A Focus on Masonic Research, News, and other Tidbits

Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Choosing and Grooming Masonic Leaders

Author’s note: This commentary references some procedures and law within the Grand Jurisdiction of South Carolina which may not be completely applicable to other Grand Lodges.

Like most all organizations, Freemasonry has a leadership structure whose origins predate even the Grand Lodge system that is currently familiar. This structure begins at the lodge level and the basic process involved in the selection of the officers of a lodge is fairly well known to most Master Masons. Five officers are nominated and elected – the Master, the two Wardens, the Treasurer, and the Secretary. Up to six other officers are appointed by the three Warrant officers. The Master appoints the Senior Deacon, the Chaplain, and the Tiler. The Senior Warden appoints the Junior Deacon while the Junior Warden appoints the two Stewards.

What is often overlooked, however, are the processes involved in the grooming of Masonic officers and leaders. This is often complicated by an expectation in some lodges that officers will almost automatically be “moved up” to the next higher officer position. Before an examination of that aspect begins, however, let us take a moment to specifically identify the leaders of a lodge.

Technically, there are only three leaders of a lodge. They are the warrant officers – the Master, the Senior Warden, and the Junior Warden. All other officers – even the elected Treasurer and Secretary – work for one of those three officers. If we really want to get down to it, even the two elected Wardens work at the pleasure of the Master. A Master can arrest the jewel of any officer (dismiss from office) – even the ones elected by the lodge members. The Master, on the other hand, can not be impeached or otherwise removed from office by the members of the lodge. These facts make a Master the undisputed true leader of his lodge even though the other officers are also serving in leadership roles.

With all of that said, it should be obvious that it is very important – maybe as important as the investigation and balloting process involving petitioners – that leaders and potential leaders of lodges be groomed and tested throughout their Masonic career. A “wrong” Lodge Master can be even more damaging to a lodge than a “wrong” petitioner that is allowed through the West Gate. This grooming and testing process can begin as a Brother enters into the appointed positions, which are typically the Steward and Deacon positions. The process commonly referred to as “moving through the chairs” is not necessarily a bad way to accomplish the process as long as there is no expectation on the part of the individual or the lodge members that service in one officer position equals automatic appointment or election to the next higher level of leadership. A mediocre Junior Deacon, for example, is probably not going miraculously become a stellar Senior Deacon.

The election of a Junior Warden is one of the most critical decision points for a lodge when it comes to a Brother’s leadership performance and potential. Once a lodge elects a Master Mason to the position of Junior Warden, it has – for all intents and purposes – declared that man ready to lead the lodge. If something were to happen to the Master and Senior Warden, the Junior Warden automatically assumes all of the power and responsibilities associated with the station of Lodge Master. If a poor leader is elected to the either of the stations of Junior Warden or Senior Warden, a lodge may not have an opportunity to correct its mistake before that Brother finds himself in the Master’s chair.

To effectively build a leadership corps and to ensure some amount of success when it comes to choosing the right Lodge Master, the Brothers of a lodge must constantly evaluate the performance and potential of a Brother for higher levels of leadership and responsibility. Any expectations or practices of automatic advancement are potentially dangerous to the long-term well being of a lodge. It should further be understood and accepted that not all Masons – even very good Master Masons – are leadership material. There are many roles to play in the Fraternity and – often – leadership is not the role for everyone.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

BEYOND THE POINSETTIA

The following was previously published in Volume 21 of the Transactions of the South Carolina Masonic Research Society, 2009. Portrait by Charles Fenderich (1805-1887), n.d.

BEYOND THE POINSETTIA: JOEL POINSETT AND MEXICAN FREEMASONRY

Joel Roberts Poinsett (1799 – 1851) was a native of Charleston, South Carolina, and is largely remembered only due to the beautiful flowering plant that bears his name. Commonly known as the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), this plant is a frequent addition to many Christmas decorations. Although Poinsett was instrumental in bringing this plant to the United States from its native Mexico, his activities in that country extended well beyond amateur botany and secured his place in the history of early Mexican Freemasonry.

In addition to being a member of the United States House of Representatives and a Secretary of War for the United States, Poinsett served as the first Minister to Mexico from 1825 to 1830.1 He was an Ancient Free Mason, having served as Master of both Solomon’s Lodge No. 1 and Recovery Lodge No. 31, in Charleston and Greenville, South Carolina, respectively. He was also a High Priest of the Grand Royal Arch Chapter of South Carolina and, though he never actually had the opportunity to carry out the duties of the office due to his commitments to the government of the United States, Poinsett was also appointed elected as a District Deputy Grand Master in South Carolina.2

The Grand Lodge of Ancient Free Masons of South Carolina, through Poinsett, has sometimes been credited with the introduction of Freemasonry into Mexico. It is doubtful, however, that the historical evidence can support any such claim.

