Individualism and Collectivism Revisited – A Historical Perspective

By Wor. Bro. Frederic L. Milliken

Recent articles on “The Euphrates” by Terence Satchell on how Freemasonry operates, either in a Collectivist mode or an Individualistic mode are too important and received far too little attention not to revisit these concepts again. For the style chosen has a lot to do with the success or failure of today’s Freemasonry. Now the two styles overlap and Freemasonry is not 100% purely one or the other. But it is where the primary emphasis is placed that dictates the nomenclature.

To understand the differences and the changes that have occurred in Freemasonry one has to look at its history and function in days gone by. Freemasonry was a product of the Enlightenment and grew up in the age of rapid club growth. In literature, the arts, politics, religion, science and fraternalism, clubs and societies sprang up all over Europe to meet the demand and the need to assimilate and understand all the new ideas and discoveries that were thrust upon society for the first time since ancient days at such a rapid rate. Some met in private homes, some met in coffee houses, some met in taverns and pubs and some met in the park but they all met in congenial fellowship to discuss, teach and inform, for times they were a changing.

Bullock tells us:

The club had first become popular in the later seventeenth century, simultaneous with the evolution of the term itself from a clump to a select group of men knotted together. By the 1710s, participation in clubs was becoming a regular part of social life among the upper levels of English society. By the early eighteenth century, London hosted an estimated two thousand such organizations. The enormous popularity of the club formed part of a larger transformation.  Beginning in London, English society experienced major changes that reshaped modes of sociability.  The communal and kinship bonds that had held together village life no longer proved adequate to the world of increased social diversity and widened cultural horizons experienced by Britons who moved beyond the narrow world of the parish but not yet within the circles of court society.  The club, and its stepchild Masonry, provided a means of recreating the close ties of local friendship in a larger, more cosmopolitan world.”(1)

Early Freemasonry then revolved around instructing men (and sometimes women) in a philosophy and a new way of life in a closely bonded atmosphere.  And a great deal of time was taken up in discussion of what the speculative art meant and what it could do for a man. Freemasonry was a club, a teaching club that evolved into a society; a more organized and structured entity.  But even as it evolved it never lost its roots as an organization that mirrored somewhat a school. And the Freemasonry school had homework.  Every Mason was expected to do some private study and was encouraged to do so.

Of course Freemasonry was more than just this and attracted members for various reasons.  The fact that it attempted to be a classless organization in a society with classes and the nature of the bonded Brotherhood, that mystic tie, increased its popularity.  But the foundation of its strength was its Gnostic knowledge, that special understanding of the meaning and mission of life that set it apart and above the myriad other organizations.

Freemasonry started than as individualistic.  It was a philosophy, a way of life, a thought process, a study for the individual to transform himself into a more knowledgeable, better educated, well grounded, person who possessed an understanding of what it all meant, a better insight into the nature of it all and a circle of support and continuing enlightenment that yielded a tightly bonded family or Brotherhood. Freemasonry was all about what the individual Brother did and the pride of the Brotherhood was the accomplishment of the man. Freemasonry was a journey upon which a man embarked to make a better man and a better world.

All Masonry was local. Each Brother was able to create his own path. Each Brother was Masonry’s creator; each Brother decided what he was going to do with the Fraternity and what he wasn’t going to do.  The decision-making was in the hands of the individual Mason. It’s not that the body of Freemasonry as a whole could not take a stand for anything.  As I have previously pointed out the virtues, values and ethics of the Craft upon which all Freemasons agree and all obligate themselves can be promulgated by the leaders of the fraternity on behalf of everybody.  But that is a far cry from actually choosing how each Freemason has to experience his Freemasonry and ordering upon the threat of expulsion that it must be done a certain way.

In the Individualistic concept of Freemasonry Grand Lodges concerned themselves with chartering new Lodges, promoting the Craft and acting as a facilitator for both Lodge and Craft development.  Grand Lodges made the circle larger.  They added cohesiveness and structure to the fraternity.

