Vol. XL No. 8 — August 1962

What Is the M.S.A.?

Conrad Hahn

This question is frequently asked by the members of a local lodge who have had no grand lodge experience or who hear occasionally that The Short Talk Bulletin being used in the lodge “comes from The Masonic Service Association.” This Short Talk has been prepared for such brethren to help them understand what this “servant of American Freemasonry” is and does.

The Masonic Service Association of the United States is a voluntary association of American grand lodges. Membership is limited to recognized grand lodges of the United States and its possessions. At the present time forty-two grand lodges are members, including those in Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The latter voted to join the Association in January 1946, when that country was still a territory of the United States.

There are no memberships for individuals. The Constitution of the Association declares that it

“shall be composed of the Grand Lodges of the United States that have heretofore voted, or may hereafter vote, to become members.” There is no other requirement for joining. Grand lodges become and remain members “of their own free will and accord.”

The founding of The Masonic Service Association in 1919 is one of the inspiring stories of American Freemasonry's capacity to respond to a great national challenge and a global opportunity. When Masons in uniform in World War I requested Masonic service and assistance, in cantonments and behind the lines in France, their brethren at home hurried to respond to their needs. Practically every grand lodge and many of the other rites and orders collected “war chests” for programs of service and entertainment.

To their dismay, Masons learned that they were denied the opportunity to serve their sons and brothers in uniform because the national government refused to work with fifty or more Masonic groups who wanted to do their bit. “Give us one Masonic agency to deal with,” said governmental officials.

Far-sighted and responsible Masonic leaders recognized the need and the opportunity for Masonic service. They went to work to create such an agency. They challenged their brethren to make their beloved Fraternity responsive to a changing world and to a greater responsibility. But progress was painfully slow. Old habits of thought had to be modified. Fears about jurisdictional sovereignty had to be overcome. The ancient specter of a general grand lodge had to be banished.

By the time the representatives of twenty-two grand lodges finally assembled in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in November 1918, the First World War had ended. But the dedicated Masons who attended that meeting recognized a continuing responsibility to our servicemen. Demobilization would not be a short-term achievement. They also envisioned the future usefulness of a national Masonic agency, in peace time as well as in war. They hammered out the structure of The Masonic Service Association to take home for the approval of their grand lodges, and went to work to make it a reality.

As a result, November 11, 1919, saw the call to order for the first annual meeting of The Masonic Service Association of the United States[1] at Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Thirty-four grand lodges were represented. The dream had come true. Nevertheless, the doubts and fears that attended the birth of this Masonic service agency are responsible for one of the most remarkable conditions ever written into the constitution of a Masonic organization. Under the article on amendments is found the following proviso: “that this Constitution shall never be amended in such a manner as to provide or permit the development of this Association into a National Grand Lodge.”

With that prohibition, however, the founding fathers of the Association guaranteed that its function would always be service, not sovereignty. The Masonic Service Association cannot legislate for grand lodges; it can issue no Masonic edicts; it cannot create a body of Masonic jurisprudence. Its purposes are clearly enunciated in the constitution; they are the benevolent and philosophic goals to which Freemasonry everywhere devotes its labors: brotherly love, relief, and truth.

The object of this Association shall be the Service of Mankind, through education and enlightenment, financial relief and Masonic visitation, and ministering to, comforting and relieving the members of the Fraternity and their dependents, particularly in times of disaster and distress, whether caused by war, pestilence, famine, fire, flood, earthquake or other calamity.

In the words of the Association’s first chairman of the executive commission, Freemasons had seen the need for “a united voice, a united front, some agency that would enable American Masonry to negotiate, whether it be with the government or otherwise . . . a new opportunity for service . . . a service even more necessary now than were the ministrations which we then sought to afford our brethren clad in khaki.” Out of that opportunity grew the well-known literature and information services of the M.S. A., its program of “Education and Enlightenment.”

The history of the Association is still to be written, and the limitations of space in a Short Talk Bulletin prevent a recital of all the noteworthy achievements of The Masonic Service Association as “the united voice" of American grand lodges.

