On October 23rd Dewey R Preslar, Grand Master of Masons in North Carolina, performed the Ceremony of Dispensation establishing the world’s newest Traditional Observant Lodge, and the first in his Grand Jurisdiction. There can be no doubt that the trend toward Observant style Freemasonry is growing. What follows is the story of one lodges birth into a movement which is beginning to change the way we practice out craft.
When I think of our story I cannot help but to see it in through three separate lenses. For me it has been a personal journey, and I see Sophia’s birth is both a beginning and an end. The actual creation story of the lodge is our history. Viewing it as part of the Traditional Observant movement gives it context.
Our story begins with the internet, which is fitting for a creation which incorporates new ways of observing old practices. The internet has revolutionized the way our society communicates at every level, including Masonically. It connects Masons to their brethren in ways unheard of until recent years. Grand Jurisdictions would do well to understand the implications of this. Through the internet I discovered The Relevant Freemason, the blog of WB Cliff Porter, my (now) friend and regular contributor to this magazine. Cliff is a warrior for the cause of Observant style Freemasonry, and his bare knuckled approach to the general malaise that many experience upon their entry to the craft was like the parting of a veil for me. For the first time, I realized that there was a different Way to experience Freemasonry than what I had been experiencing. The Relevant Freemason led me to many other sites (The Sanctum Sanctorum, The Masonic Restoration Foundation, etc…) where I continued to find like-minded brethren. The practices of Observant lodges were revealed and I was covetous of seeing it in action.
Enlightenment #198 in Colorado seemed to be the hub of Observant Freemasonry at the time, and they were very open in marketing their meetings to all Master Masons, in all jurisdictions. One of their events was a lecture series by WB Peter Taylor of Dundee, Scotland. My intuition told me that this was the perfect opportunity to visit Enlightenment #198 and see the T.O. model for myself. I arranged a family vacation to Colorado to coincide with WB Taylors visit.
The first time you see a lodge opened in full Traditional Observant form, the effect is stunning. Candles, incense, music, and White tie dress assail the senses. The reverence and dignity with which the opening is conducted seeps into your psyche. The shock and awe of experiencing this made me proud to be a Freemason, and forever changed my perception of how a lodge should be conducted. Other lodge openings seem a cheap caricature when compared to an Observant Lodge opened in full form.
Around the same time as my visit to Enlightenment, I read a book by WB Andrew Hammer entitled Observing the Craft. This wonderful book is a discourse on elevating our lodges and ourselves to their fullest potential. WB Hammer is a vocal advocate for treating Freemasonry with the respect she deserves by presenting our very best effort in every aspect of the experience.
Wilkerson College Lodge is North Carolina’s “Education Lodge”. It is not a Traditional Observant Lodge, but is sort of a mix between a research lodge and a lecture circuit. In April of 2013 we invited WB Andrew Hammer to deliver a lecture on his book. In preparation for this, several brothers of Wilkerson College Lodge read Observing the Craft in their book study club. The lecture was delivered in WB Hammer’s normal unapologetic style, and it was extremely well received by all present. Dinner followed this meeting and at the conclusion, RWB Doug Caudle (North Carolina’s Senior Grand Warden at the time), approached me and struck up a conversation that resulted in us deciding to consider bringing Observant Masonry to North Carolina. I was shocked by this turn of events, because I was certain that there was no support at the Grand Lodge level for this style of Lodge. How wrong I was. In short order, RWB Caudle, WB Larry Thompson, WB Kevin Combs and I formed a steering committee to begin exploring if there was enough common ground to proceed. We used the list from the Masonic Restoration Foundation’s website as a starting point. As we worked our way through the list and changed ideas into working plans, it quickly became apparent that this dream was going to become reality.
