Published in Transactions of the South Carolina Masonic Research Society, Volume 20, 2008.
Notes: My writing style was much rougher when this was written and I truly hope that has improved during the last few years. Endnotes have been removed. Most references were from the Ahiman Rezon of the Grand Lodge of Ancient Free Masons of South Carolina.
The Government of Free Masonry: from the perspective of an A.F.M. of S.C.
Members of the Free Masonic Fraternity, including experienced Master Masons, are sometimes found to be confused as to the nature of the governments of a Masonic Lodge and their Grand Lodge. This may be a peculiar symptom of American Free Masonry due to the value placed in the democratic form, or, more accurately…the republican form, of government that is cherished in the United States.
In order to establish a baseline for further discussion, it may be prudent to briefly review the form of government of the United States. The government of the United States of America is often referred to as a democracy; however and in the opinion of this author, the United States is closer to the model of a republic than that of a democracy.
A true democracy allows for every voting citizen to be directly involved in the decision making process. There were some ancient Greek city-states that possessed the characteristics of a true democracy and there are, today, some New England towns that practice pure democracy in the form of town meetings. In a republic, the voting citizens choose representatives who are charged with being directly involved in the decision making process and, at the same time, promoting the interests of those who they represent. This describes the Congress of the United States perfectly.
The United States also possesses a separate judicial body in the form of the Supreme Court and the lower courts. The nation also has a President, elected by the citizens, who is responsible for executing the day-to-day business of the country. So, what the United States has is a republican form of government that includes three branches; the executive, the legislative, and the judicial; with each branch having equal but separate powers that serve as a check and balance on the other two.
Some Freemasons may mistakenly believe that the governments of their Lodge and Grand Lodge have the exact characteristics as that of the United States. In reality, Lodge government is a fluid and often metamorphosing process that displays signs of an executive branch, a legislative branch, a pure democracy, and an elected monarchy. At the Grand Lodge level, the government could be described as an elected monarchy that often changes into a parliament. Both the individual Lodges and the Grand Lodge have judicial systems that can be activated from the existing structure as temporary situations require.
This article will address the governments of the Lodge and the Grand Lodge separately. Each of the varied government systems; democracy, monarchial, executive, legislative, parliamentary, and judicial; will also be examined separately.
I – Pure, or True, Democracy
The Lodge functions as a pure democracy in several respects. Free Masonry in South Carolina does restrict voting rights to certain members of the Fraternity. Entered Apprentices and Fellow Crafts are not allowed a vote, therefore and for the sake of this article, the Craft is defined as consisting of all Master Masons of the Lodge. The Craft is not only allowed to cast votes for certain issues but is required to do so. Such instances include the election of new members, the election of certain officers, and the decision on some questions before the Lodge. After the completion of these actions, the Craft no longer functions as a democracy and now metamorphoses into entirely different forms of government. Democracy will show itself again as the various systems of government are examined.
II – Monarchial
The Worshipful Master is the highest ranking of the Lodge officers elected by way of the system of pure democracy. He is elected to a specific term of office and, while serving that term, can be described as an elected monarch. Limited only by the Grand Lodge’s Constitution and Code, the By-Laws of his Lodge, and his own conscience; he has the power to unilaterally make legislation, direct execution of that legislation, and take certain judicial actions.
The Master can issue summonses for special communications; is the ex officio Chairman of all committees; can change the order of business of the Lodge; can remove subordinate officers from office; can exclude members of the Craft; and is the deciding officer on the issue of candidate proficiency. He also decides all questions of order, can close debate at his will and pleasure, and can actually stop the practice of pure democracy in the case of the election of new members. Though these listed prerogatives of a Worshipful Master do not describe the entire scope of his powers, they should give the reader an idea of how immense those powers are.
Though selected to office by a democratic process, the Craft that elected him cannot impeach the Master. Only the Grand Master may suspend him and only the Grand Lodge may make that suspension permanent. The Master also cannot be brought before a Masonic Trial, except by order of the Grand Lodge. Any decisions made by the Master, even if outside the limits imposed by the Grand Lodge’s Constitution and Code or the Lodge’s By-Laws, cannot be overturned by the Craft. The Master’s decisions can only be appealed to the Grand Master and the Grand Lodge.
As the reader can see, the Worshipful Master is truly the elected monarch of his Lodge. His role does change, however, as will be discovered in the forthcoming paragraphs.
III – Executive Branch of the Lodge
As can be ascertained from the previous discussion on monarchial powers, the executive responsibilities always rest with the Worshipful Master. Even when he is not functioning as an elected monarch, he remains responsible for the execution of certain activities within his Lodge and is answerable to the Grand Master and Grand Lodge for those activities.
Some examples of these responsibilities include the appointment of a committee to examine the Secretary’s and Treasurer’s books; the execution of the legislative decisions of the Craft, or causing the same to be done; and the requirement to have charge of the Warrant of Constitution, Jewels, and Furniture of the Lodge.