The educational program was initiated in 1920 with the publication of Speakers’ Bulletins, the first a description of the work of the M.S.A., and the second a discussion of “The Fatherhood of God,” by Melvin M. Johnson of Massachusetts. These pamphlets ran to a considerable length, sometimes as much as sixty pages.

In 1923 they were modified to the present Short Talk Bulletin, which appears monthly for use in lodges of the member jurisdictions. The first of these was “Paul Revere.” Ever since, Short Talks have been published regularly to provide supplementary educational materials for local lodges and interested individuals. There are now more than 450 separate titles, all of them kept in stock at the Association’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Back numbers are sold for ten cents apiece. Individual Masons may become subscribers on an annual basis.

As part of its service to the member grand lodges, the Association sends a copy of The Bulletin (and its supplement, Your Masonic Hospital Visitor) to every constituent lodge. While it is mailed to the master or the secretary, as the grand lodge may direct, The Bulletin is sent to the lodge and should be regarded as its property. It should be made available to members. Carefully preserved in the archives or library of the lodge, The Bulletins can be the nucleus of a program of Masonic reading and study.

Written by outstanding Masonic leaders and scholars like those already mentioned, they also enjoyed the authorship of Masonic writers like Joseph Fort Newton, Realf Ottesen, and J. Hugo Tatsch. In 1924-25 a new contributor appeared, who was destined to become the Association’s executive secretary in 1929, Carl H. Claudy. For almost thirty years, from 1929 to 1958, The Short Talk Bulletins were the work of his inspired pen. When he died in 1957, he left a supply of unpublished Talks that lasted well into the following year.

Under his leadership the Association broadened its educational services by publishing more extensive studies of Masonic history, symbolism, practices, philosophy, and statistics - generally known as the Digests of the M.S.A. These are made available to grand lodge officers and leaders of the Craft. This may be purchased by interested Masons. In addition, the Association makes special studies at the request of grand lodge officers and committees. It carries on a considerable “information bureau” by correspondence with inquiring brothers. It is gradually building a library of motion pictures of famous Masonic speakers so that even the remotest lodge in the country can enjoy the best in Masonic inspiration at very little cost. It makes available for consultation by grand lodge committees on education all its resources of personnel and material, including the extensive Masonic library maintained at the offices in Washington, D.C. As the “servant of American Freemasonry,” the M.S.A. exists to help the grand lodges in gathering and exchanging information, ideas, and tools for Masonic education.

The great tenet of Relief, which called the Association into being in 1919, has not been neglected. Repeatedly the M.S.A. has been called upon to investigate the needs of Masons and their families in times of wide spread catastrophe, to make these needs known to all grand lodges in the United States, and to serve as the clearinghouse for funds contributed for the relief of distressed Master Masons who are victims of such disaster. All this is done as part of the Association’s service to its members, at no extra cost to participating grand lodges.

As early as 1923 the M.S.A. acted for American grand lodges in sending money to Japan to relieve the suffering caused by the Japanese Earthquake. In 1927 it performed brilliantly in the investigation of needs and in the coordination of relief activities for the victims of the great Mississippi Valley Flood. More than $600,000 was contributed by grand lodges to that humanitarian effort. Agents of the M.S.A. worked on the spot to see that brother Masons got the temporary help and relief that they required.

When World War II broke out, American Freemasonry was ready to serve its sons and brothers in the armed forces. It now had a single agency to carry on a program of friendly counsel and wholesome relaxation for lonesome boys in training camps and even abroad. Between 1941 and 1946 the M.S.A. established more than seventy Masonic Service Centers near training camps and military bases, where servicemen could go for entertainment and refreshment in a clean and wholesome atmosphere. It was able to staff them with trained and dedicated leaders, members of the Craft, who loved and admired the boys they served. With a unified agency to deal with government officials, to establish consistent Masonic policies in the administration of those “homes away from home,” and to economize by "centralized” purchases of supplies and equipment for the program, American Freemasons got a dollar’s worth of value for every one of the million and a half dollars that they contributed to that remarkable service. Through their Masonic Service Association during World War II American grand lodges proved that the denial of their “bit” in 1917-18 had been a serious mistake.