But then the structure became Freemasonry.  Collectivism took over the Craft.  It didn’t happen overnight.  It was like a cancer that slowly spread. A number of factors in American Freemasonry, and we are only talking about Freemasonry in the U.S.A., facilitated the growth of a centralized collective.  Individualistic Freemasonry’s basis was decentralization, but not so with collective Freemasonry. American Freemasonry became concerned with territory. Perhaps it didn’t have enough confidence in the marketplace of the free association of ideas to compete.  Perhaps it wanted to legally make any competition illegal.  Whatever the reason, American Freemasonry adopted the American Doctrine, The Right of Exclusive Territorial Jurisdiction.  Now each jurisdiction had a monopoly, what in the civil world we would call a restraint of trade. Monopolies tend to become fat and lazy and feel no need to answer to anybody, especially the people whom they serve. Then all the Mainstream Grand Lodges got together and unofficially signed onto a gentlemen’s agreement never to criticize each other and to always support all others in everything that they did. Now no matter what a Grand Lodge did there were no repercussions because it was not answerable to a higher power or even a higher constitutional document. Having eliminated all competition and insured peer approval of any action it took Grand Lodges were in a position to exercise absolute power.  And power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Some say that after the Morgan affair American Freemasonry never fully recovered, that it was never the same again. Perhaps Grand Masters saw a need for greater control in order to be able to thwart such local actions in the future. Still Grand Lodges and their chartered local Lodges and individual Freemasons existed fairly harmoniously from the Post Civil War period until the 1960s. But there was no question who was the boss.  The Vietnam War authored a whole generation of dropouts who refused to join anything.  Freemasonry skipped a whole generation and its leadership stayed in power for a double shift.  Many a new Mason in the 60s saw in his Lodge predominately men old enough to be his Grandfather.  Grand Lodges were governed by men in their 70s and 80s.

The post Vietnam decline in membership and the rapid increase in technology was a double whammy that hit Grand Lodges like a sledgehammer. The old guard leadership was not able to change with the times. First of all Grand Lodges felt that local Lodges had dropped the ball and weren’t trying hard enough.  Grand Lodges in the post WWII rapid growth spurt had committed Freemasonry to buildings, programs and charities it could not sustain with the decline in membership and consequently the drop in revenue. Grand Lodges needed more money and they did not have the confidence in their local Lodges to provide it.  So as what usually happens in a power vacuum, Grand Lodge filled it by taking over and mandating programs and policies upon its local Lodges. Secondly the rise of the Information Age and the widespread use of the computer and the Internet was not only something Freemasonry was not prepared for but also something it fought, tooth and nail. The Old guard who stayed in power for an extended period because Masonic membership skipped a whole generation were so far removed from the new Masons joining the Craft that they not only looked down with scorn upon the newer methods and ways of the young but they actually forbade their use inside Freemasonry.

Consequently many Grand Lodges, as well as local Lodges, refused to install computer systems. When individual Masons set up Masonic websites and forums for Masonic discussion, some Grand Masters confiscated them or ordered them to be closed down, Grand Masters proclaiming that only they could speak for Freemasonry in its jurisdiction. Most Grand Lodges were very slow to adopt computer technology and get on board with Grand Lodge websites.  In many cases to this day the systems used are way behind the latest technology and run by volunteers instead of paid professionals in the field. Even today many Grand Lodges refuse to allow transmission of reports it demands from its chartered Lodges to be filed over the Internet.  Even today some Grand Lodges are muzzling its members.

The lag behind the times continues. How many Grand Masters and other Grand Lodge officers today Twitter?  How many are on Facebook?  My Place? How many text message? How many have a personal website?  How many operate a blog?  How many carry laptops with them wherever they may go? Why is it that Grand Lodge websites do not operate Masonic discussion forums?  Why is it that Grand Lodges are not doing Masonic radio podcasts? Grand Lodges are like some people I know, stuck in the 50s.

