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When I was a kid, lodges meant guys in funny hats and the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes on The Flintstones. I also remember signs for the Odd Fellows Hall in the small town where I grew up. In 2006, I visited the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Va., and found the video tour of the monument and Masonic history pompous and goofy.

If Freemasons and other fraternal organizations have been a curiosity to me, they have been a defining issue for the Christian Reformed Church. In 1857 several congregations in Michigan separated from the Reformed Church in America. They opposed the RCA’s accommodation of American ways, such as use of hymns, open communion, and lack of catechism instruction. They formed the True Holland Reformed Church, which eventually became the CRC. RCA support of public schools and toleration of lodge membership further divided the two churches.

The CRC generally has viewed the oath lodge members take as akin to a confession of faith in its theology, lore, and liturgies. Lodge oaths did not affirm the Trinity, merely belief in the deity. Lodge writings emphasized that good works could improve a person, rather than affirm salvation by grace. The curses in the oaths—about members violating their oaths—were troubling too. The secrecy of lodges was a concern.

The RCA viewed lodges as a danger, too, especially in the Midwest. In the East, RCA congregations sometimes included lodge members. The RCA fought over lodges from the 1860s to the 1880s. It ultimately allowed congregations to address membership pastorally, rather than forbid it denomination-wide. This decision led several more RCA congregations to leave and join the CRC.

Debates in the CRC, similarly, have been over strictly forbidding lodge membership versus allowing pastoral discretion. There were CRC synodical reports on the issue in 1900, 1958, 1974, 1975, and 1977. The CRC continues to forbid lodge membership, as it has from its origins.

The reports in the 1970s resulted from Classis Lake Erie asking for pastoral discretion. The classis explained that many lodge members did not agree that lodge members make religious commitment. Synod forbade membership once again in 1977. However, it allowed for pastoral discretion where “hardship ... makes it difficult for the lodge member to terminate formal membership,” so long as the congregation agrees to mitigate the hardship and help the person forsake the lodge.

Articles about lodges have appeared regularly in CRC magazines such as The Banner as recently as the 2010s. These articles typically focus on lodge oaths as confessions of faith in unorthodox theology and a false god. Some stories recount the history of the conflict, as do most histories of the CRC. The authors almost always take a side on the issue, typically the denomination’s viewpoint.

What might we learn if we approach lodges and the CRC’s stance with curiosity, to simply understand them? What might we better understand about lodges and about ourselves and the CRC?

History of Lodges

Masonic lodges date to the early 1700s in England, evolving from stone mason guilds. Guilds lost their economic role with the development of capitalism. To shore up their finances, some local guild lodges accepted honorary members from the gentry, urban professionals, and merchants.

The lodges soon became elite clubs. Members ate and drank and enjoyed each other’s company. They discussed the political issues of the day. And they promoted Newtonian science and Enlightenment thought.

It was an era of religious wars. Lodges thus required members to leave behind sectarian commitments when at the lodge. Protestants of all sorts, free thinkers, atheists, supporters of the crown, and advocates of parliament—all were welcome. Prejudices did not disappear. Jews, Catholics, and African Americans, for example, eventually formed their own lodges. The lodges had constitutions, rules, and procedures for choosing members and electing leaders. Lodges helped shape modern habits of citizenship and a religiously diverse public sphere in Britain, Europe, and the American colonies.

The lodges took religion and ethics seriously. Their core commitments were a sort of civic religion, loosely akin to the American idea from the mid-20th century that the U.S. is a “Judeo-Christian” society. Lodge members might be pious Baptists, dedicated Episcopalians, earnest deists, or convinced atheists personally. Their religious commitment as Masons or Odd Fellows was to a lodge community that was religiously diverse, just as public life was diverse in countries like the U.S., Canada, and England.

Lodge Mysticism

What about the mythic history, strange rituals, and jumbled religious ideas that lodges promoted? These were rooted in Egyptian, Greco-Roman religions, the Bible, mysticism, alchemy, etc. Historians tend to describe all of this as a form of “serious play” (my term). The rituals and lore were meant to encourage group solidarity. Practicing them showed commitment to the lodge. But, especially by the early 1800s, they were not accepted naively as beliefs, worldview, revelation, or history. Lodges also promoted Enlightenment thought and science, after all, and many members were active Christians.

Here, the contrast to Mormonism is helpful, as Classis Lake Erie suggested. Mormonism dates to the late 1820s, when lodge influence was at its height in the U.S. Among the many esoteric religious influences on the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith were Masonic lore, ritual, and architecture. The evangelical revivals of his day and Judaism also influenced him. Smith and his followers created a new religious tradition. Lodges did nothing like that.

