This post is about how changes in society at the beginning of the 20th century did away with the “Golden Age of Fraternalism” and hundreds of different fraternal orders. It is an important part of the history of Freemasonry at a time when it was co-evolving with many other bodies.
Regular text is a quotation from the book; my commentary interspersed is in italics. Any emphasis was added by me. Reference at the bottom.
The institutional foundations of the fraternal movement collapsed during the depression of the 1930s. Few orders could retain the millions of members who fell behind in their dues. From 1925 to 1940 the Improved Order of Red Men lost over 300,000 members and the Knights of Pythias 550,000. Freemasonry and Odd Fellowship survived the Depression, but taken together they lost nearly a million members. Hundreds of smaller orders passed out of existence entirely. Thousands of lodges, unable to meet mortgage payments, went bankrupt. Sociologists concluded that the fraternal movement was all but dead.
The demise was not caused solely by hard times, for the orders clearly had been in trouble even during the prosperous decade of the 1920s. In their study of Muncie, Indiana, in the 1920s Robert and Helen Lynd reported that “the great days of the lodges have vanished.” Officials even then worried that lodges were becoming the “patrons of the mediocre” as middle-class and better-educated men flocked to recreational clubs and service organizations. Aggressive recruitment policies and relaxed admission standards for a time masked weaknesses that became all too evident with the onset of the Great Depression.
Critics within the movement explained that men were no longer interested in the “unadulterated diet” of ceremony and symbolism. “The time is past when the mere ritualistic conferring of the Order can be regarded as the sole mission of Templary,” the Grand Master of the Knights Templars concluded. We have tried to fool ourselves into believing that the conferring of degrees should attract intelligent busy men as a regular thing,” a Masonic editor observed in 1921.
The more enterprising lodges hosted dinner dances; sponsored club nights with billiards, card games, and movies; and organized baseball teams, bowling leagues, and recreational trips. Others sought to replicate the success of service organizations such as the Rotary and Lions by undertaking charitable projects. But the rituals impinged on these activities. Men who wanted primarily to enjoy themselves or to serve their community soon realized that organizations committed to long rituals were not suited to their purposes. Some orders truncated the rituals or even abandoned them entirely.
In this next passage, see if you can image the voice of your local past master or esoterically inclined brother, in 2022.
Traditionalists were appalled by proposals to transform the lodge into “just another kind of club”. An organization based upon ritual, they added, could not be expected to be as effective in promoting recreation as the clubs created solely for that purpose. “Let us have a real revival of the old-fashioned ritual work,” one official told the Grand Lodge of Connecticut Odd Fellows in 1924. According to the traditionalists, the current apathy was caused by recent modifications, abbreviations, and deviations in the rituals. The somber religious tone of the nineteenth-century lodge has been shattered by the “non-observance of proper decorum”. Liquor, banned for nearly a century, had found its way back into many lodge rooms. Much to the chagrin of older members, the emotional context that had once imparted meaning to the fraternal experience was being undone by members intent on having a good time.
For traditionalists the most disturbing trend was the emergence of recreational auxiliaries such as the Masonic “Shriners” and the Pythian “Knights of Khorassan,” which poked fun at the rituals of the parent body. Where the Masons and Pythians sought to make a man of the initiate, the Shriners and the Knights of Khorassan made him the butt of a joke. Such “horseplay” the Grand Chancellor-Elect of New York Pythians insisted in 1927 was an intolerable insult that devalued all institutions.
What role did religion and its relationship to society play?
Lynn Dumenil has proposed that the religious character of the rituals, which had demonstrated the order’s accommodation to the values of Victorian America, became a hindrance as society itself became more secular in the twentieth century. The somber religious tone of its ceremonies placed Masonry “out of step with modern times”. But even in the nineteenth century the rituals were anachronistic, and consciously so. When men dressed up as High Priests, Roman Senators, or Medieval Knights and mouthed mysterious phrases from what they believed to be ancient sources, they did not merely reflect the values of the emerging urban-industrial order; they also evoked its antithesis.
Nor is it correct to assume that the modern world has proven inhospitable to religious and non-rational forms of expression; modernity and religiosity have cohabited quite comfortably. The age of Einstein also witnessed the rise of religious fundamentalism, and the institutionalization of Wagnerian mythology by the Nazis. The computer revolution has served Indian gurus and Rev. Sun Myung Moon alike, and the chemical and electronics industries have been indispensable in promoting the literal mindlessness of the drug culture and rock music. Fraternal ritual did not become obsolete because modern Americans chose to embrace rationality.
A clue to the decline of the orders is suggested by a shift in attendance patterns. In the nineteenth century the lodges were filled with young men, so much so that older members sometimes complained that they felt out of place. During the early twentieth century older men continued to attend faithfully, but more and more often young men who took the initiatory degree never set food in the lodge again. Saddened by their diminishing audiences of graybeards, orators wondered what had happened to the “great virile manhood” that had previously presented itself to the lodge. The movement was dying of old age.
