Masonic seating



Fraternalism is egalitarianism made easier by exclusion.


Transcending Class: Hierarchy vs. Egalitarianism in Fraternal Orders

 The decades surrounding the turn of the century were a time of “prolonged, intense, bitter, and spreading class conflict.” [1] At a time when labor and capital were battling for control, fraternal societies offered an ideal asylum where men of all social statuses could establish a bond of brotherhood. Drawing on the Masonic model, fraternal lodges provided a space where a middle-class shop-keeper could assume the identity of the Most Worshipful Master and enjoy a more illustrious title than the local doctor who had not yet risen through the ranks of the order. Seemingly egalitarian, this symbolic leveling, however, flirts with aristocratic notions of hierarchy and status. It suggests that the within the very fabric of the Masonic paradigm there exist contradictions between democracy and oligarchy---internal contradictions that might translate to the external operations of the society. My purpose is to understand how the inner workings of the lodge inculcate notions of class distinction and how these translate beyond the Masonic paradigm when they are later appropriated by quasi-Masonic fraternal orders.


Within the Masonic network, Masons could achieve distinction in two ways: through office holding and higher-order degrees. The former method represents a pseudo-democratic model of government. Though the lodge technically elected the Most Worshipful Master, who then in turn appointed members to the myriad of offices, the usual custom was for an officer to “go through the line,” holding office in progressively higher ranks. “The lodge’s election for Master, then, was usually automatic confirmation of a process begun years before with the initial appointment of a Steward to the ‘line.’” [2] The greatest percentage of these officers were “drawn from the low-level white-collar category,” [3] suggesting oligarchic rule by the elite. Awareness of this “cliquishness” caused some controversy within Masonic circles concerning the undemocratic nature of appointments and rotations. [4] Exempt from checks and balances, the Master exercised total autonomy over all proceedings in the lodge. Visually the lodge room (see figure above) was arranged to reflect this hierarchy. The mass of members would sit facing each other in chairs circumscribing the room, while the officials would sit in more symbolically exalted positions. During meetings he would wear a top-hat while the rest of the members went bareheaded. His illustrious status was marked by a unique jewel and a throne-like elevated seat. Since the lesser officers received similar material metaphors for distinction, the visual machinery of the lodge was decidedly oligarchic.

            To further their chances for elite distinction, a Mason could attempt one of the higher-order degrees. If he had already become a Master Mason, he could seek initiation in the York Rite’s Knights Templar or the Scottish Rite, which were known for their elaborate rituals and colorful regalia. Since the regalia was often more expensive, these societies tended to draw more affluent Masons. Higher-degrees tended to draw members away from the Blue Lodge, where the basic degrees are administered. Likening the hierarchy to the Indian caste system, “Blue Lodge leaders complained that these groups undermined the egalitarianism of Masonry.” [5]

            Demonstrating these contradictions does not evacuate the multi-class egalitarian ideals of the Masons as demonstrated in ritual and charitable acts. Identifying, however, the tension between rhetoric and reality in the Masonic paradigm is a crucial first step to understanding how it would translate to fraternalism in general. Since the rhetorical articulation of meaning is as important in the “social construction of categories” [6] as its actual implementation, a group can bring a new construct into being without actually adhering to its rhetoric. Whether it transcended class distinctions or not, fraternalism identified and inculcated respectable middle-class virtues: “industry, sobriety, self-restraint, honesty, and fear of God.” [7] Though infinte variations existed, each fraternal motto was some variation on these elements. Paralleling the rise of evangelical Protestantism, fraternalism spoke a vocabulary which “accorded with the needs of capitalism” [8] by teaching habits of thrift and economy. As an alternative, if not a highly competitive one, to the church, the lodge in this respect acted as a “moral policing institution” [9] The rhetoric and value systems that fraternalism communicated, therefore, defined it as a middle-class phenomenon despite the actual social make-up of local lodges.   

            Masonry, however, tended to attract a more elite element of the middle class. Lynn Dumenil’s interpretation of the occupational composition of a California lodge in 1919 supports this observation. White collar workers comprised between 75 and 80 percent of the total members, skilled workers constituted 15 to 20 percent, while semi-skilled workers rarely comprised more than 5 percent. The lower-level, white-collar group that comprised the majority of this lodge was comprised primarily of clerks, salesmen, accountants, and proprietors. [10] Other studies by Roy Rosenzweig and John Gilkeson support these findings, placing the number of white-collar workers in Masonic lodges at 75 percent. [11] There is no direct correlation, however, between this distribution and exclusionary practices of the Masons. It is clear that working class men were admitted. Rather, the reason why blue-collar workers did not comprise a substantial portion of lodge membership had more to do with economics. Since initiation fees and dues would have tapped about a fifth of a factory worker’s yearly income, “many blue-collar workers would have found the cost of Masonry prohibitive.” [12]

            If economic regulations detracted lower-middle class men from joining, the result was a form of indirect exclusion. In theory, Masonry remained open to all classes. The Masons, however, represented the elite of fraternal orders; therefore, it is best not to make generalizations based on their make-up. Looking at a wider spectrum of fraternal orders demonstrates variations on the theme of class-transcendence.                        


