Guarding the West Gate

Written by Brother Theron Dunn

What is it to guard the West Gate? We are told, as entered apprentices, and as Masters, that we should never recommend a man to a participation in our degrees unless we feel that by a similar fidelity he would bring honor and respect to our ancient and honorable fraternity.

For the past few years, decades even, the fraternity seems to have shirked that duty, or taken it less… seriously than in times past. There have even been grand lodges that have instituted one day conferrals, where a profane might be taken, through watching the performance of some plays, to the 32nd degree in a single day.

This seems to have come about through a series of slow changes, each seemingly innocuous on its own, but as usual, taken in concert, have reduced our vigilance. Then there is the concern for the decreasing numbers, which seems to have been taken as a justification for allowing quantity rather than quality through the gates.

The purpose of Freemasonry was never to admit every man into the fraternity! The purpose was to take men who were already upstanding, good men, and through the principles of the fraternity, make them in to better men. It was never to take every man and reform them into adequate men… yet in the name of numbers, we seem to have lost sight of that goal.

This may sound elitist, so lets take a look at the definition of elitist. Merriam-Webster defines it as:

Main Entry: elit•ism
1 : leadership or rule by an elite
2 : the selectivity of the elite; especially : SNOBBERY 1 (elitism in choosing new members
3 : consciousness of being or belonging to an elite

Main Entry: elite
1 a singular or plural in construction : the choice part : CREAM (the elite of the entertainment world) b singular or plural in construction : the best of a class (superachievers who dominate the computer elite — Marilyn Chase) c singular or plural in construction : the socially superior part of society (how the elite live — A P World) (how the F.-speaking elite … was changing — Economist) d : a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence (members of the ruling elite) (the intellectual elites of the country) e : a member of such an elite — usually used in plural (the elites …, pursuing their studies in Europe — Robert Wernick)

The definition of Elite and by extension, elitist seems to indicate that Masons are elitists only in the sense we only select, or, rather, allow, only the best, most honorable men into the fraternity. Since our goal is to take GOOD MEN, and make them better men, we have to ask: Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Masonry, as all Masons know, is a group of good men, dedicated to god, seeking to be better men through fellowship with other good men, holding a higher level of morality than society in general. If we claim a higher ground, that is, we claim to be a fraternity of good men, how exactly do we determine that, and how do we define it?

1) A belief in god, however the candidate knows Him.
2) That the candidate be a free man
3) That the candidate be free born (not born into slavery).
3) That the candidate be under the tongue of good report and come well recommended… ie, that he is a moral man.

Ok, the first is pretty straightforward. Most regular grand lodges require a profession of faith and no further inquiry, and the second is fairly self evident; the manner of dress in the ritual puts a fine point on that observation. Since there is no longer any slavery, number three is pretty much a given and a traditional carryover.

The fourth, now, that is the one that requires examination and is the one that most likely will define what watching the West Gate is all about. We know what it is to be under the tongue of good report… a moral, upright, level headed, honorable man with integrity, right?

The issue, then, is morality… does a man come to us under the tongue of good report, and does he come well recommended? The first step is the requirement that two brothers recommend the petitioner for the degrees. As I am a member of the Grand Lodge of California, F&AM, I will speak to my understanding of the rules of that Grand Lodge. Your Grand Lodge rules may vary.

The Petition of the Grand Lodge of California asks that you know that candidate for at least a year before a brother sign a petition. In practice, this is rarely the case, and of course, this is an incremental change that has contributed to the problem.

In the past, we lived within 8 miles of where we were born, and chances are, brothers knew petitioners for many years in the community. Today, that is no longer the case, with men traveling thirty miles or more just to get to work, and our extreme mobility. A man can express interest in joining, and after a few hours talking with him, a brother will be willing to sign as a recommender.

Then the petition is read and accepted, and the master appoints a secret investigative committee, who is charged by the master to look into the character of the petitioner. As an aid in that effort, the Grand Lodge helpfully provides a list of questions that the candidate must be asked. This is a good step, unfortunately, it appears that the investigative committeemen often ask only the questions on the list.

The reason the committeeman often asks only those questions on the list is twofold. The first is because the questions are… to a certain degree, embarrassing. One of the questions we ask is if the petitioner makes enough money to support his family, and another if he has sufficient insurance. I understand the reason for the question, but these are difficult questions to ask someone the committeeman has only known for ten minutes. It does not exactly lead to ongoing general conversation.

The second reason is the committeeman is often untrained for this job on any level, other than by being a good man and a brother. He may have been chosen because the master knows he will fulfill the task, or hopes he will, or because he has done so in the past.

The committeeman often does little more than ask these questions, fill in a sheet and turn it in to the master with a recommendation for membership or a non recommendation. Basic investigative methods aren’t even known often, to the committeeman, so the references aren’t usually called.

Nor are the references asked for other names that may know the candidate so those people may be called. Any investigator should know that the best references are the ones on the petition, and that the true picture of the candidate will come from the secondary or tertiary references. Sometimes, the candidate is interviewed by phone, not even face to face.

Then there is an awesome tool at our fingertips that few of us even consider: The Internet.

I have been on many investigative committees, and one thing I always do is look the candidate up on Google, full name, first name, initial and last name, initial and last name and so on. Until recently, I also checked the public criminal records as well. Its amazing what can be found on the internet.

So, regardless of how well, or how poorly the committeemen do their job, and they can hardly be criticized for how they do their job, they have no training at all, they make a recommendation. If at lest two of the three committeemen make a positive recommendation, the lodge ballots on the petition. If the master does not get at least two recommendations, the petition is held over for another month.

Then of course, there is the ballot box, where one black cube eliminates a candidate. How can you rationally ballot on someone you do not know? So what we do is vote based on the recommendation of the investigative committee. The same committee that is often doing the minimum to carry out an investigation is the basis upon which the lodge makes the decision to initiate a candidate.

So, through a series of simple changes, each made to make it easier to qualify a candidate, we are not watching the west gate, and some men who should never have made it into the lodge are being raised as master masons. Of course, some are caught during the degrees, and not passed or raised as a result… their degrees just never get scheduled and they eventually go away.

I think there are a few things we can do to fix this problem, but they are going to be difficult. First, we need to decide that a man must be known by his top line signers at least three months, by attending public lodge functions or by working with him, or community meetings or… whatever. They should be known before they are allowed to face the investigating committee.

The members of the investigation committee should have some training, at the very least, in how to conduct an investigation. A process should be defined, and at least one of the committeemen should look the man up on the internet, and preferably, the lodge should invest $35 in having a private investigator do a basic background check.

The candidate should at the very least, be introduced by his top line signer to the brethren before a ballot is taken, and the brothers should be encouraged to meet and talk to the candidate prior to a ballot. However, there is no way to eliminate the ballot box, it is a tradition. We might want to consider whether one black cube is enough to disqualify a man. Perhaps at least two for a second ballot and three to disqualify might be a good step.

We must guard the West Gate better, or we can become little more than Rotary with Regalia.