Short Talks - Masonic Education by Joseph Fort Newton
In the matter of Masonic education, a bit of experience may not be amiss, and perhaps timely and worthwhile in view of the increasing desire on the part of the Craft to educate Masons in Masonry. It means much that we are at last awake to the need of training young Masons in the laws, customs, history, and symbols of the Order, for where there is a will there is a way, though in an undertaking so large and difficult it may take time to find the right way.
When I was made a Mason, I began to ply the Master of the Lodge with questions as to what it was all about. It was a totally new thing to me, unlike anything I had ever met-a new world, with a law and language of its own, different from any environment I had known-and my curiosity stimulated my audacity. The Master did not give me much information, and much of what he gave me I learned later was wide of the mark. He knew the Ritual, but what the Ritual meant, beyond its obvious moral teaching, he did not know; nor could he tell me its history.
Instead, he referred me to a venerable Past Master, a Judge on the bench, an able and noble man, who was good enough to spend several evenings with me, talking over Masonic affairs. A man of rich culture, of gentle and charming personality, the spirit of Masonry was in his life as color is in the flower, and he gave me, both by his conversation and the impress of his character, an exalted conception of the Craft. But he did not teach me much in the way of specific information as to the origin, growth, and development of the Craft.
There, for a time, my search ended, and while I went to Lodge occasionally, and enjoyed its fellowship, to say nothing of its "big meets and big eats," I gradually drifted away. No doubt it was my fault, but I have a feeling that neither the Lodge nor the Grand Lodge did its duty by me when, as a young man and minister, I entered the Temple seeking for knowledge, and finding none. Anyway, I do not think I was entirely to blame if I became a rather rusty Mason who regarded the Fraternity as simply one more order to belong to nothing else.
Some years later I went to Iowa, and when I tried to get into a Lodge, I well-nigh failed to get in at all, though I had been asked to speak. The brother who examined me said afterward that had he not known that I was a minister, and a man of my word, he would not have allowed me to get in. Nor do I blame him, because I had forgotten about everything except the penalties of the obligations and the Grand Masonic word-and I gave that with some hesitation. Happily, by the time I became Chaplain of the Grand Lodge I had rubbed some of the rust off and could go freely from Lodge to Lodge.
At that time a few brethren in the Grand Lodge had begun to feel the need of Masonic education, and I became interested at once, doing a lot of work in the Grand Lodge library-the greatest in the world; and as I dug and delved, the meaning of Masonry began to unfold, in a way to startle and amaze me. The writings of Waite, with whom I had come in contact in another connection, did most for me at first, in giving me a long and large vision of the spiritual aspect of the Craft. Pike helped too, especially in a little manuscript volume of his which I found in the House of the Temple in Washington.
Out of studies such as these grew the little book called "The Builders" which, if it were written now, would be very different from what it is; more simple, more like a primer. It was written for the Grand Lodge, and has since gone into many places, showing that it was an attempt, at least, to meet a deeply felt need. As a result of my studies, and especially the reading of the reports of the Research Lodges of England, I proposed that we have a Research Lodge in Iowa, under the auspices of the Grand Lodge. From this grew the Research Society, which, fortunately, was made national in scope, and is still busy in its benign labors.
My experience as editor of The Builder taught me more than I taught the brethren, a great deal more in fact. Slowly I began to see that we had hold of a big idea, but we had it by the wrong end. To be sure, we did draw together a goodly company of brethren who were students of Masonry, as readers of and writers for The Builder, and that was so far good. But, in comparison with the number of Masons in America, they were very few - hardly a drop in the bucket. Indeed, we did not even touch the rank and file of the Craft, because, as I began to see, we overshot them by fifty-five miles, three hundred yards, and seventeen inches.
Then came the war [WWI], which took me away to England, and upset all my plans, one of which was to alter our policy entirely and, if possible, get hold of the other end of the idea we were working on. Books, journals, Research Societies could never do the thing that needed to be done. So much was clear - nor did I know how it could be done; but I meant to try and find out. During my first month in England, I went to pay a long-promised visit to Lodge Progress in Glasgow, and there met Bro. A. S. McBride, who has recently left us to join the Great White Lodge.
Never shall I forget a talk we had together in his lovely home after Lodge, which lasted until far into the night - until a sweet voice from upstairs reminded us that we had better "turn in"- a voice, alas, now silent. Knowing that my host was a great Masonic teacher, I described to him our problem and confided our difficulties. In reply he told me how he was trained in Masonry, and I thought then, as I think now, that he had the key to the whole situation, if we are wise enough to use it. In the old days in Scotland, he said, it was the custom - now, unfortunately, fallen into disuse - to have what they called "intenders," that is brethren whose special duty it was to post young men in the Ritual, but also, at the same time, to instruct them in the things they ought to know about the Craft and its work in the world.