The absence of young members represented more than a threat to the lodge’s mortgage or beneficiary funds. “When you’ve held all the offices and there’s no new blood coming in,” one member lamented, “there’s just no point in keeping on going through the ritual”. All institutions depend on an empathic relationship between generations, but this was especially true of the fraternal movement. WIth good reason orators anguished over the younger generation: would they, too, undertake the fraternal pilgrimage toward manhood, or would they discover their own paths to adulthood? On this depended the future of the orders and, more important, the emotional fate of the younger generation.
Strident assertions of masculinity speak less of men’s strengths than their insecurities. The older members’ assumption that the young lacked the virility to appreciate the masculine message of the rituals confirms the centrality of gender issues to the fraternal movement; it also suggests that during the early 1900s fewer young middle-class men were afflicted with their fathers’ and grandfathers’ gender anxieties. Although evidence on sex roles, child rearing, and childhood during the early twentieth century is nearly as thin as for the nineteenth century, there is reason to believe that the elderly members’ grumblings that young men were different from themselves had some basis in social reality.
Changes in cultural patterns and social mores result from gradual accretions in behavior and thought patterns; the dating of any social or cultural phenomenon is problematical. Yet it is apparent that a reorientation in middle-class gender roles occurred in the early twentieth century. Historians have focused on women, who increasingly left the home to pursue careers or higher education, who bore fewer children, who drank and smoked, and who helped precipitate a revolution in morals and manners. Initially historians followed popular opinion in assuming the “new woman” first appeared in the 1920s. More recently they have found that the “flapper” gyrating to the Charleston in the 1920s had an older sister who danced the turkey trot before the war and had not hesitated to reject the moral authority of her parents, especially on matters concerning relations with men. The enormous expansion of radio and film after the First World War simply gave new visibility to a preexisting social phenomenon. James R. McGovern concluded that the “great leap forward” in women’s participation in the economy occurred during the first decade of the twentieth century. And John Higham argued that the “new woman,” manly in appearance, assertive in social life, and “masculine” in her demand for political power, made her debut in the 1890s.
(...) extra paragraphs dealing with women & children's changing role have been omitted for length (...)
The diminished role of mothers in child rearing corresponded to an increased involvement of fathers. A University of California survey of parent child relationships over two generations-the first born around 1900, the second in 1927-28 – concluded that fathers’ involvement with their sons was increasing significantly. Another study revealed that by the 1930s 75 percent of middle-class fathers regularly read articles on child care, and nearly as many fathers as mothers attended Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) meetings. (The National Congress of Mothers’ Clubs had changed its name to the Parent-Teacher Association in 1924 because of a growing awareness that raising of children involved both parents). The emotionally detached and distant fathers of the mid-nineteenth century where separated from the nurturing family men of the early twentieth by a cultural chasm.
A redefinition of fatherhood was possible because the economic position of the middle-class family had become more secure. Small businesses were replaced by corporate bureaucracies, and solitary entrepreneurs by salaried employees. As organization men forced the robber barons into retirement, young men perceived that advancement resulted from amiability and cooperation rather than individualistic assertion. They ceased dreaming of spectacular rewards and their evenings were bedeviled less frequently by nightmares of bankruptcy and family ruin. As work commanded fewer of their emotional energies, these men became, in the Historian Margaret Marsh’s apt phrase, “domestic husbands”.
Men born after 1900 were less likely to be plagued in their early twenties by the anxieties that had drawn their grandfathers at the same age to the lodge. Raised in a society that had come to question many of the assumptions about the separate spheres assigned to men and women, these young men came of age while in school, participants in a coeducational “youth culture”. And they learned that the selfless and cooperative values formerly associated with feminine domesticity brought rewards in the workplace.
Still, at the encouragement or insistence of their fathers, fathers-in-law, or bosses, many of these young men agreed to join the lodge. They too walked past Jachin and Boaz, stared at the leonine portraits in the lobby and fidgeted in the preparation room, trying to understand the muffled low voices beyond the door. But after their blindfolded procession, while the lodge official droned on about mystical symbols and secret meanings, their attention flagged. They thought about the picture show they had seen the other night before or the dance planned for later in the week. And when the blindfolds were removed, they looked around the room, blinked at the lights and skeletons, and gazed remotely at these mature men in Indian costumes and lambskin aprons.
Turner described how liminal ceremonies evoke a “weird domain” of masks, sacred icons, inverted relationships, and secrecy, which confer meaning by opposing the structural regularities of normal social life. To the young men who visited the lodges in the 1920s and 1930s, the intentional strangeness of the liminal world of fraternal ritual had become incomprehensible. The symbolic inversions and oppositions that invested the lodge furniture with religious meanings and transformed the local insurance agent into an Old Testament patriarch struck them as nonsensical, or, words, as accounts of what had transpired at the lodge. Within a few years the orders would be identified in the public mind with the televised antics of Ralph Kramden, a member of the Loyal Order of Raccoons. By mid-century few Americans took fraternal ritual seriously.
This post is an excerpt from the Epilogue of the book “Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America” by Mark C. Carnes, Yale University Press, 1989.