The erosion of local power and the transfer of that power to Grand Lodges was a slow gradual process that some Masons objected to but few made a federal case out of.  The pinnacle of American Freemasonry occurred from 1870 to 1950 when American Freemasonry grew strongly, built lavish beautiful buildings, stocked the Side Bodies, and authored some of the best writings on Freemasonry ever.  I can remember as Master of my Lodge in 1999 reading the minutes of my Lodge in the corresponding Communication of 1899 when the Lodge had 800 members and the average attendance was 100 Brothers.  When Freemasonry is flourishing, when there are fewer problems, gripes and concerns get put on the back burner. But when there is a crisis all of a sudden what seemed trivial now becomes a major concern.

And the crisis for Grand Lodges from 1960 to the present day has been the continuous decline in membership and the loss in revenue because of that decline.  For fifty years now Grand Lodges have become obsessed with trying to increase membership and get more money. In the process they have tightened the screws of authority and created programs and issued rulings that are very unpopular with the rank and file of the Craft. The highly centralized absolute authority of collective Freemasonry no longer seems to care about the education and development of the individual Mason. Instead of fostering Masonic discussion, Masonic instruction, Masonic education, Masonic authorship, and the dissemination of Masonic knowledge, Grand Lodges are pushing One Day classes, fundraisers, fish frys and community action and charitable endeavors turning American Freemasonry into a Service Club.  The focus has switched from making good men better to improving society. Charity in Individualistic Freemasonry was a principle taught to individual Masons who then decided how they would individually apply that virtue inside and outside the Craft.  Today every Masonic endeavor is a function of the Lodge performed by the collective by decisions made from the top.

Fifty years of collective Freemasonry has developed a cadre of Freemasons who now believe that Freemasonry is the Institution rather than a philosophy.  I call these Masons “Institutionalists.”  They talk a lot about preserving the Institution of Freemasonry, Recognition, The Right of Exclusive Territorial Jurisdiction and clandestine and irregular Freemasonry. They put the well being of the Institution before the well being of the individual. Their Grand Lodge can never do wrong. They concentrate power into the hands of a collectivist, top down, inner circle oligarchy that seeks to create a closed society governed much like the US Army. They garner awards and display proudly on their chest jewels and pins that have nothing to do with their Masonic knowledge or scholarship. They defend their Grand Lodge from any thought or idea in Freemasonry that the inner circle disapproves of. They refuse Masonic discourse with Freemasons in other Obedience's and support their Grand Lodge’s right to tell its members who they can and cannot talk to.  They create private research societies open only to members of Mainstream Masonry. They refuse to take any action against the rogue Masonic regime in West Virginia while at the same time shutting out Co-Masonry and the GOUSA. They will not exert any pressure on racist Grand Lodges to admit black men and recognize Prince Hall yet they will get on private Masonic Sites and wag their finger about guests from other Obedience's being permitted access.

Today there has developed a growing chasm in Freemasonry.  The millennial generation is upon us and many are more traditional than their fathers and are seekers who are trying to place more meaning into their lives. Once again we see the rise of mystical thought and inner search that was a part of Freemasonry 150 years ago. The Millennials don’t care about petty distinctions. A Grand Lodge is a Grand Lodge.  They want gender and racial equality to be a part of anything to which they associate themselves. Freemasonry the thought appeals to them, Freemasonry the practice does not.

Consequently many Masons today are bypassing or boycotting formal Masonic Communications while at the same time becoming very active in Masonic websites and the intellectual pursuits of Freemasonry so reminiscent of Individualistic Freemasonry. Masonic Internet sites like Freemason Information, Phoenixmasonry and Master Mason as well as individual Masonic blogs are flourishing while Lodge attendance is at an all time low. Collectivist Freemasonry stifles creativity and reform.  It enables entrenched, outmoded ideas to perpetuate a society that lacks a connection with today’s generation. It is headed down a path of self-defeat. The answer for Mainstream Grand Lodges is to return to Individualistic Freemasonry.

(1)        “Revolutionary Brotherhood” by Steven C. Bullock, pg. 29




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