Vol. XXXIX No. 2 — February 1961

Ray Vaughn Denslow

Conrad Hahn

Freemasonry, like all worthy institutions, achieves renown in every generation because of the devoted labors and achievements of a few gifted thinkers and leaders. The year 1960 may well be remembered as the end of a Masonic era, because it recorded the death of one of America’s most distinguished Freemasons, Brother Ray Vaughn Denslow (1885-1960) of Trenton, Missouri. He was the last of a group of Masonic authors — such as Claudy, Haywood, Hunt, and Newton — whose writings gave distinction to American Freemasonry in the first half of the twentieth century.

With his passing, there pauses an influence that not only enriched his own Grand Lodge of Missouri, which not only pervaded and inspired Masonic activities all over the United States, but which also stimulated Freemasonry in every part of the world. Ray Denslow was addressed as “Brother” in every language used by Masons of the twentieth century. The “universality of Freemasonry” was more than a pious hope to Brother Ray; it was a Masonic program to which he devoted much of his activity - correspondence, speaking, writing, traveling, planning, and thinking.

The basic facts of Ray V. Denslow’s life are quickly told. He was born March 6, 1885, at Spickard, Missouri, son of William Marvin Denslow and Malinda Schooler Denslow, whose British ancestors first immigrated to New England in 1630. He attended the public schools in Spickard, Blees Military Academy in Macon, Missouri, and the Macon High School, after which he matriculated at the University of Missouri, from which he was graduated in 1907 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. As a student at the University, Ray Denslow was one of the organizers of the Missouri Chapter, Acacia fraternity, a national organization of students with Masonic connections.

With Homer Croy, well-known writer, Brother Denslow was one of the first graduates of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. In 1909, he and his father became editors and publishers of the Trenton (Mo.) Daily News. In 1911, he entered the postal service and became assistant postmaster at Trenton; but in 1921 he resigned that position to become national supervisor, or organizer, for the Order of DeMolay. His efforts were marked with outstanding success, until he gave up that activity in 1923 to become secretary of all the York Rite bodies of Missouri. From that year until his death, Freemasonry became his whole life, his daily vocation as well as avocation, his hobby, and his recreation.

Ray V. Denslow entered Freemasonry on his twenty-first birthday, March 6, 1906. One year later, on June 8, 1907, the day after receiving his diploma from the University of Missouri, he was married to Clara Alice Merrifield, of Macon, Missouri. They became the parents of one son, William Ray Denslow, who has long been associated with his father in publishing Masonic books and The Royal Arch Mason, official magazine of the General Grand Chapter.

Personally, Ray Denslow considered his founding of The Royal Arch Mason in 1943 as his crowning achievement. This quarterly magazine was established in the face of considerable opposition and in its early years was partially financed from his own funds. Its timely and informative material, its well-edited pages and attractive format soon brought it recognition and success. In 1960 its circulation passed the 110,000 mark. Ray Denslow edited The Royal Arch Mason for almost eighteen years.

Although Brother Denslow held almost every Masonic office that a York Rite Mason could aspire to and received Masonic honors and awards too numerous to mention in a short appreciation like this, he personally would have decried any attempt to pin his reputation to titles and awards. He appreciated them; he was pleased; but he always felt that there still was work to do. Nevertheless, Freemasons cannot appreciate the important achievements of his long and fruitful career unless they know the highlights of his Masonic biography.

After he was made a Master Mason in April 1906, he quickly became a Royal Arch Mason and a Knight Templar. A few years later he was received as a Royal and Select Master and became a member of the Scottish Rite. He presided over all the local Masonic bodies in Trenton, which qualified him for membership in Missouri Priory No. 17, Knights of the York Cross of Honor, an organization he was instrumental in establishing in Missouri. He was a life member of Moila Temple, A.A.O.N.M.S., and a Fellow of the Philalethes Society, for which he worked actively and enthusiastically.

Like almost all accomplished leaders of the Craft, he was an excellent ritualist and valued the opportunities that came to him to smooth and polish this foundation stone of Freemasonry.

He was dean of past grand high priests in Missouri, having served as grand high priest of Royal Arch Masons in 1919-1920. In 1931 he served as grand master of the Grand Lodge, A.F.&A.M. of Missouri, and from 1942 to 1946 was general grand high priest of the General Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons. He was coroneted a 33° honorary member of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry for the Southern Jurisdiction in 1935. In 1943-1944 he served as grand sovereign of the Grand Imperial Council of the Red Cross of Constantine for the United States. He received the cordon of the honorary legion of honor, highest award of DeMolay, in 1927; and was made an active member-at-large in 1944 of the DeMolay International Supreme Council.

