Guys in Funny Hats? A History of Lodge Membership and the CRC

Guys in Funny Hats?

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.

About the Author

Will Katerberg is a professor of history and curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is a member of Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids.

See comments (7)


Very well written and informative. I never understood much about lodges except that they were verboten. Thank you.

In the 70s, I was engaged to be married to a woman who joined the Eastern Star lodge (women's equivalent to Masonic Lodge.) This ended our relationship, not because the church demanded it, but because, even though she promised me that she would not join the lodge, she did in loyalty to her family who were all part of the lodge. And when I asked questions about the lodge, the oath seemed to block any possible understanding. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the church is helped by denominational prohibitions. I appreciate the bottom line sentiment of your article.

This is an eirenic article about the Christian Reformed Church's history regariding Masonism. There is a dark side to Masonism which I have personally experienced. When I was a student at Knox College, the theological college in Toronto of the Presbytrain Church in Canada, I  was employed as a part time student assistant minister at First Presbyterian Churhc, Chatham, Ontario. I had just settled in to my service when the Minister, Rev. X, came to me, and in a stilted and officious tone said to me, "I'm sending you to visit a fellow Scot. He's a very wise man, and you will do well to listen to what he has to say." I asked what it was about. He answered, "You'll see!" It felt weird!

When I entered SD's apartment there was a Masonic apron, a Bible with gold embossed Masonic insigina, and some other Masonic items on the coffee table. SD began to tell me about the Masons. "It's a fine club for a young man. Anyone who wants to get ahead in the Church has to be a member". He named several former Moderators of the General Assembly who were Masons, and told me that our Minister was a 32nd degree Scottish Rite Mason, and one of the most important in Canada. I was expecting an invitation to join, but it soon became clear that SD wanted me to ask to join. I knew nothing about the Masons other than what he told me, and I was not going to ask to join something I knew nothing about. I also felt uncomfortable and manipulated.

I went the next day to the Publlic Library and took out some books about the Masons. I was also able to borrow from a Mason two books by Masons for Masons, Albert Pike's Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, and another on Masonic Mysteries, whos author I have forgotten. When I read these it was clear to me that a Christian may not be a member of the Masons. Both books made reference to "The true Luciferian Doctrine". I discovered from other reading the claim that this was a reference to Satanic doctrine. Masons deny this claim. I also discovered why SD had not asked me to join. They are not allowed to invite people to become members. One has to come as, "A poor, darkened seeker after light". I had, however been sought and found by the Light of the World. I could not come as a "Poor, darkered seeker after light".

A few weeks later X sent back to visit SD. He said, "This time, I want you to llisten more carefully to what he has to say." I made a mistake. I could have said that I had researched Masonism and I was not interested in joining. I was a bit afraid, however, and I went back to visit SD. This time he had two other men with him, a Deacon from First Baptist Church, and a young man in his late 20s. SD explaind that they were preparing the young man for a Masonic Degree. SD and the other elderly man talked about the benefits of Masonic membership. "If you want to get on in the world, you need to be a member." They named several Members of Parliament, and prominent judges who were members. This time I knew that I would not be asked to join. Because I was rather afraid, I did not explain why I would not join, but once again politelly left.

When I left First PC, X said to me, "I'll make sure you never get a call to a Presbyterian Church in Canada. I have the connections and the power, and I'll do it." I was given a two year apointment to St Andrew's and St James's Presbyterian Church in Cardinal, Ontario. In the course of visiting the congregation to get to know them I visited DM, a fellow Scot. DM was complimentary about my preaching but he told me that I would not be staying there after my appointment was up. He told me the reason was that he was a Mason, and the Masonic Lodge in the village had had a meeting about me. They had received a call from Rev. X, my former boss, who warned them against me. The Masons had decided that I would not receive a call. at the end of my applointment, to continue to serve there. DM also told me that they had decided that there would not be a Masonic parade to the church while I was there and that church members were angry at me bacause of that, because there was always a good collection when the Masons paraded to church. Rather a downer for a newly ordained Minister!