There it is, beyond doubt, the plan and method we need. It takes a young man at the time when he is ready and eager to know; it links the study of Masonry with the Ritual, as it should be; and it is done in an atmosphere in which not only the facts, but the spirit, the "feel" of Masonry, can be communicated. There is not a Lodge in the land in which there are not a number of brethren capable, or who can become capable, of such instruction. Surely a Grand Lodge ought to be as eager to have at least an elementary knowledge of what Masonry is imparted to its young men, as it is to have them know the Ritual. Had there been such an "in-tender" in my Lodge when I was made a Mason, he would have been a godsend - just the man I wanted to meet.
Such a plan is neither impossible nor impractical, if we really mean business in the matter of Masonic education. Where is a young man to go if not to his Lodge and his Grand Lodge in order to learn what Masonry is? Why should he have to go anywhere else? If it is said that he can read if he wishes to learn, what is he to read? More than half the books written about Masonry are rubbish and rot, written by men ill-trained or half-baked, who foist every kind of odd and curious notion upon their unsuspecting readers in the name of Masonry. Surely there is enough authentic fact and truth about Masonry to form a body of knowledge to be taught to young Masons. If not, we are in a poor way indeed, and it is time to ease up on our high-sounding talk about the antiquity and profundity of our symbols, to say nothing of the peroration we know so well.
Such is the situation as I have come to see it, after some experience and not a little observation and reflection. Whether my glasses are clear or smoked, I leave it for the brethren to decide. But surely it is high time for our Grand Lodges, either separately or together, as they think best, to take up the problem of giving some kind of training to our rapidly growing Craft, that our young men may know what Masonry is, what it means, and what to do with it. Anyway, I should like to do something to make it easier for a young man to learn more what he ought and has a right to know about Masonry than I found it in my day.
In regard to the working of the plan here proposed, let me add a few details of a practical sort. Here, again, I speak from actual experience. Often each season I am asked to visit Lodges, and nearly always it is to give a talk following the degree, in place of the "historical" lecture. The men want something different from the lecture in the Ritual, which has become a mere rigmarole. My talk is usually a brief, bird's-eye sketch of the origin and growth of the Craft, how it came to be and what it is trying to do in the world - a simple story made up of facts about which there is little or no debate.
The expressions of interest and the questions asked afterward show that for most of the brethren the story is entirely new. A sketch of the Men's House in early society, of the drama of the Ancient Mysteries upon which our great degree is modeled, what the great symbols meant to men in early times, when and why Masons were called Freemasons, how far back men who were not actual working Masons asked to be Accepted as members in the Lodges, the story of the first Grand Lodge, and such like facts are novel and interesting. Hundreds of brethren - young men, especially - have told me that my simple talk made them feel that Masonry had a real meaning and a history and is not a thing in the air-like a fairy-story.
What I do in a simple talk ought to be done by the Lodge itself, under the authority and direction, of course, of the Grand Lodge. Suppose a Grand Lodge should decide to teach Masonry to its young men, how would it go about such an undertaking? The first thing would be to select a group of Masonic scholars to prepare a digest of the facts to be taught as to the origin and development of the Craft. This material should then be carefully worked over and arranged, say, in three historical lectures, in the manner of a Ritual-simple, clear, accurate-approved by the Grand Lodge. So much knowledge ought to be required of every man who is elected to the Chair of a Lodge, if only to do away with the absurdity of a man being the Master of a Lodge who knows nothing about Masonry.
If some such requirement were made necessary to Mastership, in a few years the whole problem of "intenders," to use the old Scotch phrase, would be solved. Every Past Master, as well as the men in line for the Chair, would be qualified to instruct an initiate not only in the Ritual, but in the story, symbols, laws and customs of the Craft. Each initiate would then know the primary facts of Masonic history and tradition and would be free to follow further and learn more as his inclination and opportunity might direct. At any rate, he would have the basis and beginning-the grade-school foundation, so to name it--of a Masonic education; and we may be sure that few would stop there.
What should be taught to Masons in the Lodge? Besides the outline of the history and evolution of the Craft which I have suggested, each Mason ought to know the story of his own Lodge and of his Grand Lodge. It was years before I had the faintest idea of the history of the Grand Lodge of Iowa, under whose obedience I live. Yet what a story it is, interwoven with the story of the Commonwealth - a romance of the pioneers, of brave beginnings when the State was a Territory and the Lodge was busy as a creative and beneficent influence in formative days. What is true of Iowa is true of every State in the Union. Who can read the Masonic history of Texas, for example--or Michigan, or Ohio, or Kansas, to say nothing of the longer history of the older states-and not feel his heart grow warm with pride and reverence?
There is not a Grand Lodge in America whose story is not a thrilling romance, and it ought to be known by the young men who live under its obedience. The right kind of lecture - or more than one - prepared with care, giving the facts and their human color and social setting - given in every Lodge in the jurisdiction once or twice or quarterly each year, would mean a new generation of Masons proud of their Masonry and ready to carry forward the great tradition into the years that lie ahead. How little we have done, how much remains to be done!
Newton, J. F. (1969). Short talks on Masonry. Macoy Pub. & Masonic Supply Co. Original publication in 1928, Masonic Service Association of the United States