In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there was a stark difference between the way sailors were treated in the English Navy, versus the much, much smaller and newer American one. The upstart U.S. ship captains would treat their sailors well, share prizes of war among them as rewards, and earned the loyalty and dedication of their men. By contrast, English captains generally maintained discipline among their sailors by simply flogging them, often to death. Likewise, U.S. sailors were encouraged to know the craft of seamanship and actually learn how to chart their position at sea, whereas an English sailor who got caught trying to discover such information for himself would simply be hanged for knowing too much.
I thought about this dichotomy all week long.
I wish this hadn't been a slow news week around the Masonic world. I wish I could find another story to occupy space here this weekend. And I wish it didn't seem like I have unfairly singled out the Grand Lodge of Arkansas F&AM to spotlight over the last few weeks. I assure all of you, I have not. As I have said before, posting these stories brings me no happiness or sense of satisfaction.
But what has happened is that the cork has been taken out of the bottle and the genie has now escaped. When Arkansas tried to stamp out dissension in the ranks by forbidding electronic communication among their members about Masonic issues, and then actually charging and suspending or expelling their members for doing so, they didn't solve the very real problems that actually exist in their jurisdiction which have led to those messages and comments in the first place. As is almost always the case, attempts at a cover-up or censorship are usually far, far worse than a bad decision or simple misstep. So, now that Arkansas brethren have reached a breaking point with their leadership, the dam is breaking and the flood is starting.
In the last few days, I have received numerous entreaties from brethren within Arkansas to tell their stories, because their own brethren are forbidden to do so. I have permitted anonymous comments here because of the situation. If it was from just one crank or pest who clearly didn't play well with others or just had an axe to grind, that could be ignored. I get those all the time. But that's not the case. And as I said last weekend, it is now affecting other jurisdictions and appendant bodies, and their future fraternal relationships with the Grand Lodge of Arkansas.
In the last week, at least two brethren received summonses to appear at the Grand Lodge in Little Rock, and unlike almost any other jurisdiction I have ever encountered, these summonses were accompanied by an additional letter that gave the Brother the choice to either appear personally to answer the charges, or simply sign on a line and "self-expel" from the fraternity. Failure to appear for any reason would be followed by an immediate suspension. In both cases, the registered letters containing the charges could not be picked up at the post office until the Tuesday following the Labor Day holiday. The demands to appear were scheduled for the very next day. In one Brother's situation, the drive to the location of his trial was a 3 1/2 hour trip from his home. When he called the Grand Secretary's office to request a later date because of his work commitments that he was unable to rearrange on such extraordinarily short notice, the extension was denied and he was told to simply sign the self-expulsion paper. When he mentioned that his Entered Apprentice degree had told him that his obligation to the fraternity was not meant to interfere with his duties to his family or vocation, he was informed that such considerations did not matter, and that he was simply to appear or be suspended.
In both cases, these brethren stood accused of violating the regulation against electronic communications by commenting on either this blog or on a Facebook post. It should be pointed out that an expulsion - whether self-inflicted, or officially ordered by the Grand Lodge - is for life. Few jurisdictions anywhere would ignore such a stain on the record of a Mason who attempts to join one of their lodges.
Last month, a Brother was similarly summoned to Little Rock over a post on Facebook that he had not made, but that another person had placed in the comment section of his page. It was a "meme" that showed an empty conference room table, and above each vacant chair there was a noose. The photo was captioned "Grand Lodge Officers' Meeting." His wife had posted the image, who was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star. When he saw the image himself, he immediately deleted it, but it was too late. The brother was informed that the Grand Lodge looked upon this image as a 'terrorist threat,' and he too was offered a self-expulsion option. He subsequently received just a reprimand to be read in his open lodge and entered into the minutes. But during this hearing with the Grand Master, he was actually questioned whether he professed a belief in God - over a deleted photo that his wife had posted in jest, clearly seeing the reality of the current GL politics for herself.
The next day, the Worthy Grand Matron of the Arkansas Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star was telephoned by the GM and told that one of her members had broken the law (!) by posting the now deleted photo. It was clear that if she did not immediately remove her member from the rolls, the OES in Arkansas might receive the same fate as the Shrine in that state, and declared to be a clandestine organization. The lady demitted before a committe could be assembled to investigate.
