Vol. XXVIII No. 1 — January 1950

Dispensations and the Dispensing Power

The word dispensation has two divergent meanings.

We hear of the Christian, Mosaic, Jewish dispensations — indeed the word is four times thus used in the Bible — and understand it as derived from the Latin dispensare — to arrange, administer, to weigh out, to distribute. The Christian dispensation, then, marks the arrangement and administration of the world according to the Divine will; the Jewish dispensation, according to the Mosaic law, etc.

Masons use the word in its other meaning; the doing away with, or relaxing of, certain laws and rules.

In this sense dispensations, relaxing religious rules, have been tools in the hands of the church; that it was so widely abused during the Middle Ages as to result in its curtailment, is history not necessary here to elaborate. It grew into the church in England from the church in Rome, and from that church, apparently, it was adopted by monarchs as a prerogative.

The power continues in law to this day, it being well understood that any laws made by man or a body of men may be unmade by him or them. A special act of Congress may, and often is, a dispensation to do, or not to do, something previously forbidden or ordered by law. The police power in a city makes a regulation; on occasion the same power may relax its enforcement.

The dispensing power of the sovereign, or law-making power, was evidently well understood by the brethren who formed the mother grand lodge and by George Payne and Anderson who were responsible for the Constitutions of 1723. Nowhere in these enactments is the dispensing power set forth; it is often referred to as existing with statements as to when it may & may not be used.

Mackey’s Encyclopedia lists the dispensing powers of the grand master, as provided in the General Regulations of 1723 as but four in number: (1) The power to give a dispensation, between communications of the grand lodge, whereby a certain number of brethren may be formed into a lodge; this dispensation must either be confirmed or revoked by grand lodge. If confirmed, the grand lodge issues a charter or warrant to the new lodge. (2) The power to give a lodge permission to make more than five brethren at one time. (3) The power to permit a brother to belong to two lodges which meet at a distance of less than three miles of each other. (4) The power to permit lodges to elect and install officers on other than the “constitutional night” (usually immediately preceding St. John’s Day in winter) and to permit election and installation of one who takes the place of an officer who has died, removed permanently, or been expelled.

The dispensing power is first mentioned in the Constitutions of 1723 in the fourth of the thirty-nine articles; “No lodge shall make more than five new brethren at one time, nor any man under the age of twenty-five, who must also be his own Master, unless by dispensation of the Grand Master or his Deputy.” In Article Five, concerning the one month requirement between petition and ballot, the phrase “unless by dispensation of the Grand Master” occurs. Apparently, he could shorten the time. In Article Six it is provided that the unanimous ballot by which candidates are to be elected is not subject to the dispensing power. Article eight sets forth the necessity of a dispensation when any number of brethren desire to separate themselves from their lodge and form a new lodge. Article twelve forbids the appearance of any brother in grand lodge who is not a member of it unless he has the grand master’s dispensation to be present and in article thirteen on the “quarterly communication” appears the phrase, "Apprentices must be admitted Masters and Fellowcrafts only here, unless by a dispensation.”

The practice in forming a new lodge and the giving of warrants differs in England from that in this country. Here a certain number of brethren petition the grand master, who may give or withhold a dispensation for a new lodge; the new lodge U.D. then petitions grand lodge for a charter. In England the charter is given directly by the grand master. Originally in this country grand lodges gave both dispensations and charters. The idea behind the dispensation to form a lodge U.D. is, of course, that the new lodge be given a chance to prove itself; should it fail to do so the grand master may revoke his dispensation or the grand lodge refuse a charter. Both courses are much easier of accomplishment than taking away a charter once granted. Prior to 1717 lodges were formed by the will of the brethren, as, indeed, some very early lodges were in this country. Fredericksburg No. 4, in which Washington received his degrees, existed for some time as a "time immemorial lodge” before receiving a charter from Scotland. There was an oral tradition that Fredericksburg lodge had a dispensation from the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts or from Thomas Oxnard, provincial grand master in Massachusetts, but there is no evidence to support the tradition.

A curious by-path in Masonic jurisprudence is found in the prohibition which several United States grand lodges have adopted forbidding a grand master to make a Mason “at sight.” No grand lodge deprives a grand master of his power to issue a dispensation to brethren to form a lodge, U.D. Making a Mason “at sight” is done in a lodge U.D. A lodge U.D. may be dissolved at the grand master’s pleasure. Yet several grand lodges forbid their grand masters to form a lodge U.D. for the purpose of making a Mason “at sight.” The idea behind the prohibition, of course, is that making a Mason “at sight” deprives the fraternity of the benefit of the investigating committee and the ballot, since the candidate for a Mason “at sight” is chosen by the grand master.

The “Doctrine of the Perfect Youth” stems from language in the Old Charges “No Master should take an Apprentice . . . unless he be a perfect youth, having no maim or defect in his body, that may render him incapable of learning the art, etc.” It is a question unsettled in this country. Twenty-two grand lodges are more or less strict in their application of the doctrine; twenty-two leave the determination of the physical qualifications of candidates to the lodge and/or master; thirteen grand lodges permit grand masters to issue dispensations in special cases (one, only with consent of the jurisprudence committee; another, only after a favorable report from a district deputy.)

