SHORT TALK BULLETIN
Vol. XVIII No. 9 — September 1940
"You admit that it is not in the power of any man or any body of men, to make Innovations in the body of Masonry
Many Grand Masters, many Worshipful Masters must give their assent to this or some similar statement during the ceremony of install-action. But nowhere in the installation ceremony, is a definition offered as to the "Body of Masonry" or of "innovation."
There is less dispute over what constitutes the body of Masonry than regarding the nature of an innovation. Usually brethren agree that the body of Masonry is composed of the laws, customs, rules, landmarks, ceremonies, teachings, which make Freemasonry Freemasonry and not something else.
But some brethren include in the body matters which to others are but the mechanics, and it is here that the dispute arises. If ritual is a part of the body of Masonry then no change can be made in it. If the Old Charges are to be literally followed, then any law or practice which runs to the contrary is an innovation.
There is endless dispute as to what is and is not an innovation. What is an innovation to one is to another merely a change which does not affect fundamentals, and vice versa. Our ancient brethren met on high hills and in low vales. Was it an innovation when the operative masons of England began to hold their meetings in the building which later was to give its name to the assembly? Was it still further an innovation when Freemasonry moved from the operative builders' lodges into taverns and alehouses, from these to inns, from inns to hotels and restaurants(as in London) or Masonic Temples, as in America?
The Lesser Lights were originally candles or oil lamps fed with olive oil or fat drippings. Was it an innovation when Lesser Lights were fed from gas mains, and later, as is so universally the practice now, from electric wires? Agreed that the candle with its naked flame is a symbol, and the electric light but a symbol of a symbol; agreed that many an old fashioned Mason delights in the open flickering flame and finds in its shadows and its smoke, its consumption of tallow or wax that the light may be born, a symbol different (and more beautiful) from the symbolism of the Lesser Lights as expressive of Sun, moon and Master-still, few will say that the use of electric Lesser Light is an "innovation into the body of Masonry." As well say that steam heat, air cooling, an asphalt roof, marble floors, an elevator, a library. cloth aprons for the brethren instead of lambskins, are innovations into the body of Masonry. The times are streamlined. The trappings and the mechanics of living are streamlined. The metropolitan hotel now which does not have running ice water, a radio, electric fan, hot and cold water, private bath, telephone, valet service, room service, maid service, etc., is rare indeed. It is a far cry, to the tavern of simple bed and board of colonial days. Yet then, as now, a man received privacy, shelter, a bed, a meal: the modern hotel gives no more than that, albeit it provides it more comfort-ably so our ancient brethren who used candles, their modern descendants who use electricity, give but the same thing in a different form: give more comfortably, more luxuriously, doubtless, but give only three lights about an Altar, and as such, offer no innovation.
What, then, is an innovation?
If some Grand Lodge legislated to use four Lesser Lights, or only, two, there would be a great cry of "innovation." Yet there are Lodges in which the Lesser Lights are not lit except for a degree and there are Lodges where no opening even for business is considered complete without their gentle radiance. At funerals held on a windy day often the candles will not stay lit; if electric candles are used, sometimes the battery burns out. Yet no one cries "Innovation" in such circumstances.
In no two jurisdictions of this; nation are the rituals the same, and none of the forty-nine are like the English. Irish, Scottish from one or all of which they have been derived. Changes have crept in. Ritual committees have worked their will with their phrases. Parts have been omitted as too difficult. Parts have been added as "prettier" or "necessary" or "better." Even the printed parts of the ritual, to be found in dozens of monitors or manuals, have not stayed the same in all Grand Lodges, and, what is interesting if not remarkable, some parts of the ritual which are "secret" and "mouth to ear" phrases in one Grand Lodge. are printed as exoteric work in others, and vice versa. . Which Grand Lodge then is the innovator?
All Grand Lodges affirm, and apparently all believe that they possess the best, the only correct ritual, regardless of the fact that any' elementary student knows that no ritual can possibly be as old as that which was brought to this country somewhere in or before 1731. Yet no Grand Lodge accuses another of making innovations that its ritual differs. the one from the other!
At least two Grand Lodges in the nation have approved the interpolation into a degree of an explanation of the penalties of the obligation Others have tried to do so and been .stopped by, ritual committees and by Grand Lodge itself. Yet forty-seven Grand Lodges do not hold that two Grand Lodges have made "innovations" because a rationalistic explanation (which can be found in a hundred books on Masonry) is added to, or sandwiched into, their rituals.
Approximately half the Grand Lodges of the United States either provide, permit, or wink at the possession of, a cipher of the secret work. The other half of the nation objects to the practice; some Grand Lodges regard the possession of a cipher ritual as a Masonic offense, which can subject the offender to Masonic trial and punishment. Yet one half a nation does not cry "Innovation" to the other half which permits the practice.
Freemasonry has a number of national organizations; the Grand Masters Conference, the Grand Secretaries Conference, the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association, the Masonic Service Association, the Masonic Relief Association of the United States and Canada. Decidedly, these are not innovations. Grand Masters confer — what is a Lodge meeting but a conference of brethren? The Memorial Association builds a Temple; have not Masons always been builders? The Masonic Service Association engages in labors of relief and of education; relief is one of the principal tenets of Freemasonry, and is not education stressed in the Fellowcraft degree? The Relief Association prevents the imposter from working his evil will; have not Masons always guarded against cowans and evesdroppers?
