Vol. XXVI No. 2 — February 1948

Parliamentary Law in Masonry

Human nature being what it is, no body of men can successfully deliberate without some rules to govern their actions. Without rules all might speak at once, none having the power to decide who has the floor. Any body of men can run into such difficulties that recourse is had to the civil courts for adjudication; that has happened in many stockholders meetings when financial matters were considered. Civil courts do not incline to upset actions of deliberating bodies if they have been properly conducted under recognized rules of order.

Rules of order seem to have originated in the English Parliament; hence the term, parliamentary law. Through a long period of trial and error, experiment and verification, these rules of order have become general, well known, and usually followed in associations of men. They are well set forth in Robert’s Rules of Order and Cushing’s Manual.

Congress has its own rules; the House makes new, or adopts the old rules with every new House (every two years); the Senate, a continuing body, usually continues under old and tried rules, which of course, it can alter if it wishes.

State legislatures, schools, societies, clubs, business meetings of churches, etc., usually follow these rules, with some necessary exceptions to fit individual characteristics.

Freemasonry, however, cannot follow the usual rules of order except in the most general way; her whole structure is so different from the usual voluntary association as to require her own especial code of rules of order.

These, with a few exceptions, are seldom completely codified by grand lodges; they are buried in the landmarks, concealed in decisions, hidden in edicts, shadowed forth in committee reports. To a surprisingly great extent, American grand lodges are of one mind in regard to what is and what is not good parliamentary law for Masonry. In details and minor matters grand lodges may differ the one from the other; only occasionally do they contradict each other in major matters.

Two instances of such contradictions may suffice; in several grand lodges no appeal to the grand lodge may be made from a grand master’s decision. In others it is specifically provided in law that an appeal may be taken.

It is generally agreed that no “call for the previous question” can be entertained (as that would limit the master’s power to control debate) but at least one grand lodge specifically provides that the previous question may be moved “where questions are multiplied and debate has become burdensome.”

The reasons why Masonic lodges (and other Masonic bodies) cannot use all the usual parliamentary rules are to be found in the fundamental difference between a lodge and any club, association, or other organization voluntarily formed by its members, and which may be voluntarily changed, altered, or disbanded at the will and pleasure of the group.

A lodge is formed by brethren of the Craft. This, of course, is a voluntary act. But they become a lodge, not at their own pleasure and of their own motion; they must first persuade a grand master to give them a dispensation — that is, a temporary authority to act as a lodge with limited power. Next they must bring some record of accomplishment to the grand lodge, and from it receive a charter, or warrant, empowering them to be a lodge with powers as unlimited as those of any other lodge within that grand lodge.

A grand master may withdraw his dispensation at any time before a petition praying for a charter is presented to grand lodge; the lodge under dispensation is wholly a creature of the grand master and he is responsible to no one as whether he shall or shall not grant it, or whether he will, or will not recall it. Because he can recall it, the lodge U.D. is wholly under the grand master’s control — he is the giver of life or death.

Once a charter or warrant of constitution has been given a lodge by the grand lodge, it, not the grand master, is the supreme arbiter of the fate of that lodge; true, the lodge may surrender its charter, according to certain rules and in a certain way, but no authority can take the charter from a lodge, save only grand lodge. A grand master may arrest the charter, but only until grand lodge meets — it and it alone decides if the arrested charter is to be restored, or surrendered.

From these particulars stem certain necessary controls; others are imposed by ancient usage and custom. In all voluntary associations of men which can come into being at the will and pleasure of the group, a presiding officer, chairman, or president, is selected or elected. In most voluntary associations he has no other power but that obtained by his fellows’ belief in his wisdom. He is a presiding officer whose main business it is to keep order and obey the will of the group. And the group having the power to adopt or make its own rules for procedure may suspend them or do away with them at any time at its own pleasure.

In a Masonic lodge the presiding officer is the MASTER — and the term means what it says. Except in certain well-understood particulars, and as controlled by his grand lodge’s laws, and the by-laws of his lodge, he controls the lodge, and there is no appeal from his decision to the lodge. He can propose or second any motion. He can vote twice on a question, if necessary to break a tie. He can close debate at his pleasure. He can refuse to entertain any motion. The lodge, of course, has the right of appeal to grand lodge; a master may not use his great powers arbitrarily, but grand lodges are loathe to believe that a master is arbitrary, and time and again it has been held that as a master is responsible to grand master and grand lodge for the peace, harmony and good work of his lodge, his actions in control of that lodge are not arbitrary until they are proved to the contrary.

Contrast two examples; a club of men, more enthusiastic than wise, debates and carries a motion to spend all the money in the treasury on some project, no matter what. All the money is spent, and there is none left to pay bills already contracted. Is the president responsible? He may have voted against the unwise spending, and protested it but he cannot be held to be individually responsible.

The master of a lodge who permitted it to spend all its money on any project, leaving none to pay bills, would be subject to discipline by the grand master. He might be suspended; he might be tried for un-Masonic conduct, grand masters would doubtless rule, and grand lodges would undoubtedly sustain the ruling, that a master faced with such a proposal would be not only within his rights but doing his duty if he refused to put such a motion before his lodge.

Parliamentary rules are provided to permit the body of men who work under them the speediest vehicle for doing what they want to do. Masonic parliamentary law provides the speediest vehicle by which the brethren may do what the master, the grand master and the grand lodge desire and permit them to do.

Voluntary associations of men can, and do, decide what they are, what their objectives are, and the way in which they are to be realized. All of these can be changed — not infrequently are changed. A club of tennis players may end up as an athletic club; a group which starts as a luncheon club may end up by becoming a charitable organization. Any group may decide its own rules for membership, and follow any form of initiatory ceremonies it pleases. It may and does make its own laws and is responsible to no one except itself.