Grand masters’ dispensations in physical matters are as diverse as are grand masters. Some refuse all such dispensations; others go the limit and admit the lame, the halt and — in one known case at least — the blind.

Grand masters’ powers, of course, vary in various grand jurisdictions. In some he may suspend the operation of any rule or regulation of Masonry not a landmark. In some “he is not answerable for his acts as Grand Master”; in one, at least, it is specifically stated in the Constitution that the grand master is invested with the power to grant dispensations “at his discretion.” In others his powers are more restricted — among the restricted powers is the power of dispensation. But in practically all American grand lodges the grand master’s dispensing power far exceeds that set forth in the “Regulations” of the mother grand lodge published in 1723.

The dispensing power has grown out of proportion to its original modest estate. In one grand lodge at least a grand master may give a dispensation to make a Mason of a youth under the age of twenty-one. (Not to be confused with the law in North Dakota which allows a lodge to receive the petition of a “Lewis,” the underage son of a Mason, but not to confer a degree before he is of age.)

In other grand lodges a grand master may issue a dispensation to change the meeting place of a lodge; for a lodge to work even if its charter is absent; to hold an election at another time from that specified by law; to confer the degrees on the rejected candidate of an extinct lodge; to reballot on a petition; to bury Masonically an unaffiliated and even a suspended Mason; to change the time of lodge meeting; to continue to meet after midnight; to authorize Masonic processions; to meet in a hall in which other Masonic bodies have met or will meet, etc., etc.

An interesting situation arose in the District of Columbia, when the grand master (1889) issued a dispensation to set aside certain by-laws of lodges; another grand master (1905) issued a dispensation to meet at an hour earlier than was named in lodge by-laws. Grand lodge decided that the grand master has no power to suspend by-laws which have been approved by grand lodge. A still later grand master (1919) while agreeing with the principle, extended it to mean that the grand master could not alter by-laws which could be lived up to, but could issue a dispensation to suspend a by-law which could not be lived up to. In other words, if by-laws specify a place of meeting and the place burns down, the grand master may suspend that by-law in favor of a new, temporary, meeting place.

Even in conservative England the dispensing power is now far greater than was envisioned in Andersons time. According to as old a volume as Kenning’s Encyclopedia (1878) the dispensing power of a grand master in England extends far enough to permit him to authorize a brother to be master of two lodges at the same time; a master to be elected more than two years in succession; a lodge to initiate a minor; a lodge to allow the master of a tavern to hold Masonic office; a lodge to admit a tiler or serving brother (not Master Masons) at Masonic funerals, or other public appearances; brethren to wear Masonic clothing in public.

Under the heading “Emergency” Mackey states: “The general law of Freemasonry requires a month to elapse between the reception of candidates of each of the degrees of Craft Masonry.”

Laws have changed since the great jurist wrote. Of the forty-nine grand lodges in the United States, only nineteen demand twenty-eight days or more between degrees; the rest vary in regulation between twenty-four hours,” “two weeks,” “twenty days, one stated meeting to the next,” “whenever the candidate is proficient.

The power of the grand master to shorten the time between is therefore not universal in this country, because not universally required. In jurisdictions where it may at times be needed the grand master is universally admitted to possess the power. Before a dispensation is given to shorten time between degrees in England, the master of the lodge concerned must state his opinion that there is an emergency which justifies the dispensation. Sentiment in the United States now leans toward the thought that the dispension power as to time between the degrees should not be used for the conveniences of lodges, but only in cases where its denial would work a real hardship upon a candidate — as, for instance, sudden military orders to a candidate to leave the location in which he was to receive a degree.

The dispensing power of a grand master usually works for the benefit of the Craft. No men have ever written the perfect law that would invariably operate for justice and never need mercy. Masonic laws, like all other laws, are the product of men’s thinking. The most experienced brethren have never succeeded in making laws which would fit every case which might come to a grand master’s attention, largely because “cases” are so frequently unexpected, without precedent, and with the only law which could apply at all, obviously not well fitting.

Hence the dispensing power, which can and does “temper justice with mercy” and provide intelligently for an emergency, works for the good of the Craft.

Occasionally a brother with more heart than head assumes the Grand East. Then dispensations too freely given may work an injury. During the World War I grand masters used the dispensing power with almost fanatical liberality. “The boys are going abroad to fight and make the world safe for democracy! They want to be Masons! Their fathers want them to be Masons!” Down went the bars — ten, twenty, fifty men were initiated at a time around a dozen altars in one lodge room; men were permitted to petition, be voted up, get all three degrees in a week, a few days, sometimes in one day!

The result was that during the Depression many members, who were seldom by any stretch of the imagination Masons, dropped away. Thus Masonry was cheapened by men who loved her most, who acted with the purest motives in the enthusiasm of a burning patriotism — and Freemasonry paid the penalty of overuse of the dispensing power never intended for such a purpose.

On the whole the dispensing power has been wisely used, and if American grand lodges have extended its scope beyond that of the Grand Lodge of 1717, it has done so because of new conditions, greater opportunities, different laws, a changed and expanded understanding of what in this day and age Freemasonry needs for its best welfare.

The Masonic Service Association of North America