With his growing reputation as a Masonic writer and leader, Ray V. Denslow became more and more sought after at Masonic gatherings all over the nation. His counsel and active participation were so generally desired during the last three decades that few Masonic meetings on the national level were held without his presence and inspiration. For many years he served as chairman of the committee on foreign relief of The Masonic Service Association of the United States. His annual reports at the Association’s meetings became one of the highlights of “Masonic Week” in Washington, D. C.

Such services made him the natural choice for chairman of a special committee that the Association sent abroad in 1945 to investigate the condition of Freemasonry in the devastated countries of Europe. Accompanied by Charles H. Johnson, P.G.M. and grand secretary of New York, Claude J. McAllister, P.G.M. and Grand Historian of Montana, and George E. Bushnell, then Lieutenant Commander of the Scottish Rite, Northern Jurisdiction, Brother Denslow visited most of the countries and Masonic leaders of western Europe right after the war, learned to know intimately the problems and tragedies of a war-torn continent, and helped to write a stirring document entitled Freemasonry in Europe, published by The Masonic Service Association in November 1945. As a result of that investigation and report, American Freemasonry raised approximately $200,000 in the next few years to send to European Freemasons to alleviate the sufferings and distress of human beings made homeless or destitute in the aftermath of a horrible war.

Four years later The Masonic Service Association again chose Brother Denslow as chairman of a special mission to Germany, to ascertain the status of Freemasonry in that country and to bring back for transmission to all United States grand lodges such facts as might bear on the question of recognition of German Freemasonry, which had moved closer to unification in June 1949, with the formation of the United Grand Lodge of Germany under the leadership of Dr. Theodor Vogel. On this trip, Brother Denslow was accompanied by Martin J. Dietz, P.G.M. of New Jersey. As a result of that mission, Brothers Dietz and Denslow produced the Digest, entitled After Fifteen Years, which had a significant effect in spreading light and understanding about renascent Freemasonry in the heart of Europe.

These experiences transformed Ray Denslow’s belief in “the universality of Freemasonry” into a glowing conviction that the Fraternity was one of the greatest potentials for peace in our time — if it could supply the remedy of brotherly love, relief, and truth. As he himself wrote, “The Two Masonic missions sent to Europe in 1945 and in 1949 accomplished more to make friends for the United States than all the pork barrels poured out since that time.” It was this deep conviction that led him to recommend wider recognition and more active fraternal relationships with many grand lodges to the south, an espousal that has been misunderstood by some brethren who “know the law” but do not recognize its spirit.

At the North American Masonic Conferences in Washington every February, it was Ray Denslow who “took under his wing” the representatives of overseas grand lodges, who introduced them to the Masonic leaders of the United States, and entertained them at a breakfast of international fellowship and understanding.

Although it may seem presumptuous for one admirer of Brother Denslow to predict his immortality, this writer is convinced that Ray V. Denslow will enjoy lasting fame as a Masonic scholar and author. Long after those have departed who could say that they knew him when “there were giants in the earth in those days,” long after those whose hearts and hands he touched in brotherly love and understanding have joined him “in the vasty halls of death,” Ray Vaughn Denslow will be read and studied because of the significant books and monographs that he wrote about Freemasonry.

No Masonic historian or interpreter of the future can ignore his tremendous contributions to the literature of the Fraternity. Thoroughly trained in the canons of exact and careful scholarship, Brother Denslow will always be an “authority” for students of Missouri Freemasonry because of such books as Territorial Masonry, A Missouri Frontier Lodge, and The History of Royal Arch Masonry in Missouri.

Such definitive works as the three volume History of Royal Arch Masonry (in collaboration with E. R. Turnbull), the two volume History of the Cryptic Rite (in collaboration with E. E. Hinman and C. C. Hunt) and A York Rite Encyclopedia, place him in the front rank of modern Masonic historians. All future students of the York Rite will begin their studies with Denslow and acknowledge the tremendous debt they owe to his pioneering. One of the best of his earlier studies is The Masonic Conservators, a valuable account of Rob Morris’ nineteenth century effort to establish ritualistic uniformity in the Grand Lodges of the United States.