So respected and admired was the work of field agents in this welfare work for our sons and brothers in uniform that military leaders and government officials requested its extension into Service and Veterans Hospitals, when the mounting number of casualties filled these institutions as the war was drawing to a close.

Since July 1, 1946, The Masonic Service Association has been carrying on, in behalf of United States grand lodges, an extensive program of hospital visitation, to bring to our hospitalized sons and brothers the warm greetings and handclasp of a brother Mason, a morale-building gift of some simple creature comfort, or the patient and willing performance of some little service that a bed-ridden patient cannot do for himself. The magnificent story of this great “labor of love” is told in every supplement to The Short Talk Bulletin. It is called Your Masonic Hospital Visitor.

Although World War II and the Korean War ended many years ago, the Veterans Administration is still expanding its hospital facilities. It doesn’t expect the peak of its patient load until about 1969. Service incurred disabilities have a way of developing many years later. Our government is naturally concerned to care for those who have borne the battle, no matter when their disabilities occur. Freemasons, likewise, must continue their service of brotherly love for the lonely patients in V.A. Hospitals.

The Masonic Service Association is not merely a group of employees at headquarters in Washington. At present there are more than seventy regular and volunteer field agents of the M.S.A., specially trained, visiting in Service or V.A. Hospitals. Their performance is one of the finest public relations programs that American Freemasonry enjoys today. But when you realize that there are more than a hundred and fifty V.A. Hospitals in the United States (to say nothing of Army and Navy Hospitals), you can see that Freemasonry’s service of brotherly love is restricted to less than half of the opportunity presented.

Why? Because that’s as far as the money goes. The Hospital Visitation program is supported entirely by voluntary contributions. Not a cent is taken from the Association’s income from dues paid by member grand lodges. That must be allocated to the administrative and educational activities of the Association.

Contributions are received largely from grand lodges that vote special funds or assessments, or that make special appeals to the Craft. Some individuals make contributions directly to the Association; and other rites and bodies, notably the Imperial Council of the Shrine and the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite, Northern Jurisdiction, have been generous and faithful supporters of this great labor of love.

The administrative and educational services of the Association, which include its publications, are maintained by the annual dues paid by member grand lodges. These dues are based on a per capita of a few cents per member in each jurisdiction, with a downward adjustment for larger grand lodges after the first 25,000 and 75,000 members. Since unit cost decreases with quantity, the larger memberships pay less for materials; but all grand lodges share in the overhead cost of rent, salaries, initial costs of publication, and similar expenses. In spite of increased costs there has been no change since 1929 in the three cent maximum per capita.

The management and direction of the Association’s affairs are vested in an Executive Commission, which consists of a chairman and one member from each of six geographical divisions, all elected annually.

The Executive Commission elects and appoints the executive secretary, who also acts as treasurer of the Association. It also appoints such other officers, committees, or employees it considers necessary. The Executive Commission is responsible for doing whatever is necessary to carry out the purposes of the Association, in accordance with the policies determined or approved by the delegates, usually the grand masters, who represent the member grand lodges at the Association’s annual meeting.

That assembly is a “working meeting,” for every grand master or his accredited representative is assigned to one of the committees that review the various areas of the Association’s activities. They evaluate results, and recommend the continuance or modification of practices or programs. Committees function for an entire calendar year. The annual meeting must be presided over by one of the delegates elected from the floor. All acts of the commission and its appointed officers must be approved by a vote of the representatives of member grand lodges. Complete reports are made and published. The chairman and members of the executive commission must be elected annually. Each member grand lodge has one vote. Control of the Association therefore rests in the grand lodges that compose the M.S.A., through the franchise of their delegates.

The usefulness of American Freemasonry’s agency for service has been fully demonstrated in the forty-three years of its existence. It has truly been a servant, not only for the grand lodges in its membership, but for individual Masons and constituent lodges who seek its help and counsel. The Masonic Service Association has been able to “speak as one voice” for the Fraternity; and in its name it has been able to demonstrate to mankind that Masons are sincerely devoted to brotherly love, relief, and truth.

⁎  ⁎  ⁎

  1. 7he name was changed to the “Masonic Service Association of North America” in 1995.

The Masonic Service Association of North America