Vol. XLIII No. 1 — January 1965

The Grand Masters’ Conference

Conrad Hahn

This annual meeting of Masonic leaders is officially (and more descriptively) called the Conference of Grand Masters of Masons in North America. Grand masters from the provinces of Canada, from Mexico, and from some of the Caribbean as well as Central American countries join the grand masters of the United States grand lodges at this assembly, which is held annually at the time of George Washington’s birthday. Observers from some of the grand lodges in Europe are welcomed every year.

American grand masters are the official delegates to the annual meeting of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association, which must be held on Washington’s birthday, except when it falls on a Sunday. In that event, the meeting is held a day earlier or a day later. They are also the representatives to the annual meeting of The Masonic Service Association, which is conveniently arranged for a date just before or after the Conference of Grand Masters. The Conference of Grand Secretaries of North America is scheduled to coincide with the Conference of Grand Masters, so that four important meetings of Masonic leaders in North America are brought together each year in one place and in one busy convention of approximately four days.

This series of meetings is commonly referred to as “Masonic Week.” In addition to grand masters, most of the Grand Secretaries are present for this conference, and many grand lodges send their deputy grand masters as a valuable preparation for the conference they will attend as grand masters a year or two later. Some American grand lodges have an official representative of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association in their jurisdictions. He may also be a delegate to the annual meeting.

A few grand lodges also send some of their past grand masters to these conferences; it depends on their proximity to the place of meeting and on their financial ability. Not a few past grand masters attend “on their own.” Annually, however, the registration figures now show an average attendance of approximately 325 Masonic leaders from all over North America. Most of them are accompanied by their wives, making a convention total that requires the facilities of a large and well-managed hotel in a locality easy of access by modern means of transportation.

Although there had been at least ten Masonic “congresses” in this country during the nineteenth century, and six more conferences of grand masters in the United States in the first twenty years of this century, none of them enjoyed wide support and none of them developed into a continuing annual conference. The fear that such “congresses” might lead to the creation of a general grand lodge was the principal deterrent.

Two events, in 1919 and 1923, started the ball rolling for an annual Conference of Grand Masters. The first was the creation of The Masonic Service Association of the United States, which resulted from the fact that during World War I American Freemasons had been denied the opportunity to serve their sons and brothers in uniform, because the Government and Armed Forces refused to deal with more than fifty grand lodges and other Masonic rites and orders that wanted to do service work at home and abroad. Grand masters of member jurisdictions attending the Association’s annual meetings soon discovered that they had common problems and interests outside the agenda of the Association’s business meetings that would benefit from a conference of grand masters.

In 1923 work on the George Washington Masonic National Memorial had reached a point where the cornerstone could be laid. This big Masonic event took place on November 1, but it was preceded on October 30 and 31 by the annual meeting of The Masonic Service Association and by a Conference of Grand Masters to which the grand master of the District of Columbia had invited all the visiting dignitaries. The pattern for “Masonic Week” had been designed; the advantages of such an arrangement were obvious, and the grand masters were glad to have a chance to talk things over. In fact, it was at the 1923 meeting of The Masonic Service Association that the proposal was first heard that the grand masters hold a yearly conference in connection with the Association’s annual meeting.

Grand Master Richard C. Davenport of Illinois soon did something about it. He invited all grand masters in the United States to such a conference in Chicago, to be held on November 17, 1925, the day before the seventh annual meeting of The Masonic Service Association. Since that time, the grand masters have met annually in a continuing Conference of Grand Masters, except in 1945 when restrictions on war-time travel prevented it.

When the conference (which met again in Chicago in 1926) realized that it could make national meetings for Masonic leaders more convenient, by holding them all at one time and in one place, and responding to the need to stimulate the building of the gigantic memorial to Brother Washington in Alexandria, Virginia, it voted to hold the 1927 Conference of Grand Masters in Washington, D.C., at the time of the annual meeting of the Memorial Association. There the conference remained, with one exception, in 1964, when the preceding conference had voted to try a change of location — Kansas City, Missouri. The 1965 conference is returning to Washington, D.C. (Masons who are interested in a more detailed history of the conference and its activities may obtain A Short History of the Conference of Grand Masters of Masons in North America, published by The Masonic Service Association in 1963.

Conference is an exact title for this annual meeting of Masonic leaders. Its only purpose is “to bring together” men and ideas. It is a voluntary association of grand masters who wish to become better acquainted, to exchange Masonic ideas and information and to strengthen the mystic tie that binds Freemasons together. Its fundamental purpose, therefore, is educational. There are no special requirements for membership; there are no initiation fees, although each grand lodge that authorizes its grand master to attend is expected to make a contribution for the general expenses of the conference, a contribution that is scaled to the size of the grand lodge’s membership.

It is a conference of grand masters, not of grand lodges. The individual delegates speak for themselves, to present information, to exchange opinions, to impart light. Each conference is a temporary association that expires at the conclusion of its meetings. It has no legislative, executive, or judicial powers that can be exercised on behalf of Freemasonry in general or any Masonic organization in particular. From the beginning of the conferences it has been clearly understood “that any action taken, by vote or otherwise, is not binding on any grand jurisdiction, but is merely for its information.”

Continuity between the individual conferences is provided by having the chairman and executive secretary elected at each conference serve in those stations until the next conference elects its own chairman and secretary. The conference (agenda) committee is selected annually from those who will be grand masters at the following conference. If they are in attendance as deputy grand masters, their conference experience helps to provide continuity also.