IV – Legislative Powers
The most fluid of governmental roles found in a Lodge regards legislative authority, which switches frequently between the Worshipful Master and the Craft. This rather unusual mode of legislating appears to be unique to Free Masonry as this writer has been unable to find other obvious examples of this practice.
When functioning in his role as an elected monarch and as already discussed, the legislative power rests with the Master. When the Grand Lodge’s Constitution and Code or the Lodge By-Laws limit the powers of the Master, then the Craft is tasked with making certain decisions, which the Master is then obligated to put into action. In addition, any member of the Craft may make a motion which, if receiving a second motion, may be brought to a vote by order of the Master after any appropriate debate. In these scenarios, the Master becomes less of a monarch and takes on the roles of a presiding officer and the executive branch of the Lodge. The legislative responsibility has now fallen on the shoulders of the Craft. In this legislative role, the Craft is acting as a pure democracy in that the Brothers are directly involved in the decision making process. This would be akin to a town in which the citizens directly take on the role normally held by an elected council.
This process often produces a situation where the Craft can serve as both the legislature and as an arm of the executive branch or as agents for the monarch. This is a totally alien concept when compared to how the government of the United States conducts business. Once the Craft, acting as a legislative body, has made a decision that is binding upon the Master, it is very common for the Master to then turn to that very Craft and appoint certain Brothers to a committee or otherwise to direct them to perform some sort of work to accomplish the action. Once appointed to such a role, these Brothers, the former legislators, are now officers of the Lodge’s executive branch or, since they cannot theoretically refuse such an assignment, are agents for the Master in his role as the Lodge’s elected monarch. If one thinks about this in the sense of the government of the United States, it would be similar to the Congress passing a law that, let us say, requires the erection of a new public building, and the President then directing that certain members of Congress actually go out and construct it. If this structure was present in the Nation’s government, then surely fewer laws would be passed!
V – Parliamentary Rules
After the previous discussion involving the legislature, here is a good place to pause and examine the certain guidelines that are in place and, when properly utilized, provide for a smooth and harmonious conduction of decisions before the Lodge. These guidelines are normally referred to as the rules of order but are also often known as parliamentary rules. For A.F.M. Lodges in South Carolina, the basic rules of order are contained within the Lodge By-Laws. These rules provide the framework that is necessary for any well regulated institution to conduct its business without the distraction of confusion, public quarrels, or indecorum.
As anyone familiar with American politics can attest, debates can often turn into arguments and posturing. The rules of order in a Lodge are structured in such a way as to allow for debate but, at the same time, to prevent the debate from developing into an unpleasant and unbecoming situation for the Lodge or an individual Brother.
VI – The Judicial System
Completely unlike the United States and most representative or democratic governments that people are familiar with, the Lodge does not have a standing body that serves as the judiciary. Judicial powers are activated only as needed and, in the Lodge, are only used to adjudicate alleged Masonic offenses by individuals. The responsibility of reviewing changes or additions to a Lodge’s By-Laws to determine constitutionality rests with the Grand Lodge. When performing such duty, the Grand Lodge is, in a sense, the Supreme Court. When there is a need to confront an allegation of individual Masonic misconduct, there is more than one route which may be taken.
The Master, acting within the powers given to him as an elected monarch, can take certain summary judicial actions. He has the ability to arrest the jewel of a subordinate officer even if that officer was originally elected by the Brethren. This is tantamount to a removal from office. He may also reprimand or exclude any member of the Craft for indecorum or if the presence of a certain member creates, or has the potential of creating, disharmony. When a Master directs either of these two actions, there is no appeal of his decision but to the Grand Lodge.
Another process that can be used, and may also be used after the summary action of a Master, is the Masonic trial. The Ahiman Rezon (of South Carolina) devotes much ink to the issue of Masonic trials and a lengthy article can be written just on this subject. As the reader will soon see, the Masonic trial is similar in nature and process to a trial in the court systems of the United States.
Any member of the Craft may prefer a charge of un-Masonic conduct against another member; however, the ultimate responsibility for this rests with the Junior Warden. Once a charge is preferred, the route of the trial can take one of two paths. The charge may be adjudicated by way of trial by the Lodge or may be referred to a Trial Commission from outside of the Lodge. Trial Commissions are often used at the request of the Master in order to limit damage to the harmony of his Lodge or, in especially complicated cases, to utilize the experience of Brothers who have been involved in Masonic trials or may be members of the legal profession. Regardless of which method is used, the trial process is almost identical in both scenarios.
As in the civil or criminal courts, the accused must be notified and served with a copy of the charge. He also has the right to counsel and the right to file objections and make a plea. The prosecutor is often represented in the person of the Junior Warden, however, any Master Mason may be appointed to fulfill this role. The role of judge, or presiding officer, falls to the Master or the Chairman or the Trial Commission, if such is used. The processes of receiving testimony and evidence, cross-examination, and the bar to self incrimination all are present in the Masonic trial. The Craft of the Lodge or the Trial Commission, if used, serve as the jury and decide upon the question of guilt and punishment. Though a much simpler process than is found in civil and criminal courts, the accused has the right to file an appeal to the Grand Lodge following a conviction.