For the Missouri Lodge of Research, of which he was one of the organizers and founders, he labored as editor of its Transactions from 1943 until his death. Under its aegis he wrote a number of compendiums rich in content and exceedingly valuable as reference books for the Masonic student who needs some facts quickly. Among these volumes are Masonic Rites and Degrees, Freemasonry in the Eastern Hemisphere, Freemasonry and the Presidency, and Freemasonry in the Western Hemisphere. While some of the facts in these volumes may be amplified or re-interpreted by future specialists, these books will long continue to be consulted by Masonic scholars who need the essential facts “in a nutshell.”

For many years Ray Denslow was chairman of the committees on correspondence and recognition of foreign grand lodges of the Grand Lodge of Missouri. As its “foreign correspondent” he developed the annual Fraternal Review of other grand lodges into a unique topical review that revealed his journalistic talents in a grand survey of Masonic thought, activity, and personalities all over the world. It became an eagerly awaited annual Rundschau, which he labeled appropriately The Masonic World. Some of the most interesting fraternal anecdotes and Masonic current events are preserved in these pamphlets.

Nowhere else in his writings did Brother Denslow reveal himself so personally — his hopes, his Masonic philosophy, his tastes, and his prejudices. Like all forceful leaders he had strong opinions that he was willing to assert with vigor and feeling. The annual volume of The Masonic World was always a stimulating tour de force of Masonic journalism; but it sometimes suffered from the natural weaknesses of that medium of communication, the intrusion of the editor’s personal feelings, delightful as some of them were, and hurried writing that permitted an occasional error of fact to appear.

At the same time, however, one admires the restraint with which he could handle “burning questions” and the wisdom that dictated some of his deft editorial climaxes, like the one in the 1959 Masonic World that concluded a report about a candidate for one state legislature, who proclaimed his intentions “to force the state to pay 50 percent of the cost of all new parochial schools” and dared “any candidate to fight me on this issue.”

Commented Brother Ray with a “between the lines” smile, "Fightin’ son of a gun, ain’t he?”

The modesty that prompted Ray Denslow to make little of the honors and titles that were bestowed upon him was also evident in his frequent assertion, “I’m no orator; I’m not sure that I can give this audience what it wants.” But the very thing he depreciated as his only claim on an audience’s attention — “I’ve just picked up a lot of facts about Masonry” — was the source of the Fraternity’s continuing desire to hear him speak. What he did with those facts was the special gift that made Ray Denslow one of the popular Masonic speakers of his time.

The Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Washington have preserved his address at its Centennial Celebration at Olympia on December 8, 1958. It reveals his delight in homespun American humor, the sense of history that has distinguished so much of his Masonic writing, and his earnest desire to inspire Freemasonry to achieve its transcendent mission. Using a wide canvas of history and Masonic information, he paints a vivid picture of the real nature of Freemasonry, by correcting a number of common misconceptions of the Fraternity. With detailed illustrations of Freemasonry’s sufferings under persecution and with specific suggestions for improving the labors of the Craft, he succeeds in lifting his hearers to a realistic conception of “the universality of Masonry” and its attainable ideals.

As Ray himself has written elsewhere,

There exists a general misconception of the character of Freemasonry. To the average member there is given little education as to why the Fraternity has an excuse for existence except furnishing a place for men to gather together, eat, and confer degrees, with little accent on the degree section. . . . Finally, there are the very few, the men of vision, who see in the Fraternity a chance to better the world, but too often these brethren lack an opportunity to engage in projects that might bring an ultimate peace to the world. Too, they may lack the knowledge of how to bring such a situation about. . . . It is the touch of the hand, the personal relationship, the love of fellow man, and the practice of brotherly love that will bring Utopia, if it comes to this world.

Ray Denslow’s funeral was a simple church service, with short Masonic burial rites that he had helped to prepare. As usual, he wanted no pomp or ceremony. Although nearly the entire official line of the Grand Lodge of Missouri was in attendance, not one of them had a part in the Masonic service. That was given by a member of his lodge, Trenton No. 111. That was the way R.V.D. had wanted it.

Brother Denslow enjoyed Masonic knowledge and some of the opportunities he wished for every brother. He was one of “the men of vision." To posterity he has left the wisdom and the hopes of a life dedicated wholly to the Craft. To share his belief in “the universality of Freemasonry,” and to act on that belief — this would be the most appropriate memorial to Ray Vaughn Denslow.

The Masonic Service Association of North America