The closing of a 150-year-old lodge in Mays Landing by its brotherly group deserves some reflection.
The Unity Lodge No. 96 of the Free and Accepted Masons will be shut and sold in the coming year, its remaining 87 members moving to one of the other five lodges in Atlantic County if they wish. The Mays Landing lodge grew out of an Atlantic City lodge in 1869. Members said a decline in membership and increasing difficulty in fundraising made continuing it impractical.
Freemasonry is one of the oldest international fraternal organizations. It has a popular image as an ancient secret society of men, but for many decades it really has been a widely established social and service organization. It connects men in communities for discussions, to help each other and to work for the common good.
Nearly 5% of American men were Freemasons 60 years ago, but membership has dropped by three-quarters since then. Possible factors include a prohibition of women members by many lodges still, difficulty in attracting minority members, and even a prohibition against recruiting strangers (those interested must request membership).
More likely is that the bulk of the decline is due to the same factors that have reduced other service and social organizations. A congressional report last year found that membership in organizations such as the Freemasons and the Knights of Columbus fell by half from 1974 to 2004. Reductions were also seen in school, church and labor organizations, suggesting people just aren’t joining groups like they used to.
There are exceptions, of course. The Atlantic Masonic Lodge No. 221 in Absecon has officers typically in their early 30s and members pursuing a renewed interest in the views and practices of historic Freemason greats such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.
Now lodges are challenged to maintain their close connections while observing the distancing requirements of the coronavirus pandemic. More than ever people are stuck in their homes and making do with communicating over phones and computer screens.
This could present an opportunity for Freemasonry as the pandemic recedes and people can gather again. A venue for serious thought and friendships outside of work, without partisan bickering, could be as good for society as it would be for lodges.