Rise and Fall

From the mid-1700s to the early-1800s, especially after the American Revolution, lodges became more egalitarian, accepting a wider range of men. They included elites such as George Washington, but also men on the make such as young Benjamin Franklin, who hoped that lodge membership would help them gain respectability and status.

An older feudal economy was giving way to capitalism and industrialization. Massive numbers of people were migrating from the countryside to cities and to other regions and countries, even across oceans—like the Dutch immigrants in Michigan and Iowa in the 1840s. Community ties were fraying and society becoming individualistic. In this turmoil lodges provided new forms of solidarity and companionship. Churches did too, of course, as did other civic organizations and labor unions.

Anti-Masonic campaigns led to a decline in numbers and influence for lodges in the 1820s-1830s. There even was, briefly, an anti-Masonic political party, along with anti-Mormon and anti-Catholic political movements. Lodges evolved in the late 1800s and grew again, emphasizing public service. They went into gradual decline after World War II. The same has been true for other civic organizations and for churches. Recent generations have not joined groups the way their ancestors did.

What is notable, perhaps, is how little the views of the CRC have evolved when it comes to lodges, given how much lodges have changed. When you read synodical reports or stories in CRC publications, the focus from the 19th century to the present has been on lodge oaths as “confessions of faith” that are incompatible with the confession that a member of the CRC makes.

The Takeaway 

What can we learn about the CRC and ourselves from this history? A few things stand out.

First is how the CRC has framed the issue as a confessional matter. For CRC folk, the doctrinal content of a confession of faith matters mightily. For lodge members, the social acts of taking the oath and participating in rituals matters more, not doctrinal content. For Protestants, beliefs and faith define being a Christian. We often call other religious traditions faiths, and we distinguish them by their beliefs. From a historical point of view this is peculiar. Many religious traditions and some expressions of Christianity think more in terms of practices (ethics, ritual, etc.) than faith or beliefs. We misunderstand others when we judge them with categories that make sense to us but not to them.

In the 1970s the CRC began to ask lodge members about their experiences. But the CRC survey still asked the questions in ways that made sense in CRC terms, not lodge terms. The CRC’s way of thinking about lodges—beliefs, confession—has obscured as much as it has revealed.

Second, the lodge issue is an example of historic Christian Reformed discomfort with participating in a religiously diverse public sphere. The CRC opposed, or at least was wary of, church members and their children joining labor unions, public schools, and even the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. All were a danger because they tolerated religious diversity and practiced civic religiosity and morality, rather than affirmed Reformed orthodoxy. This religious wariness often combined with ethnic wariness.

“In our isolation lies our strength,” CRC leaders urged. The lodge, like other civic institutions, focused on a base, a floor of beliefs and values, designed to allow people who differed on important matters of religion and politics to interact on common ground. The CRC insisted on a higher floor, a ceiling, using beliefs to separate people, inside versus outside the fold.

An example is the efforts of Dutch Reformed immigrants in Canada in the 1950s to start a Christian labor association. They wanted an alternative to secular or “neutral” labor unions that were not avowedly Christian, let alone Reformed. But some of these Reformed immigrants were not sure that a Christian labor union that allowed people who were not Reformed was any better.

Third, the CRC sometimes has been pragmatic about religiously diverse organizations. Many CRC members have not sent their children to Christian schools. In the 1910s, the CRC stated concerns about labor unions but did not forbid membership. The CRC created the Cadets and Calvinettes (Gems) in the 1950s but did not deny church membership to parents whose children went to the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. The CRC has not questioned participation in political parties or forbade making oaths to hold public office.

It is hard not to see a sociological element in this history. Lodges excelled in creating community, promoting companionability, and providing practical support for people in the modern age that often left them isolated. The CRC did the same, with its church communities and Christian schools. Lodges and similar organizations were not just theologically wrong but competitors for people’s time.

My point is not whether the CRC has been right or wrong in forbidding lodge membership. Many church traditions do that. The point is to notice how the CRC has framed the issue, how that framing long prevented it from understanding lodges and lodge members on their own terms. The CRC began to do so, reluctantly, in the 1970s. It’s no surprise, then, that the prohibition on lodge membership only recently has begun to allow minimal pastoral discretion—which is another way of saying, allowing for understanding.

The curiosity that I am calling for—understanding others on their own terms, being interested in their experiences—is not about scholarly neutrality or avoiding judgments. It is about offering my neighbors the same generosity I hope they offer to me. After all, some of them probably think I’m weird, like the evangelical Ned Flanders or Reverend Lovejoy on The Simpsons or the tortured pastor in Paul Schrader’s film First Reformed.

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