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Challenges to Masonic Fraternity - Declining Membership and Social Changes

Challenges to Masonic Fraternity: Decline in Membership and Social Changes.


For a long time, Freemasonry has held an irresistible allure for thriller writers and conspiracy theorists, featuring elements of secrecy, politics, power, and celebrity connections.


Among its members, you'll find Founding Fathers, presidents, musicians, artists, and entrepreneurs.


However, today, as membership declines within one of the oldest international fraternal organizations, a persistent question arises: What is its purpose?


The challenges faced by the organization have been decades in the making.


Navigating the Masonic Fraternity: Challenges Amidst Declining Membership and Social Shifts


While part of the issue lies in the fact that Americans, for example, no longer join clubs or fraternities as they once did, some critics argue that Masons also struggle to keep up with the nation's constant changes.


Many lodges still don't allow women to join, and others have struggled to attract members from different ethnic backgrounds.


In recent years, membership has declined by about 75% in the USA compared to the peak of over 4.1 million in 1959, when about 4.5% of all American men were members.


While Masonic traditions have a long history of mystery and influence, many of them are now just a Google search away.


Within the ranks of the organization, some members hoped that the coronavirus pandemic might offer an opportunity to shed the reputation of secrecy and reveal the charitable work Masons do in communities across the country. However, that has not been the case.


On the contrary, the virus has continued to sweep across the American nation, keeping men away from their lodges and making it even more challenging to admit new members—something some consider too deeply rooted in tradition to be attempted via Zoom.


"I truly don't know how we combat [membership loss]. If I had the answer to that, we would have solved the problem years ago," said Christopher Hodapp, historian and author of several books on Masonry. "But I'll tell you, something that deeply concerns me is this closure due to COVID. God help us when we look back and see the wreckage it has caused."


Explaining the Decline


Like many organizations facing an uncertain future—one that may be more online and less interconnected—Masons are at a turning point.


This wouldn't be the first time. Lodges saw a major decline in membership in 1826 following the mysterious disappearance of William Morgan, who allegedly broke his Masonic oath by working on a book that revealed the organization's secrets. The scandal fueled a national political movement aimed at overthrowing the fraternity. But Masons survived the scandal—and others that followed.


"Certainly in the 18th century and throughout the first half of the 19th century, you could be powerful and influential without being a Mason, but it was more likely that you were a Mason," said Jessica Harland-Jacobs, associate professor of history at the University of Florida who studies Masonry.


Many Masons see the decline in membership as a symptom of a general decline in all voluntary associations, rather than a specific problem of their fraternity.


Membership has steadily declined across the board, from religious groups and school associations to unions and Greek organizations, according to a 2019 report from the U.S. Congress. The Joint Economic Committee's report found that membership rates in some organizations fell from 75% in 1974 to 62% in 2004. The decline was steeper, hitting 52%, among fraternal organizations like the Masons.


The function of many fraternal organizations was to serve as a kind of social safety net for their members, a driving force behind some membership, according to Harland-Jacobs.


Until around 1930, she said, part of the appeal of groups like the Masons was that they offered a way for members to acquire insurance.


"Some may have been more interested in the social aspect, and others may have been more interested in the insurance aspect: These are the days before actual insurance, so it would be good to have your brothers to rely on if you needed them," she said.


John Dickie, a historian at University College London and author of "The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World," also points to the idea that the fraternity's secret, which might have intrigued men, is less enticing.

"I think possibly the issue is that the secret has lost some of its magic," Dickie said. "Maybe we've got a bit tired of all the non-exposure, and in an age where you can discover the secrets of the Masons in two minutes or less on Google, I'm not sure they can really keep that much mystery for members. It's a trick they've played with great success since 1717 or even earlier.


One wonders what success they'll have in the years to come."


However, many Masons believe that the decline in membership reflects the overall decline in all voluntary associations, rather than being a specific problem of their fraternity.


With social changes affecting the traditional foundations of the fraternity, Masons are now facing a crucial dilemma.


As they try to find ways to attract a new generation of members and remain relevant in a constantly changing world, they also have to respect the deeply rooted traditions that have characterized Freemasonry for centuries.


Uncertainty looms over the fraternity's future as Masons strive to confront the challenges of the present and shape what lies ahead.


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