But plans are constantly being put forward to form new organizations, the membership of which is predicated upon Lodge membership. So many barnacles have tried to fasten themselves on the Masonic ship that many Grand Lodges have legislated against any except a few which are recognized as belonging to the family. Yet here and there an "Innovation" in the form of a brand new tail to the Masonic kite is permitted, someday, perhaps to become an innovation which may, be distressing
Is a Masonic Home an innovation? The first in this country was in 1867-not three-quarter of a century ago. Kentucky started a practice which the nation as a whole took up -all jurisdictions today have either Home or Hospital or Infirmary or School or Charity foundation or Fund by which Grand Lodges help Lodges in their charity. Was it an innovation or merely a new way of expressing that charity which all Masons are taught?
A very old Grand Lodge has replaced its old rounded corner aprons with modern square cornered ones. Lovers of old ideas and old customs may regret this, but it is emphatically the business of a Grand Lodge to dress as it pleases. If any Grand Lodge did away with aprons and proposed to wear overalls, then in- deed, might the cry of innovation successfully be made. But the essential here is the apron; long, short, skin, cloth, silk, canvas, paper, even a handkerchief tied about the middle: none of these — so be it a symbol of the ancient practice which made the apron an integral part of Freemasonry — Is an innovation.
Unquestionably innovations have been made; equally unquestionably they are being made today. It seems equally, unquestionable that those who propose them, those in Grand Lodge who permit them, are motivated only by the highest desires to do good, and that neither proposers nor acquiescers think that what they do is an innovation.
Change is in the air. It is a changing day and time. The old order giveth away to the new.Restlessness, fear of the future, hope that trouble to come may be avoided, are dinned into Masonic as into secular ears by radio, magazine, newspaper, orator. Even Grand Masters are not immune, arid not infrequently make recommendations which, if. adopted, might easily open the door for innovations, if they are not innovations in themselves.
For obvious reasons no specific instances can well be given without, perhaps, hurting some Grand Master's feelings, or seeming to put this publication in the light of criticizing some Grand Lodge, neither of which it either desires or intends to do. If an example is needed to make matters clear, it may be noted that there is now and has been for some time, a strong trend toward liberalization of the "doctrine of the perfect youth" — -the rule, law, landmarks, call it what you will, that an applicant for Freemasonry must be "hale and sound as a man ought to be"-or without blemish."
Those jurisdictions which strictly interpret the old law refuse the candidate who lacks a finger. Those jurisdictions which are Liberal in interpretation consider that an artificial leg or arm may well serve in place of the natural one.
The strict jurisdictions look upon the liberal interpretation as an innovation. The liberal jurisdictions consider it no more so than electric lights in place of candles.
In some jurisdictions dual membership has always obtained. Others forbid it. Others have legislated for it. Those to whom the idea that a man can belong to but one lodge has the sanction of a landmark, regard those who permit it as innovators. Those who permit it but point to England for their authority. In many Grand Lodges a hard working ritual committee must bring any proposed changes before Grand Lodge for authority to make the change. As a general rule ritual committees are loath to sanction any alterations but now and then some one gets an idea that an archaic expression or word might be plainer if modernized. Some words have changed their meaning since ritual first came into being; "Profane", for instance, which once meant outside the temple" now means "blasphemous; taking the name of God in vain." Yet "profane", meaning non-Mason is good Masonic language. Except in a Lodge, "Mote" for may or might" is no longer used. No suggestion is here made that any attempts have been made to alter these old expressions, but the principle is the same; the expressions some seek to change have equally the sanctity of age. Yet it can hardly be successfully, maintained that a change of a word in the ritual which has already suffered so many and such drastic changes in its formation, is an "innovation." Only attempts to put something new, different, un-Masonic into the ritual could be so considered — -and such changes when proposed are invariably from the highest motives of patriotism, religion, morals, or, at the least, grammatical accuracy.
There is a constant effort made by the secular world to attach Freemasonry, to some one's high flying kite. We are asked to "join with us in laying a cornerstone" or to "form part of a procession in honor of our beloved Mayor" or to "contribute to the new hospital."
Masons do not "join" anyone in laying a cornerstone. They lay it. Masons form no part of any processions except their own, at funerals, cornerstone laying or Masonic Occasions. Lodges are forbidden by most Grand Lodges to use their money for non-Masonic purposes, no matter how worthy,. Masons as individuals walk in processions, join in secular cornerstone laying, contribute to hospitals; not as an organized Fraternity.
Yet here and there, now and then, some good brother rises to a position of authority without knowing all that he might have learned about old customs, ideas, landmarks, and if we are asked often enough, implored hard enough, entreated with sufficient vigor, sometime, somewhere, some one is bound to assent, and another "Innovation" is made.
It is against this tendency that thoughtful Mason are setting their faces; against including even the good, wholesome, important idea, if it is no part of Masonry. If the proposals to "Innovate" were of non-moral, evil, frivolous character, it would be easy to deny. But when the proposed innovation wears the garb of love of country or of God, or of mercy, or reward to the good and faithful servant. it is but human to want to yield — -and sometimes it is accomplished and then we have the innovation, none the less real that it was done with innocence.
This Bulletin will have little point and less effect if cannot be considered as at least a voice crying in the wilderness against all changes which by their interpretation can be considered an innovation.
If every brother sets his face inexorably against change which alters fundamentals, he may permit as many electric lights for candles, enjoy as many Temples for inns, wear as many aprons of cloth in place of lambskin as he will, and still permit no "innovations in the body of Masonry."