Ronald E. Johnson, 32, K.C.C.H.
Grand Master, Grand Lodge of Oklahoma
In Oklahoma this year, a special program promises to raise some 1,400 Entered Apprentices, who had not advanced beyond the First Degree, to the rank of Master Mason.
It began in 1996, when we asked the computer in the Grand Lodge of Oklahoma a simple question: How many Entered Apprentices were initiated in the past 30 years, who did not advance to become Master Masons?
We were all staggered when the answer was more than 9,000!
Nine thousand men started their Masonic journey-they petitioned a Lodge, were investigated, passed the ballot box, became Entered Apprentices-and never went further.
There were many possible reasons. For some, undoubtedly, Masonry simply wasn’t what they expected and wanted. Perhaps others were frightened by the memory work, or, if not frightened, thought that it would take more time to learn than they could spare. Some had changes of jobs which demanded all their time. Others fell ill themselves or had to devote time to the care of family members who fell ill. Some moved to another town or another state. For whatever reason, they were still Entered Apprentices.
We decided to give these Brethren a chance to advance.
Ronald E. Johnson, 32, K.C.C.H.
Grand Master, Grand Lodge of Oklahoma
I decided to hold a one-day class on three different dates and in three different parts of the state, and Ill. Paul T. Million Jr., S.G.I.G. for Oklahoma, kindly offered the facilities of the three Scottish Rite Temples in Guthrie, McAlester, and Tulsa. I appointed a committee to work out the planning for the program, with Bro. Joe R. Manning Jr., P.G.M., 33 as Chairman, and we agreed on the essential guidelines:
-The program would be open to men who were Entered Apprentices or Fellowcrafts who had not advanced.
-Each Lodge would be given the option to participate or not as it wished.
-Lodges would be sent a printout from the Grand Lodge, listing the names and addresses of those who had not advanced over the last 30 years. As it happened, other E.A.s found out about the program and contacted us. So far, the “oldest” brother is one who took his Entered Apprentice Degree in 1950!
-The Lodges would research the list, supplying corrected addresses where possible, and marking off any men who were known to have died. The Lodges also were to mark off any person they no longer felt worthy to be a Master Mason (a lot of things can happen to a man in 30 years).
-Technically, the Degrees would be conferred by Hydro Lodge (my home Lodge) as a courtesy to the other Lodges in the state.
-The Grand Lodge would write to each of the men approved by the Lodges if a current address could be provided. The letter would offer the Brother his choice of three dates and locations.
-Each “candidate” would be provided with a Bible and a small Square and Compasses on which to take the obligations. It would become his property. He would also be given a traditional Masonic apron (plus a paper apron to be worn during the day) and a copy of the Oklahoma Monitor.
-The cost would be $100. From that the Grand Lodge would deduct the costs of the Bible, Square & Compasses, apron, Monitor, two meals, and other minor expenses. The net would be remitted to the Brother’s Lodge.
-Each candidate would have a Master Mason (an Intender) sitting with him to hold the Bible during the obligations, help him with the proper hand positions, raise him, and communicate the signs, words, etc.
-The Entered Apprentice and Fellowcraft proficiency would be based on an intensive Masonic education course offered during the one-day event.
-Every word of the Degrees would be presented, so that the candidates would not be shortchanged in any sense.
-The Grand Lecturer, R.W. Charles Dick, 32, K.C.C.H., would assemble Ritual teams composed primarily of Deputy Grand Lecturers to perform the Degrees.
-Bro. T. Max Tatum, P.G.M., 32, K.C.C.H., Oklahoma’s Grand Secretary, agreed to coordinate communications, purchase supplies, prepare packets for each candidate, etc.
The committee spent many long hours planning, continuing to meet weekly for months. Letters were drafted and then mailed as the Lodges returned their lists.
A major problem was planning for numbers. How many Bibles should we order, how many aprons, how many meals? After everyone’s input, we decided that we might have as many as 250 “candidates” total-perhaps 100 at Guthrie, and 75 each at Tulsa and McAlester. And we were prepared to call that a success.
I should explain that, in Oklahoma, everyone has insisted from the beginning that Masonic Renewal is not and must not be about numbers. We have always said, “If we actually renew Masonry, if we get Masonic Lodges back into the communities, visible as forces for progress in their areas, membership will take care of itself. Men want to join active organizations which are making a difference in their members and in their communities. It will do no good to bring living men into a dead Lodge.”
The program is paying off. In 1996, more Oklahoma Lodges showed net gains in membership than in the past several decades, and they are the Lodges which have started by fixing up their buildings, sharpening their skills in Ritual, and working on charitable projects in their hometowns. Most importantly, our better Lodges have decided that it’s all right to try things, to experiment, and to discard the fatal phrase, “we’ve never done it that way before, so we can’t do it that way now.”