We brought several other brethren onto the steering committee. These were all solid men with the reputation of getting things done. One of the most important additions was WB Mack Sigmon. WB Sigmon is both the Secretary of the Board of Custodians, and our Senior Grand Steward. Mack was our ritualistic expert. We knew that we could not deviate from the ritual as outlined in the Official Standard of Work. But we also knew that we were going to push it to its very limits by incorporating the Traditional Observant style opening. Mack both kept us within bounds, and gave us legitimacy by having a board member overseeing our every move. It allowed us to feel comfortable about our ritual both by knowing that we were following the rules, and that we would not have to endure questioning of our approach because we had developed everything under the watchful care of the committee who enforces the rules. In this way, we probably were able to do some things that were close to the line, and which we would have been afraid to try otherwise. In this case, “forgiveness is easier than permission” was not the way to win the battle.
Following many meetings of the steering committee, we were ready to share our vision with the brethren of North Carolina. We scheduled an “open house” style of meeting for all interested potential charter members. We knew that we had a good plan, and we felt that there was a hunger for this style of lodge. Yet, the dues structure is $365 per year, and this is not what brothers are used to seeing in this part of the country. We were hopeful that we would have the twenty brothers required to petition for a dispensation. The steering committee made a professional, yet personal presentation and we were thrilled when 32 brothers wrote checks and filled out petitions. WB Larry Thompson was elected our leader and we were officially on our way.
The weeks that followed were filled with paperwork, practices, plans, and prayers. Sophia Lodge has a Musician, a Marshal, and a Thurifer in addition to the normal officers. We count among our members the sitting Grand Master of Masons in North Carolina, the Deputy Grand master elect, the sitting Grand Lecturer, and three other Grand Line officers. I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to Offer my profound thanks and admiration for these men. The grand line officers do not, by their mere presence, make this lodge better than any other. But their commitment to this new and unique concept demonstrates a proactiveness that many Grand Jurisdictions should aspire to. All across the nation leaders are worried about how we will handle our shrinking numbers. In North Carolina we are doing something about it, and with the full cooperation of our leadership. Without their support Sophia Lodge would not be a reality, so I thank them and applaud their governance.
The dispensation ceremony was successful beyond our wildest expectations. Our members and guests, in black tie tuxedos or dark suits, were marshaled under the Sign of Fidelity and to the music of Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copeland. The smell of frankincense permeated the room, and candlelight set the scene. Next the officers entered. All dressed in white tie tuxedos, they were escorted to their stations. The Grand Master performed the Ceremony of Dispensation. Most business was done by consent agenda, and the balance was dispensed with as quickly as possible.
I had the honor of providing the first Masonic Education program, and delivered a speech on our new lodge. After a short history of how we were evolved, I reminded the brethren that the beauty they were participating in was wonderful, but it was only the outer shell. The real nature of our character was not in how we outwardly looked, but what we were made of. I shared with them the true meaning of the allegory that their degrees alluded to, as written by W.L. Wilmshurst, J.S.M. Ward, and Albert Pike. I implored them to make it Sophia’s legacy to both, understand the meaning of allegorical lessons alluded to in our degrees and to practice them on our personal path.
Following this, we observed a five minute period of silence and contemplation while our musician chimed our Tibetan singing bowl. We concluded by being marshaled in what started as a square, then transitioned to a circle, and finished in a Chain of Union.
It was wildly successful. Two more members joined that night, and the State is buzzing with excitement. There is already discussion of a group in Raleigh starting their own Traditional Observant Lodge. It is my understanding that in some Grand Jurisdictions there is resistance over this style of Masonry. In North Carolina, we are in ascension.
The lessons to be learned from this are simple.
- Traditional Observant Lodges who can, must shine their light brightly so that brethren in challenging situations will know that there is a different Way.
- The Traditional Observant Style is successful everywhere it is employed…provided that it is done right.
- Don’t misjudge your brethren. There are more of them than you suspect who desire more than they are getting from their craft lodges.
- Don’t misjudge your leaders. They may be more open to new ideas than you think.
- A Traditional Observant style lodge may be possible in your area, but it is not going to start itself. Quit complaining, and start working.
If anyone is interested in forming your own Traditional Observant style lodge, I would first refer you to the Masonic Restoration Foundation website. You may feel free to contact me through the editor of this magazine, who is also a wonderful asset on this subject.