(NOTE: Please see the response to this story from Vickie Staggs, Worthy Grand Matron, in the update below.)Just in the last two weeks since the story broke publicly about the GS denying letters of good standing to brethren seeking to move out of state, the Grand Master and Grand Secretary in Arkansas have now told several secretaries individually that there is a new way to process demits - unofficially. In the Digest of Arkansas Masonic law it says that demits are to be presented to a lodge in writing, and if there is no objection in the lodge, it will be granted by his lodge's Secretary. But the new verbal guidelines being spoken of privately now are that if an Arkansas Mason desires a demit from his lodge, he must now appear in open lodge at a stated meeting and make the request personally. It will then be sent to the Grand Secretary's office to be checked against the suspension list. It was not revealed whether such demits would actually even be issued by the GS at all. This means that if an Arkansas Mason has moved out of state, or is deployed overseas in the military, he is now expected to fly back to Arkansas in time for his lodge's stated meeting, in order to request something as simple as a demit in person - that may or may not be granted by the GL. This is blatantly an attempt by the GL to staunch the flow of Arkansas Masons seeking to either transfer out of the state, or simply withdraw their membership until better times come down the road. This is in addition to the increasing reports of the GS office not issuing letters of good standing to Masons seeking to transfer to states that recognize their Prince Hall counterparts.
In 1961, the East Germans built the Berlin Wall for a unique purpose. Almost every border fence, wall, and barrier around the world is erected in order to keep interlopers out. It is only when someone is attempting to imprison others that such an edifice as the one in Berlin gets constructed - to keep people who wish to escape inside. It appears that the Grand Lodge of Arkansas seeks to achieve that now.
Arkansas seems to be preventing those who wish to leave voluntarily from doing so, while ridding itself of those who express even the smallest hint of complaint. This is a volunteer organization. No one has to join it, and no one has to remain. Last week, I reported that between the 13 years of 2002 and 2015, the average loss of membership across the board among all U.S. grand lodges has been 32.8%, but that Arkansas leads the nation with a combined membership loss of 56.3%. There is a reason - or perhaps even a whole host of them - for that enormous difference there. In a reply to that post, Jay Adam Pearson, PGM of South Carolina and an honorary Past Grand Master of Arkansas, mused that an examination of the demits versus deaths would perhaps give a better understanding of that data.
But I must simply ask here what I asked him - namely, are Masons just dying in greater numbers in Arkansas than anywhere else in the country?
Or is it something else, over a long period of time?
UPDATE 9/12/16: RESPONSE FROM GRAND WORTHY MATRON OF ARKANSAS OES
This morning I received a message from Vickie Staggs, the Grand Worthy Matron of the Arkansas Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star. The original information about the episode did not come from Mrs. Staggs, and she had nothing to do with "leaking" any private information, including any details of her conversation with the Grand Master.
I have removed the word "threatened" and some other details of the call from the article, and apologize if I erred in the precise wording of her reported conversation. I had wanted to quote her message to me, but she has not permitted me to do that. Per her request, I have made changes above, but I have not just deleted the entire episode from the post. That was her desire, and I have reluctantly not done that. Perhaps that is not the gentlemanly thing to do, but I feel it is the best thing.
The OES operates solely at the discretion of Grand Lodge and the Grand Master. If they lose his good graces, Arkansas has made it clear they have no hesitation to simply prohibit the Masonic connection with appendant groups in that state, as with their previous action with the Shrine. I have no desire to make things difficult or untenable for the OES or any other appendant body either at work in Arkansas, or whose officers and members outside the state have been affected by the current actions going on. But pressure is being brought to bear on the appendant groups now, and the situation with the OES episode is NOT isolated. Nor is it just a local one.
Masons inside and outside of Arkansas need to know that.
Background on this situation:
3/13/10: Grand Lodge of Arkansas Pulls Charter, Files Charges Over Website
12/16/10: News From Arkansas
2/17/11: A Gathering Storm In Arkansas
2/18/11: More Sad News From Arkansas
11/9/12: Shrine Declared Clandestine in Arkansas
1/31/13: South Carolina Suspends Relations With Shriners Internationa
6/19/16: Arkansas Rumblings
6/26/16: Reprehend With Justice
8/23/16: GL of Arkansas Suspends Grand Senior Warden
8/28/16: Grand Lodge of Arkansas' Yezhovshchina: Grand Line Officers Purged
9/3/16: More Antics Out Of Arkansas