John Hamill reflects on how Freemasonry has changed in tandem with society

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The wider context

Director of Special Projects John Hamill reflects on the impact that broad trends within society have had on Freemasonry

We often comment on our hopes that the individual Freemason – by putting into practice the principles he learns in his lodge – will have a positive effect on the society in which he lives and works. However, we rarely look at how society, and the great changes it has gone through in the past 30 or so years, has impacted on Freemasonry.

Indeed, until the formation of the Membership Focus Group, whose ongoing work has been reported in recent issues of Freemasonry Today, there had been no major attempt to look at Freemasonry in the context of the society in which it currently exists. 

At a recent meeting I had the privilege of presenting a memento to a lodge’s senior member who was celebrating the 75th anniversary of their initiation. Also present were his younger brother, who had just celebrated 68 years in the Craft, and his great-nephew, who has recently joined the lodge as the fourth generation of the family to do so.

It was one of the happiest meetings I have been to for a long time and stirred up one or two thoughts. 

It took me back to my own entry into the Craft in 1970 in my father’s lodge on Tyneside, at which he and five of my uncles and three of my cousins were present. That might seem unusual today but in the context of the time it was not uncommon. 

Indeed, from my work over the years with the membership registers and helping others compile lodge histories, I would argue that up to the 1970s, particularly outside the major cities, Freemasonry was very much a family affair. In many lodges with a history going back to Victorian times you see the same family names occurring. In small towns, family members would often be spread over several lodges meeting there, as was the case in my own family.

To my mind, family relationships and personal and professional friendships were the bedrock of Freemasonry and the major recruiting ground for new members. That began to break down in the 1970s because of gradual changes in society, particularly as the population became more mobile.

Research by sociologists has shown that up to the 1970s, most of the population were born, educated, worked and died within about 30 miles of where they were born. When education was complete, you looked for a job where you lived. The huge economic changes of the latter part of the 20th century, with the gradual disappearance of England’s industrial base, led to enforced mobility. You no longer worked where you lived; you moved to where you could find work.

That, in turn, had a great effect on family and community life, with families growing apart geographically and community organisations, such as Freemasonry, having a narrower base from which to draw members. Those factors, combined with a huge growth in new possibilities for leisure activities, meant that Freemasonry was no longer the first thing to come to mind when an individual was considering what to do with their free time.

Increased mobility also had an effect on existing members. When forced to move location for work they would try to maintain their links with their lodge but, almost inevitably, the ties would loosen and break. Sadly, Freemasonry at that time did not have systems in place to deal with such a situation or to introduce members to Freemasonry in their new area, and after a time their membership simply lapsed. Happily, that has all changed in recent years.

New thinking and new programmes such as the Membership Focus Group and the mentoring scheme should have an effect on future recruitment and retention of members. Key to it all, however, is good communication – but that is a topic for the future.

‘The huge economic changes of the latter part of the 20th century, with the gradual disappearance of England’s industrial base, led to enforced mobility… You moved to where you could find work.’

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