The prolific Masonic writer and historian, Albert G. Mackey, examined the Poinsett – Mexican Masonic connection in detail in 1861 when he presented his work, The History of Freemasonry in South Carolina. Mackey was in a unique position to be able to make this examination since, as Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge in South Carolina, he was in possession of the written proceedings and various related documents that pertained to Grand Lodge business.

Mackey acknowledges that the South Carolina Grand Lodge did receive a letter from Poinsett in 1826, while he was in Mexico as the Minister from the United States. The contents and date of that letter were unfortunately not saved for review by Mackey or other Masonic historians but, in consequence of that letter, on the 15th of December, 1826, the Grand Lodge of South Carolina adopted the following resolution:
That the Grand Lodge do constitute our worthy Brother, Joel R. Poinsett, the Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States, near the Republic of Mexico, the Agent and Representative of the Grand Lodge, for the purpose of establishing friendly relations with the Lodges of that Republic. That our said Representative be authorized, in the manner of the Grand Lodge, to visit and inspect the working of the said Lodges, and, if deemed expedient, to grant dispensations for the constituting and working of Lodges according to the ancient landmarks, as fixed by this Grand Lodge; with a request that he will communicate to the Grand Lodge such information and advice as will enable it to promote the cause of Masonry in that country.3
There is, therefore, little doubt that the Grand Lodge of Ancient Free Masons of South Carolina clearly desired to establish Lodges in Mexico. South Carolina, like several Grand Lodges of the time, had a history of establishing Lodges in territories not already occupied by another Grand Lodge. It had done so before in places such as Alabama and Cuba.4

Poinsett had, however, written another letter that more fully revealed the Masonic situation in Mexico. It was dated June 2nd, 1826, but not received by the Grand Lodge of South Carolina until 1827-- well after the resolution of December 15th, 1826. In this letter, which Mackey was able to reproduce word for word, Poinsett reports the following: “The Grand Lodge of Mexico counts thirteen Subordinate Lodges under its jurisdiction.”5 The Grand Lodge of South Carolina could not have established Lodges in Mexico in 1826 or later without having been labeled as an invader of an established Grand Jurisdiction. Mackey makes it clear that there is no evidence that Poinsett ever acted on the authority granted to him in December 1826. Mackey stated unequivocally that Freemasonry in Mexico was “un fait accompli;”
and neither the Grand Lodge of South Carolina nor any other Grand Lodge had the right to intrude and interfere with the lawful sovereignty of the Grand Lodge of Mexico. The Grand Lodge of South Carolina certainly did not – it granted to one of its Past Officers, it is true, while it was ignorant of the real condition of affairs, the authority so to do, but we have no evidence that he ever availed himself of the authority, nor is it likely, with the knowledge he possessed of the condition of things, of which his superiors in South Carolina were ignorant, that he would commit so egregious an error as to interfere with the legally organized jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of a foreign country in which he was temporarily residing.6
The story of Poinsett’s Masonic activities in Mexico does not end there. Mackey, referencing a pamphlet issued by a George Fisher in 1859 and entitled “Freemasonry in Mexico: It’s Origin, etc.: Illustrated by original documents not heretofore published,” claims that Poinsett was actually working as the proxy of the Grand Master of New York and, in 1825, obtained charters from New York for three Lodges in Mexico. Fisher, who Mackey reports to have been a Mason from California who was residing in Mexico in 1825, may have been in a position to be an accurate observer of the Masonic conditions in that country. Based on this information, Poinsett could possibly be considered as the man who brought Freemasonry to Mexico; not on behalf of his own Grand Lodge in South Carolina but on behalf of the one in New York.7

Dr. Paul Rich and Dr. Guillermo De Los Reyes, researchers who have specialized in the study of Mexican Freemasonry, make the claim that Freemasonry was actually brought to Mexico in 1816 or 1817 by the Grand Lodge of Louisiana.8 This, though the proof is not presented and Rich and Reyes don’t name these Lodges, is not disputed in this article. It is reasonable to assume that Lodges existed prior to Poinsett’s three charters from New York in 1825 and, in all probability, those three Lodges were already in existence but working without charters. Therefore it is entirely possible that a Grand Jurisdiction with its origins in New York had already been formed based on Poinsett’s correspondence of June of 1826. That letter and the one that prompted the Grand Lodge of South Carolina’s resolution in December 1826, and which was most certainly written prior to June 1826, makes it rather certain that he was a supporter of the establishment of a Mexican Grand Lodge from the outset.