THE GRAND LODGE
I – Similarities with Lodge Government
In several respects, some of the characteristics already discussed will apply in an examination of the Grand Lodge. Obvious similarities include the use of rules of order, and the process of the Masonic trial. As the reader will discover in subsequent paragraphs, there are a few differences in the government of the Grand Lodge as compared to that of the subordinate Lodges.
II – Republican, or Representative, Legislature
The Grand Lodge is a representative body, rather similar in nature to that of the Congress of the United States. The Grand Lodge, as a legislative body, has the authority to debate and make decisions on the fate of proposal legislation. The similarity with Congress blurs, however, when one closely examines the composition of this representative body. First, it is a unicameral assembly whereas the Congress is bicameral with a Senate and a House. Also, and though not specifically named (or) operating as such, there are three distinct groups, or houses, within the main body of the Grand Lodge.
These three houses sit in the Grand Lodge as one body and all legislative activity is conducted in the presence of that one body. The differences lie in how the three houses are chosen. The first house consists of over nine-hundred democratically elected representatives from the subordinate Lodges. Each Lodge has three and these are the Master and two Wardens, each with a vote. The second house consists of those elected by the Grand Lodge itself. These are the Grand Master, Deputy Grand Master, the two Grand Wardens, Grand Treasurer, Grand Secretary, and Grand Chaplain. Thirty District Deputy Grand Masters, appointed by the Grand Master, comprise the third house. The serious student of this subject will undoubtedly be reminded of the selection process of the House of Lords and the House of Commons in the parliament of the United Kingdom.
III - Parliamentary
The Grand Lodge has some characteristics of a parliament in that the chief executive, the Grand Master, is selected by the Grand Lodge rather than by democratic election involving the entire Craft. He, along with most of the other Grand Lodge officers, must be a member or former member of the Grand Lodge in order to be eligible to hold the position. The reader can again examine the parliament of the United Kingdom, and the process by which it selects its Prime Minister, to find a system that is comparable to that used in the Grand Lodge.
The chief executives in most parliamentary governments are notoriously limited in powers since they are dependent upon the support of the parliament that selected them. As will be examined further, this is absolutely not the case with regards to the position of the Grand Master and, thus, the similarity with a parliamentary system ends.
IV – Monarchial
As with the Master of a Lodge, the Grand Master is elected for a specified term has the authority of an elected monarch or sovereign. The prerogatives inherent to his high office include the ability to take summary judicial action such as suspending subordinate Lodge Masters, arresting the jewels of subordinate Grand Officers, and suspending the operations of subordinate Lodges. He may also make decisions in order to preserve order in the Fraternity, from which there is no appeal. The Grand Master can order extra assemblies of the Grand Lodge at his will and pleasure and make unilateral legislative decisions in the absence of the Grand Lodge, though these legislative decisions may be reviewed by the Grand Lodge when it next convenes.
He also has the right to preside over any assembly within the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge, including subordinate Lodges. The Grand Master cannot be impeached, subject to a vote of no confidence, nor can he be brought before a Masonic trial while in office.
V - The Judicial System
As in subordinate Lodges, no separate judicial branch permanently exists and the process of the Masonic trial is, for all intents, identical in the Grand Lodge as in the subordinate Lodges. As discussed in the previous section, the Grand Master has certain judicial powers related to his role as a monarch.
Unlike in subordinate Lodges, however, the Grand Master and the Grand Lodge have the authorities and duties to review legislative decisions, including those made in the subordinate Lodges, for constitutionality and to interpret the Constitution and Code of the Grand Lodge.
The Grand Master has the power to issue legal opinions and decisions as he deems necessary. His opinions are not official and are not subject to the review of the Grand Lodge. His decisions, once approved by the Grand Lodge, enjoy more authority but still do not have the same power as the written law.
Acting very much like the Supreme Court of the United States, the Grand Lodge investigates and adjudicates matters of controversy which may arise between subordinate Lodges. It also reviews decisions made by the Grand Master while the Grand Lodge was not is session and makes judicial determinations upon questions of law.
Assisting the Grand Master and Grand Lodge in matters of legislative review, legal decisions, and judicial determinations is the Committee on Jurisprudence. This Committee, appointed by the Grand Master, serves in a role that could be described as similar as that of the Attorney General of the United States.
To the unaccustomed, Masonic government can almost seem chaotic due to the different types of governmental systems utilized and the variety of roles the same governmental participants can assume. In the opinion of this author, however, it is a beautiful, flowing, and adaptable system that has served the Fraternity well for centuries. It has, in fact, outlived many models used by the nations of the world. There is no reason to believe that this Masonic system will not continue to promote the progress, while maintaining the harmony, of the greatest Fraternity in the world for many centuries to come.