How different is a Masonic lodge! No group can decide that a Masonic lodge is different from what its grand lodge has decided. No member may propose or discuss a change in the landmarks or an alteration in the immemorial customs of the fraternity. No lodge, for instance, could legally decide that it would go into the highways and byways and proselytize. No lodge can limit Masonic purposes, add to or subtract from Masonic principles and teachings. Grand lodge, not the individual lodge, decides the minimum dues and fees. A Mason dissatisfied with Masonry or his lodge can demit, or allow himself to be dropped, but he cannot “mould it nearer to the heart’s desire” by any legal means.

It is these fundamental differences between Freemasonry and any other type of organization, which make it essential that the rules of order be tailored to its own body, and not those which apply in secular or religious bodies.

In general it may be stated that the fundamental principle behind the inclusion or exclusion from Masonic procedure of any usual rule of order is its effect upon the masters powers and its agreement or conflict with the ancient usages of Masonry. If a rule of order interferes with a master, it is not applicable. Hence, no motion to adjourn is possible in a lodge; the master and only the master decides when to close his lodge. The “previous question” limits the master’s control of debate; if debate becomes acrimonious and threatens the peace and harmony of his lodge, a master closes it and none may say him nay. A lodge is the creature of grand lodge — it cannot legislate to the contrary of grand lodge law.

Many questions in lodges and grand lodges are threshed out in committees, to save time, and bring well-thought out and discussed plans before lodge or grand lodge. In legislative bodies there is frequently recourse to a “committee of the whole” in which the whole body becomes a committee, which decides on a report, which the whole body, no longer a committee, then decides.

All committees have chairmen who preside according to rules of order. Could a Masonic lodge become a committee of the whole, the master would become a chairman, and a chairman has no power over his committee. The master might thus find his committee of the whole presenting to his lodge a report which he as master would not allow the lodge to consider — a manifestly absurd situation.

It is questioned by some whether a motion to lay on the table, postpone or to commit to a committee is an infringement of a master’s right to control debate. It is probable that in any matter vital enough to have a master refuse to put such motions, grand lodge would uphold him; on the other hand, the vast majority of masters are not only willing but anxious to have their lodges discuss and decide, dispose of business as the brethren elect.

No motion to appoint a committee which undertakes to name the committee will be put by any master jealous for his prerogatives. The lodge has a right to a committee, but the master and not the lodge has the power to appoint. Could a lodge name a committee it might easily thwart a master’s will and pleasure, which is strictly against immemorial usage. The master, not the lodge, is responsible to grand lodge for the actions of his lodge — therefore, his power to conduct his lodge cannot be limited.

Masonic lodges adopt by-laws. These by-laws may, and often do, contain an “order of business.” But it has repeatedly been held that no lodge by-law, even if approved by a grand lodge committee, can encroach on the inherent powers of a master. Such a by-law expresses the lodge’s desire; the master may disregard that desire if in his judgment strict conformity would injure the lodge, its business, or any brother. An instance may suffice; many lodge by-laws specify the place in the order of business when balloting on candidates is to take place. Ordinarily a master will follow such a by-law program. But should he know that a number of brethren had been detained for reasons beyond their control — a late train, perhaps, — he might well inform the lodge that he was departing from the order of business set forth in the by-laws for a reasonable time until such detained brethren could arrive.

But no master would be justified, or upheld in his decision by grand lodge, who postponed balloting until the end of a long evening, thus preventing some brethren, who might have to catch a train, from balloting. Such an action by the master would seem to stamp itself as arbitrary and an interference with a member’s right to be present and vote on all petitions. Lodge by-laws are usually scrutinized and approved either by grand master, a grand lodge committee, or grand lodge. In jurisdictions when approval is required a lodge may not change its by-laws until such changes are likewise approved. No lodge — and no master, or even grand master — has power to suspend the by-laws of a lodge; only the lodge can amend (and the amendment must be approved before becoming effective), and can amend only according to its own rules for amendment.

Here, again, is a fundamental difference between the lodge and the usual free association, which, as it can adopt what by-laws it pleases, can suspend or amend them when and as it pleases.

A great body of Masonic law is unwritten; it is well-understood, strictly observed, goes back to very ancient times, and has the same force and effect as if codified. Examples are found in the interpretation of certain Masonic phrases, in the prohibition of solicitation, in the respect and veneration paid to master and grand master.

No organization working under the strictest rules of order can boast better decorum than a Masonic lodge with its own small code. Acrimonious debates, personalities, anger, of course have been seen in lodges, but are infrequent. Masonic courtesy takes the place of the many rules of order sometimes necessary in secular bodies. Masons obey their own laws not nearly so much because they must as because they wish. There is little of “thou shalt not” in Freemasonry; it is much more a matter of “thou shalt do what thy Masonic heart requireth of thee” than the reverse.

Benjamin B. French, eminent Masonic scholar, said of this matter:

The Masonic rule should be that where well-settled parliamentary principles can be properly applied to the action of Masonic bodies, they should always govern; but they should never be introduced where they in any way interfere with the established customs or landmarks of Masonry, or with the high prerogatives of the master.

To this should be added the statement that when a grand lodge does provide the rules of order under which a lodge is to work, they must, of course, be followed. The constitution and by-laws of grand lodge are the law and the commandments for all lodges and all masters. It is in these, and their origins — landmarks, customs, edicts and decisions — that proper Masonic parliamentary law may be found.

The Masonic Service Association of North America