Short Talks - The Future of Masonry by Joseph Fort Newton
Even a brief glimpse of the history of Modern Masonry, its almost accidental origin and its amazing evolution, gives one many problems to ponder. It is an astonishing story, fit for romance, and no man can read it without wonder. But in our days the minds of thoughtful men turn to the future more than to the past, thinking of the times ahead, and they naturally ask: What part, if any, is Masonry to have in helping to shape a better world order?
The past is secure. Masonry had a silent but mighty part in the making of America and in fashioning its fundamental life and law. The story of the American Revolution might have been very different, had not Washington and his generals--most of them, at any rate-been held together by the peculiar tie which: Masons spin and weave between men. But what of the future of Masonry in America and in the world? Obviously such an Order lies under special obligations to our country in these tangled times. The closing paragraph of the article on Masonry in the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is very significant; doubly so because the writer was not a Mason:
"As regards the future of Freemasonry, it is impossible, at least for an outsider, to say much. The celebration of the brotherhood of man, and the cultivation of universal goodwill in the abstract, seem rather indefinite objects for any society in this unimaginative age. There is, on the other hand, a tendency to degenerate into mere conviviality; while, if schools, or asylums, or other charities are supported, to that extent of course the society becomes local and exclusive in its character. In the meantime, Masonry is to blame for keeping afloat in the minds of its members many of the most absolutely puerile ideas. A more accurate knowledge of its singular and not undignified history would tend more than anything else to give worth and elevation to its aims."
Thus even an outsider sees clearly enough that Masonry, as now organized and employed, is not adequate to the demands of a realistic generation, and that to go on making men Masons, as we are now doing by wholesale, without giving them an intelligent and authentic knowledge of what Masonry is, or what it means, with no definite objects beyond fellowship and philanthropy-objects to which other Orders are equally devoted-is for Masonry to lose, by ignorance or neglect, what has been distinctive in its history and genius, and invite degeneration, if not disaster. Indeed, not a little of the tendency in our time to turn Masonry aside from its historic spirit and purpose-to say nothing of the multiplication of extraneous, imitative, or associated orders, fanciful in purpose and fantastic in program-is due to lack of knowledge of the history of Masonry and the reason why it has held so tenaciously to certain principles and policies through so many years of storm and strife. The future of Masonry, if it is to have a future worthy of its past, will be determined by its historic genius and purpose, not in slavish adherence to details, but by loyal and constructive obedience to its peculiar spirit and tenets. Otherwise our Lodges will become mere Clubs, like a thousand other such organizations--useful and delightful in their degree, but in nowise distinctive-far removed from the original meaning and intent of the Craft.
Hence the desire and endeavor of our time, as indicated in the threefold purpose of the Masonic Service Association of the United States, that Speculative Masonry shall once more be Operative by becoming Co-operative in its spirit and labor. There is manifest in the growing mind of the Fraternity today a wider realization and a larger application of the time-honored and beautiful mission of Masonry, as expressed in its oft-declared trinity of purpose; Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. Let us take Relief first, since it is so fundamental that nothing need be said beyond the famous word of an eastern seer: "When man will not help man the end of the world has come." By Relief we mean the urgent necessities of humanity in time of woe, whether it be war, pestilence, or other disaster-flood, fire, earthquake-which may any day devastate any part of the world, helping not only our Brethren in dire plight, but also, to the measure of our power, all who by affliction are made helpless. An unknown poet puts it vividly, as poets know how to do:
Men in the street and mart,
Felt the same kinship of the human heart
That makes them, in face of flame and flood,
Rise to the meaning of true Brotherhood.
By truth we mean, in this connection, three vitally important things in the service of which the modern Masonic Craft is enlisted and devoted. First, let it always be remembered that Freemasonry, today as in the past, by virtue alike of its principles and history, stands for those "great freedoms of the mind" by which men arrive at the Truth. Our Craft is utterly committed to the principle of freedom of thought-unhampered by political and ecclesiastical dictation-the right, and also the duty, of man to seek everywhere and in every way for the Truth by which no man is injured, but by which we have the only basis for freedom and faith. Second, we mean by Truth our devotion to the everlasting enterprise of public education without which democratic societies cannot permanently endure. We insist upon letting in the light, letting all the light all the way in, driving ignorance, superstition, and despotism off the earth. By the same token, we mean that public education shall be kept clear of sectarian influence, and clean of party or class propaganda.
Which brings me to the matter of most importance, and that is what is to be the future of Freemasonry, if any, in the field of public service and world comity? Without advocating any innovation in the Body of Masonry-none is needed much less desired-it must be plain enough that something else, something more, is needed to meet the demands of our rapidly growing Fraternity, as well as the needs of the society in which we labor, and that is an adaptation of our methods to the spirit and needs of modern life. Masonry need not change either its spirit or its principles-God forbid -but its Lodges must become increasingly, as they were in the early days of America, civic and social centers, leaders in whatever requires to be done for the common good in their communities, if they are to train, direct and utilize for the highest ends the teeming life and abounding energies of the Craft, which otherwise, as is now too much the tendency, may find vent in other and less desirable ways. Just as the Churches within the last two decades, with-out changing their faith or principles, have adapted, and are still adapting, their method of work and appeal to the new sense of social and community life which is so marked a feature of our generation; so Masonry must somehow find its place and take its part, or be left behind as useless-just an order to belong to, nothing more.
Masonry, as someone said, has so far been a fraternal order founded upon a philosophy of individualism, but it cannot remain so and be of much use to the modern world. Individualism, of course, is fundamental, and the work of training men in personal moral excellence is indispensable; but noble private-mindedness must become public-mindedness, with a sense of social duty and service. While Masonry rightly abjures political and sectarian disputes in its Lodges, it cannot be inactive in that vast area of opportunity, with which sectarian and partisan feuds have nothing to do, where the most important work of the world is done. Indeed, it can help to keep political trickery and dickering out of fields where they have neither right nor value, as it is now doing in defense of the American Public School, to which it has pledged allegiance.
What will America be like fifty or a hundred years hence? Even today we find ourselves in a new and almost terrifying America, where wild forces are at play and strange influences are at work. For years we have been inundated by tides of immigration, not only from lands friendly to our institutions, but from lands where our ideals are like an unknown tongue. Those multitudes will be changed by America, no doubt-by the alchemy of its large and liberal fellowship-but America, in turn, may be changed by them, unless we have a. care, into something very different from what our fathers meant it to be. These and like questions are much in the minds of thoughtful men, whether Masons or not, often with alarm, sometimes with dismay, as they watch the procession of events. Surely there is abundant room for the right kind of propaganda, sanely, wisely, and intelligently American, and here Masonry may find, and is finding, a. great opportunity.
Further afield, on the high and animated scene of world affairs, much is taking place the final issue of which no one can foresee. The old balance of power among nations may easily give way to a new alignment of races and colors, with consequences one dare not contemplate and possibilities that make the heart stand still. Surely Masonry, by its spirit and genius international, has a mission here, especially among peoples who have a common conception of civilization. Howbeit, for such a ministry we need what ultimately, or soon or late, we must have, some kind of Masonic world fellowship. No sovereignty need be surrendered, no jurisdiction invaded, no legislation enacted. But we must some-how make articulate and effective the spirit of unity, purpose and aspiration latent in universal Masonry, as an influence making for goodwill among men.
Newton, J. F. (1969). Short talks on Masonry. Macoy Pub. & Masonic Supply Co. Original publication in 1928, Masonic Service Association of the United States