Poinsett’s support of and involvement in Mexican Masonry goes much deeper than just the relatively mundane act of obtaining a few charters from New York. To appreciate this, one should know something about the relationship between Freemasonry and Mexican politics in the 1820s and beyond. The interested reader will find that Mexican politics were heavily influenced by two competing Masonic factions. The Yorkinos, or York Masons, and the Escoseses, or Scottish Freemasons, were on opposite sides of the political situation in Mexico and, being from an Ancient York Mason influenced state and a well placed member of the York Rite, it would probably only be natural that Poinsett would side with the Yorkinos, Masonically and politically. Poinsett’s support of and involvement in Mexican Freemasonry, which was so closely tied to Mexican politics, would ultimately lead to him being recalled to the United States.9

So did Poinsett bring Freemasonry to Mexico? No, not exactly. However, he certainly was on a Masonic mission in that country and his activities pertaining to Freemasonry are every bit as important as his act of introducing poinsettias to Christmas place settings.

1. Ingersoll, L.D., History of the War Department of the United States, Washington, D.C., Francis B. Mohun, 1879, pp. 483-486.
2. Rich, Paul and De Los Reyes, Guillermo, “Problems in the Historiography of Mexican Freemasonry”, Mexican Freemasonry, Regency Press, New York and London, 1997.
3. Mackey, Albert G., History of Freemasonry in South Carolina, South Carolina Steam Power Press, Columbia, SC, 1861, pp. 220-221.
4. Ibid, pp. 558, 574.
5. Ibid, p. 222.
6. Ibid, p. 222.
7. Ibid, p. 223.
8. Rich and De Los Reyes.
9. Ibid.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Uninformed Brethren and the Charge of a Master Mason

It is generally assumed and accepted that a man who has become a Master Mason has reached the pinnacle of the degree system in Craft Masonry. A Master Mason enjoys all of the same privileges and responsibilities of any other Master Mason outside of the existing leadership structure of the Order. Master Masons are further informed that they have been introduced to all of the knowledge capable of being shared in a symbolic lodge. New Master Masons are given a charge – instructions – at the time of their raising to the Sublime Degree.
In the character of a Master Mason, you are authorized to correct the errors and irregularities of your uninformed brethren…

…and by the regularity of your own behavior afford the best example for the conduct of others less informed.1
From these excerpts, it is recognized that a Master Mason has certain responsibilities concerning uninformed Brethren. Maybe somewhat strangely, the Charge of a Master Mason does not identify who are considered the uninformed Brethren. It could possibly be argued that the uninformed are the Entered Apprentices and Fellow Crafts, but the charge does not specifically say that. If Master Masons are included as possible members of the group of the uninformed or less informed, however, then a contradiction of sorts appears.

An uninformed or seriously less informed Master Mason would not be able to comply with or execute the instructions contained within the Charge of a Master Mason. It is reasonable to expect, therefore, that a Master Mason must himself be an informed member of the Craft. There can be no other reasonable option.

Of course, no Master Mason can be fully informed or fully knowledgeable about all aspects of the Craft. A Master Mason is still an imperfect human after all. A consensus as to what constitutes being informed enough in order to satisfy the requirements of the Charge is unlikely to be reached by any group of Masons – no matter how small the group. It may be far easier to define what is considered as uninformed. An uninformed Mason could very well be one that does not have at least a working personal knowledge of the rituals, lectures, and laws concerning the governance of his lodge and Grand Jurisdiction. The personal working knowledge is critical. “Knowledge” obtained simply via observation or through the verbal, off the cuff, guidance of others may not create an informed Master Mason since what he has observed or has been told could be incorrect. An informed Mason must first become a reading Mason or at the very least be guided by a known reading Mason.
Such Masons are distinguished, not by the amount of knowledge that they possess, but by the number of jewels that they wear. They will give fifty dollars for a decoration, but not fifty cents for a book.2
So what does an informed Master Mason have on his reading list? He can have many books but – in the Grand Jurisdiction of South Carolina – there is one book that he must have as his primary reference. It is the Ahiman Rezon which contains the Constitution and Code. He must also have that personal working knowledge of the rituals, which includes the lectures. If he has those two things, studies them, and understands them; then he very likely cannot be grouped with the uninformed Brethren. He will also be able to comply with his Master Mason’s Charge.

1. The Ahiman Rezon of the Grand Lodge of Ancient Free Masons of South Carolina, Lexington, S.C.: Grand Lodge of South Carolina, 2007, pp 161-162.
2. Mackey, Albert G., "Reading Masons and Masons Who Do Not Read," Voice of Masonry, June 1875.