughtfully and consistently to prepare for leadership, there would not be enough swords in a sufficient number of rocks to go around!

Of what does leadership consist? One man’s definition will of course differ from another’s, but upon certain fundamentals most if not all will agree.

A leader has character; few men have ever led any cause successfully who were not admired by their fellows.

A leader makes plans. Having made his plans, he enthuses others to carry them out. To enthuse anyone in anything, one must himself be an enthusiast. He must believe in what he does, if he is to get others to believe.

A leader asks advice. The leader who is self-sufficient, so self-assured that he is convinced he knows it all, seldom makes more than a temporary success.

But a leader does not necessarily take all the advice offered. If he did, he would not be a leader. To have an educated mind, open to other minds; to be able to make up one’s mind — these are qualities without which a leader seldom succeeds.

A leader has courage; courage to stand up for what he believes, to work for what he conceives to be right even if it is not at the moment popular; to stand on his own feet.

A leader inspires, and to inspire, he must be inspired — inspired by love, by ambition, by hope, by belief, by conviction, by a cause . . . to inspire others one must have the inspiration.

Now these things can be studied and learned. Character, planning, enthusiasm, asking advice, decision, courage, inspiration . . . all these can be acquired. If every brother appointed or elected would set his mind to such studies, and work at them, he would arrive in East or Grand East able to snatch any weapon from any rock!

If he settles back, happy over his preferment, secure in the thought that, with reasonably good behavior, he will eventually "arrive,” he will get in the seat of the mighty with little power in his arm and become just a "run of the mill” presiding officer.

But if he considers his election or appointment a challenge to a contest, in which he is pitted against the reputation of the greatest Master his lodge ever had, the most revered grand master who ever led his grand lodge, and has within him any fighting blood at all, he can learn the fundamentals of leadership, and arrive at some far day to the dignity of hat and gavel and supreme authority confident in his ability and ready for any problem.

He it is, then, who can walk to the sword in the stone and pull it out — and be acclaimed by his brethren at the end of his service as one whose saga will always be sung, whose successes and good deeds will long five after him, a veritable King Arthur!

The Masonic Service Association of North America