            Unlike the Masons, the burgeoning number of fraternal orders at the end of the 19th century such as the Knights of Pythias, the Improved Order of Red Men, the Ancient United Order of Workmen, and the Independent Order of Oddfellows engaged in more openly inclusive recruiting. [13] The numbers from occupational distribution studies reveal higher frequencies of working-class participation in these orders. Although some degree of class homogeneity could be found at the local level, these orders, in general, demonstrate a marked heterogeneity. In some lodges, The Knights of Pythias “attracted approximately as many blue-collar as white-collar members.” [14] Analyzing the composition of lodges not only demonstrates the general heterogeneity of these orders, but also reveals that the make-up of the lodge had much to do with local affiliation. Since members of these orders were more concerned with defending themselves against unfair business practices, one witnesses their composition changing at the local level. In places where the Masons drew heavily from the upper middle-class, The Knight of Pythias, Redmen, and Oddfellows “were composed more of laborers and mechanics;” [15] but in other localities, especially smaller rural towns, one observes the latter’s “purposeful inclusion of the town’s business elite.” [16] Through heterogeneity, these working-class oriented societies could maximize political clout. By bringing together the agenda of the elite with that of the workers, the lodge became “a vehicle for the promotion of cross-class social relations as well as the organizational expression of more homogenous social groupings.” [17]

            This notion of uniting labor and capital under the aegis of fraternal brotherhood would be forced to its crisis in The Knights of Labor and the AOUW. In the histories of these orders, one witnesses exclusionary practices. Though John J. Upchurch, founder of the AOUW, set out to create a an inclusive society that “used the fraternal bond to create…an institutionalized system for resolving differences between workers and employers,” [18] the order from the beginning excluded lawyers, saloon-keepers and any “man of wealth who will not invest his capital in some manufacture, so as to give employment to the laboring classes.” [19] Likewise, the Knights barred lawyers and bankers. This outright modification of class lines to exclude certain occupations was determined by the social agenda of these groups. In essence, it signifies a commandeering of the Masonic ideal of class transcendence for the purpose of strengthening one particular class. 



            The solidarity provided by the fraternal model acted as the cement for a host of labor organizations. Some could be as occupationally specific as The Patrons of Husbandry which only admitted farmers. Within this exclusivity, however, there existed a “cross-sampling of American rural life…old and young members of both sexes and from all economic levels” [20] working together for common goals. Of course, members could achieve distinction by progressing through the seven degrees and some members were lionized and made privileged speakers. This essential need for hierarchy and exclusivity devolved from the Masonic paradigm and acted to stabilize the governmental machinery of the fraternal order. Acting on the need for inviolable trust and organization in order to achieve specific goals, these labor-oriented fraternal societies tended to espouse exclusivity in terms of official policy.
            To identify that “fraternalism bases itself on a principle of exclusion, from which it derives much of its power” [21] does not detract from its fundamental role as a provider for the common good in terms of “charity and civic involvement”. [22] It does, however, point to the fact that fraternalism is egalitarianism made easier by exclusion. In the social turmoil of turn-of-the-century America, “the fixed, immutable hierarchy of the fraternal orders offered security and stability missing in the larger society” [23] while the ideals of social brotherhood gave the members a means by which to gather for their greater good. Through analyzing the evolution, or devolution rather, of these instrumental variations on Masonry, it becomes evident that contradictions between egalitarianism and exclusion remained integral to the fraternal experience.


[1] [1] David Montgomery, “Labor and the Republic in Industrial America: 1860-1920,” Le Mouvement Social 111 (April-Jun 1980) 204.

[2] Lynn Dumenil, Freemasonry and American Culture 1880-1930. (Princeton: Princeton UniversityPress, 1984) 14.

[3] Ibid., 15.

[4] Robert Macoy, Worshipful Master’s Assistant: The Encyclopedia of Useful Knowledge (New York, 1885) 19.

[5] Dumenil, 16.

[6] Mary Ann Clawson, Constructing Brotherhood: Class, Gender, and Fraternalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) 109.

[7] Dumenil, 13.

[8] Mark C. Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) 32.

[9] Brian Greenberg, Worker and Community: Response to Industrialization in a Nineteenth-Century American City, Albany, New York, 1850-1884 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985) 81.

[10] Dumenil, 12.

[11] Clawson, 95.

[12] Dumenil, 13.

[13] Clawson, 96.

[14] Clawson, 98.

[15] C. Putney, “Service over secrecy: How lodge style fraternalism yielded popularity to men’s service clubs,” Journal of Popular Culture 27.1 (1993) 180.

[16] Clawson, 101.

[17] Ibid.,103.

[18] Ibid.,143.

[19]  M.W. Sackett, Early History of Fraternal Benefit Societies in America (Meadville, Pa.: Tribune Publishing Company, 1914) 47.

[20] Nordin 31

[21] Clawson 11

[22] Beito 61.

[23] Ames 23.