The fundamentals of Masonry are very important to Oklahoma Masons. The most cherished of those fundamentals is that a man must petition, pass the ballot, and be initiated in his own Lodge surrounded by his own Brethren, if the great transformation which is the goal of Masonry is to take place.
Nonetheless, many of the Lodges saw the potentials of the program and acted upon them. This was, they saw, an opportunity for them to bring their friends into the Fraternity who simply did not have time for the longer, more traditional route. Some Lodges initiated as many as 30 Entered Apprentices so they could participate in the one-day “Chance to Advance” program. One Lodge, running three Lodgerooms and bringing in ritualists from several areas of the state, initiated 15 E.A.s on one Saturday, in a day filled with ritual, feasting, and fellowship.
Return cards started pouring in from the letters we wrote. Many of them contained notes which could tear your heart out.
-“I had a stroke just after I took my Entered Apprentice Degree and I can’t memorize any more. I thought I’d never be a Mason. Thank you for making it possible.”
-“I promised my father before he died that I’d be a Mason, but with my job, I’ve only been in town five weekends in the last year. You’ve made it possible for me to keep my promise.”
-“I knew I couldn’t do all the memory work, and I was ashamed to go back to the Lodge. This makes all the difference.”
-“As long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a Mason. Thank you.”
Saturday, March 22, 1997, was a beautiful day. By 6:30 am, you couldn’t park within blocks of the Guthrie Scottish Rite Temple. When registration opened at 7:00 am, there was already a large crowd waiting. We had nearly 350 candidates preregistered for the Guthrie conferral, nearly 200 others, carrying Entered Apprentice cards or other credentials from their Lodges, walked in without preregistering. In all, 523 Entered Apprentices became Master Masons on that day.
On March 22, 1997, the huge auditorium of the Guthrie, Oklahoma, Scottish Rite Temple, was filled almost to overflowing as 523 Entered Apprentices were raised to the Degree of Master Mason. This is the first of three special One-Day Classes to be held this year in Oklahoma under the leadership of M.W. Ronald E. Johnson, 32, K.C.C.H.
The program started at 8:00 am with an hour of Masonic Education on the lessons and symbols of the Entered Apprentice Degree. Brother Robert G. Davis, 33, General Secretary of the Guthrie Scottish Rite Bodies, and Brother Jim Tresner, 33, Director of the Work for Guthrie and Book Review Editor for the Scottish Rite Journal, conducted the education programs during the day. They went over the modes of recognition and then the history of the Degree, the development of its Ritual, and the symbolism of the Degree. As a test of proficiency, they facilitated a discussion on those points with the candidates, asking them to explore the Degree’s contemporary implications and interpretations.
Then they had the candidates and their Intenders stand and face each other and go through the part of the ritual beginning, “Give me a grip.” I’m not sure who, the candidates or the Intenders, learned the most, but we heard lots of men who had been Freemasons for 20 years or more say they had learned more Masonry that day than in all the years before.
The Fellowcraft Degree followed the E.A. education program, and then Brothers Davis and Tresner did an hour of education and proficiency on the Fellowcraft Degree. The Deputy Grand Lecturers then did all the sections, explanatories, and Charge of the Master Mason Degree.
The new Master Masons will return to their Lodges to receive their dues cards and sign the bylaws of their Lodge. I have strongly advocated that, on that night, the Worshipful Master of the Lodge assign a teacher to help the new Master more fully understand Masonry, and to help him with the proficiency for the Master Mason Degree. (In Oklahoma, a Master Mason must pass that proficiency only if he wishes to be an officer of a Lodge or if he wants to join another Masonic Body in less than six months after taking the Third Degree.)
The program was a huge success! A total of 523 men completed their Masonic journey on a day of high Ritual and strong emotion. There was an unforgettable moment in the Master Mason Degree when more than a thousand male voices, sustained by the Temple’s vast pipe organ, sang “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” and the sound rolled upward resonating in the very bones, until it died in the distance. For me, the emotional high point came when I raised my son, the active candidate in the Third Degree, whispered in his ear, and saw the light in his eyes.
We will do the program twice more; in McAlester on April 26 and in Tulsa on July 19. Reservations are already coming in. It appears that we may have nearly the same number of candidates at those two conferrals as well, bringing in somewhere between 1,200 and 1,400 Master Masons through the program.
And if our plans have been good and our efforts adequate, each one of those Brothers will have had a chance-the best chance we can give them-to experience the wonder of Freemasonry, that moment when the world becomes new and life begins again.