Sometime during my time in Cardinal, the congregations of the two point charge of Spencerville and Caintown brought a complaint to the Presbytery against their Minister, Rev. Y. They complained that he did not preach the Bible, did not do pastoral visiting, and was too frequently away on other business. I was appointed by the Presbytery as a member of a Commission to visit the Minister and Congregation. The meeting with them was full of anger and acrimony. It was very hard to bear!  The Comission met a couple of weeks later to explore together how to proceed. They decided to go back to meet with the Minister and congregation again. This time the congregatgion withdrew their complaint. After the meeting an Elder sidled up to me and said,"We had to withdraw our complaint. We're all Masons. Y told us that we can't complain against a fellow Mason, and he's right!" shortly after that Y received a call to another church.

I was called to serve the Presbyerian Church in Fort St. John, BC. After I arrived there the Session clerk told me that he had had a call from someone in the denominational office in Toronto to warn them against calling me because I was against the Masons. That, however, was a plus for the Vacancy Committee there. 

I was called to serve St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Moncton, New Brunswick. At my first Session (Church Council) meeting, the Local Eastern Star group requested to have a parade to our church, with some of their Sisters reading Scripture and leading in prayer. The Elders found this very strange. There had never been such a request before. Why now? My suspicion is that this was a signal from the Masons to me that they were watching me. I don't think it's paranoia. The request was refused.

My time in Moncton was troubled by anti-Semitism in the congregation. One of the members had written anti-Semitic books which were self-published, and he claimed that there had not been a Holocaust. He was using the cofffee time after the morning service to spread this. The Session would not deal with it because about half of the Elders agreed with him. I asked the Presbytery of help several times. When there was a Human Rights Commission case about the author, which found its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, they sent a commission to meet with the congregation. There were Masons on that Commission. The result was that I was forced to leave that church. I then moved to the Christian Reformed Church where I served as a Pastor and then a Missionary. I was pleased to be away from Masonic interference! There is a dark side to the Masons!

Thanks for the response, William.

What you describe is disconcerting. It's a powerful set of examples of the ways in which organizations, especially ones that cultivate social relationships and where secretiveness is part of the appeal, can be used for controlling purposes. They provide people with a way to skirt and subvert transparent, public procedures. There is a real history of this with Masons.

My own experience of arm-twisting examples and black-balling is mostly second-hand, but occasionally I have caught glimpses of it. (It has not involved Masons.) It has been in the context of labor unions, professional associations, and churches.

CORRECTION to set the record straight: It was the Masons who, at my first Session meeting, requested to have a parade to St. Andrew's Church, Moncton. The request from the Eastern Star was at my last Session meeting.

The author rightly acknowledges that many other traditions also restrict Masonic membership but concludes that the CRC has apparently failed to "understand lodges and lodge membership on their own terms". I am confused what he means. Has the Roman Catholic church or the majority of other evangelical denominations who happen to oppose membership in Masonic lodges acquired a better understanding? 

Hi Jason.

I don't know what to say about other churches. I've not done in-depth research on what shaped how they think about Masonic lodges and other kinds of lodges.

My interest in the essay is not about whether the CRC got the lodge membership issue right or wrong. I was curious about how CRC folk thought about lodges. What struck me, as the article explains, is that until the 1970s, the CRC did not explore how lodges and their members understood themselves and their experiences. The article is not really about lodges and lodge members, but about the CRC and the way it thinks.

It seems to me that understanding others on their own terms is an important step in making careful, empathetic judgments about controversial issues. "Our" terms were defined by the concept of confession of faith (which is legitimate, of course). But looking at the issue only through that lens missed many things about lodge members and their experiences. Understanding others on their own terms might not change the conclusions we reach, but it seems important nonetheless. I certainly hope that others, if they make judgments about me, or about Christians (for example), have done their best to understand me on my own terms before making that judgment.

The series of stories on controversies, in general, is not about whether the CRC got an issue right or wrong, in the long run, but about how it has (we have) made judgments and the factors that have shaped those (our) judgments.