Votes taken by the Conference of Grand Masters, therefore, are generally limited to the election of officers, rules of procedure, determination of the time and place of the next meeting, the appointment of special committees to bring in special studies for information only, and the passing of resolutions of appreciation, sorrow, etc.

Resolutions that define Masonic principles or advocate policies for Masonic action cannot be adopted by the Conference of Grand Masters. To do so would infringe on the sovereignty of independent grand lodges. Such resolutions can only be accepted as information to be submitted to the individual grand lodges. That was the disposition made of the famous “Declaration of Principles” for Freemasonry introduced by a special committee at the 1939 conference.

That committee even refused to advise any grand lodge whether the declaration should be publicized or not. “We do not feel that we have any right to put ourselves in the position of superseding grand lodges. This is merely a communication from this body to the several grand lodges for such use as they see fit to make of it — or to make no use of it.” While many grand lodges have adopted that statement of principles as an official declaration of their Masonic beliefs and policies, there are some that have not. One grand lodge adopted them formally only in the last two years — more than twenty-two years after their original introduction at the Conference of Grand Masters!

Similar care not to infringe on grand lodge sovereignty had to be taken in 1952 when the conference voted to create a facility for gathering information about foreign grand lodges, to help all grand lodges evaluate requests for recognition as well as their existing recognitions. When the Conference of Grand Masters created its Commission on Information for Recognition, it specifically limited its function “to collecting and collating information” about other grand lodges. Grand lodges may use the information or not, as they choose. Expressions of opinion in the Commission’s reports are not official opinions of the Conference of Grand Masters; they are information only. Financial support for the work of the Commission is purely voluntary. No assessments are made to carry on its labors. Whenever necessary, the Commission makes an appeal for such financial support from grand lodges that are represented at the conferences.

The principal purpose of the Conference of Grand Masters is to bring grand masters together, to help them get acquainted, to exchange ideas and information, and thereby to increase Masonic light. Above these relatively specific objectives ride the hopes that these conferences will help “to crystallize sentiment with reference to Masonic fundamentals” and to develop unanimity of spirit in Freemasonry on this continent.

To achieve its educational objectives, the individual conferences have planned various types of programs to present Masonic problems and questions and to stimulate discussion about them. Among them have been reports, briefs, debates, panel discussions, keynote addresses, and statements of the problem.” The standard program device is the reading of papers written by selected grand masters, which it is hoped will provoke discussion, questions, and comments. The more such responses are elicited at a conference, the more generally successful it is judged to be.

At the first conferences in 1925 and 1926, reports were presented on such topics as “Uniform Receipts of Dues,” “Transfer of Membership,” “Dual Membership,” “Collateral Groups,” and some of “The Problems of Jurisdictional Sovereignty.” In 1965 the delegates will listen to papers and discussions on “What’s Right with Masonry?,” “By What Means Can We Overcome the Antagonism of many Ministers and Churches to Masonry?” and "A Grand Lodge Program of Masonic Education Which Really Reaches the Individual Member.”

Since 1925 more than three hundred fifty speakers have appeared during the meetings of the Conference of Grand Masters to present such papers, briefs, and reports. Most of their compositions are preserved in the Proceedings of the Conference of Grand Masters (published annually since 1927) where they comprise an extensive and valuable library for the Masonic student who investigates the growth and development of modern American Freemasonry.

At the annual meeting of The Masonic Service Association, each grand master of a member jurisdiction becomes “a working delegate,” because he is requested to serve on one of the committees that study and evaluate the activities and services of that Association. Such participation, while it adds to his labors before he goes to the annual conference, as well as while he is there, helps to bring reality to the hope that there is unanimity of spirit in Freemasonry on this continent. Each grand master goes home with a firm conviction that The Masonic Service Association really “belongs” to all United States grand lodges.

The brethren who attend the meetings of "Masonic Week” really go to work; but in addition to the satisfaction that comes from good work well done, they also enjoy the inspiration that is derived from reports of Masonic achievement and from the pleasure of Masonic refreshment.

The annual procession of grand masters to the platform at the meeting of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association, to present checks for the maintenance and endowment funds of that great monument, reveals “a united American Freemasonry in action.” The large entourage that participates in the wreath-laying ceremony at the tomb of Brother George Washington displays the pride of American Freemasonry in its illustrious heritage.

Both the Conference of Grand Masters and the Conference of Grand Secretaries hold evening banquets at which they present a distinguished and inspiring speaker. Such outstanding brothers in public life as Walter H. Judd of Minnesota, Senator Tom Connolly of Texas, and Dr. Milton S. Eisenhower, President of Johns Hopkins University, have addressed the grand masters’ Banquet, which is “colorfully enriched and graced by the ladies,” as well as by many distinguished Masons in government, such as Senators and Congressmen, who have been invited with their wives to be the guests of the grand masters of their home jurisdictions.

On the afternoon before the first sessions of the conferences, there is a gala tea and reception for all those in attendance. On the first morning of the conference of Grand Masters there is a “dutch treat” breakfast for the deputy grand masters and their wives. These are both “getting to know you” affairs to assist the delegates-to-be in getting better acquainted.

“Four busy days” is an apt summation of the experiences at the Conference of Grand Masters. Among the less tangible benefits that every representative takes home with him are an increased appreciation and respect for the Fraternity’s achievements and labors, and a more affectionate respect for his fellow grand masters. Many a lasting friendship between brothers living tremendous distances apart had its beginning during "Masonic Week.” Many a valuable idea for grand lodge practices or policies came home from the Conference of Grand Masters. Most important of all, perhaps, is the realization that one has made a realistic and useful contact with the “universality of Freemasonry.”

The Masonic Service Association of North America