“Hardly A Drop In The Bucket” – Joseph Fort Newtown And Masonic Education


Joseph Fort Newtown and Masonic Education

John W. Bizzack, Ph.D., PM

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Among the few truly qualified to be called a Masonic Scholar in the first half of the 20th century, we find Joseph Fort Newton, who, a master craftsman of the written word, furthered the lexicon and the legacy of Freemasonry.[1]

Text, letter Description automatically generated An ordained Baptist minister, Newton’s deep interest in Freemasonry arose when he discovered a wealth of material in the Iowa Masonic Library where he started his study of Masonic history and philosophy. His first Masonic book in 1914, The Builders became the first adventure into the world of Masonic literature for generations of Masons.[2] At the request of the Masonic Service Association he wrote a series of talks designed to be read at lodge meetings. They proved to be so popular that they were collected and published in book form in 1928 as Short Talks on Masonry.[3]

In Short Talks on Masonry, Newton devotes eight pages about Masonic education. He recounts his own experience in 1902, after being made a Master Mason at Friendship Lodge 7, Dixon, Illinois.

He wrote that he immediately began to ply the Master of the Lodge with question as to what Freemasonry was all about, since what he had passed through was unlike any experience he previously had, and this “new world,” with a law and language of its own, stimulated his curiosity and audacity. The Master did not give him much information, and he later learned what he did give him “was wide of the mark,” and he was unable tell him the history of the ritual or the history of Freemasonry.

Newton was referred by that Master to a Past Master of the lodge who was a sitting judge, and they soon formed a friendship as he “shared his exalted conception of the Craft” with Newton. [4] He continued to attend lodge, but found that he “entered seeking knowledge, and finding none,” drifted away.

Text Description automatically generated A few years later, he went to Iowa and joined another lodge and discovered the Iowa Masonic Library that today houses over 250,000 volumes (of which thousands are rare Masonic books for the serious researcher) and boasts a circulating collection for the casual reader. As a result of his studies there “and especially the reading of the reports of the Research Lodges in England,” Newton proposed a research lodge in Iowa.

The National Masonic Research Society was established in 1913 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and became national in scope.[5] Newton became the first editor-in-chief of the society's new Masonic journal, The Builder, which soared to a subscription base of 20,000 readers.[6] Throughout its entire existence from 1915 to 1930 (185 monthly issues), the National Masonic Research Society remained faithful to its mission and motives, publishing The Builder, which was designed to educate Masons and assist those who would do the same. Midway in the year 1931, the Society was so depleted in membership by The Depression it was forced to discontinue its publication and did not reappear.

The Builder consistently provided a deep Masonic education the likes of which has not been seen since. At its zenith, it had more than 20,000 subscribers in forty countries, and a very high reported pass-along rate. The thousands of excellent articles on Masonic history, philosophy, jurisprudence, poetry, landmarks, and symbolism has led Masonic Librarians and scholars believe that The Builder Magazine was the best American Masonic magazine ever published.




By the end of 1915, Newton had slowly begun to see that The Builder “had hold of a big idea, but that we had it by the wrong end.” Newton saw that while he was able to assemble a “goodly company of brethren who were students of Freemasonry, as readers of and writers for The Builder, but in comparison with the number of Masons in America, they were very few―hardly a drop in the bucket.”

By the end of 1915, Newton had slowly begun to see that The Builder “had hold of a big idea, but that we had it by the wrong end.”

Newton realized that the policy of the national Research Society and The Builder needed to be altered entirely, and “if possible, get hold of the other end of the idea we were working on,” and that “books, journals, Research Societies could never do the thing that needed to be done.” He wrote that so much was clear, but he did not know how it could be done; but he meant to try and find out.

In 1916, during World War I, Newton answered the call to the pulpit of the City Temple in London, England. During his four years at City Temple. While there he met Andrew Sommerville MacBride at Lodge Progress in Glasgow. MacBride had been installed for the first time as Master in 1867, at the age of 23. He served later as Master at St. Johns 170 and he was to serve for 21 years as Master. The MacBride Ritual, first published in 1870 and primarily used in Scottish Lodges today, is also under study by Alba Lodge 222 in Washington, D.C. MacBride is also noted for his statement, “A Man who says he knows all about Masonry proclaims his own ignorance.”[7]

MacBride was described by Newton as a “great Masonic teacher.” In their discussions, Newton confided his problems and difficulties. Newton learned that McBride received formal instruction in Freemasonry, and he believed he had found “the key to the whole situation” and a way to get hold of the right end of the problem he saw in American Freemasonry.

MacBride told him how, in Scotland, it was the custom then and previously, to have what they called “intenders,” that is, brethren “whose special duty was to post young men in the Ritual but also, at the same time, to instruct in the things they ought to know about the Craft and its work.” Newton wrote that he thought MacBride had the key to the whole situation, “if we are wise enough to use it.” He optimistically noted too that, “Surely a Grand Lodge ought to be as eager to have at least an elementary knowledge of what Masonry is important to its young men,” and that “such a plan was neither impossible nor impractical, if we really meant business in the matter of Masonic Education.”

Newton was correct. He discovered “the right end to get hold of” alright; however, he was woeful wrong in his belief that Grand Lodges would be eager to pursue the idea, respectively or collectively. It was not until the final decade of the 1900s that American Freemasonry began to show anything close to a collective effort to do what Newton saw as a remedy some 75 years earlier. By the time of his death in 1950, it was evident that most Grand Lodges (nor their subordinate lodges) really meant business at all in the matter of Masonic education.

After the War, Newton returned to the ministry. At the time of his death, he had answered the call to eight different churches in four states. In 1939, Newton was ranked among the top five Protestant Clergyman in the United States, and had been a member of four different Masonic Lodges and one Masonic appendant body.[8]

Newton continued to make presentations and write about Freemasonry. He advocated that is was “high time for our Grand Lodges, either separately or together, as they think best, to take up the problem of giving some kind of training to our rapidly growing Craft, that our young men may know what Masonry is, what it means, and what to do away with.”

Newton continued to make presentations and write about Freemasonry. He advocated that is was “high time for our Grand Lodges, either separately or together, as they think best, to take up the problem of giving some kind of training to our rapidly growing Craft, that our young men may know what Masonry is, what it means, and what to do away with.” For the next forty years, Newton walked his talk. He demonstrated that he sought to better ensure that it would become easier for a young man to learn more what about what he ought and has a right to know about Masonry, than he had found in his day.

He put forth his plan through his writings and presentations by asking the question, “Should a Grand Lodge decide to teach Masonry to its young men, how would it go about such an undertaking?”

He proposed that the first thing would be to select a group of Masonic scholars to the prepare a digest of the facts to be taught as to the origin and development of the Craft, then carefully work over and arrange three historical lectures, in the manner of the ritual―clear, accurate―approved by the Grand Lodge. He went on to note that so much knowledge ought to be required of the man who is elected to the chair of the lodge, if only to do away with the absurdity of a man being the Master of a Lodge who knows nothing about Freemasonry. If such requirements were made necessary to Mastership, he believed, the whole problem of “intenders,” to use the old Scottish phrase, would be solved. Every Past Master, as well as men in the line for the Chair, would be qualified to instruct candidates not only in the ritual, but in the story, symbols, laws, and customs of the Craft. Each candidate would then know the primary facts of Masonic history and tradition, and would be free to follow further and learn more as his inclination and opportunity might direct. At any rate, candidates would have the basis and the beginning―a more solid Masonic education foundation. The only other recommendation Newton often made was that, besides the outline of history and evolution of the Craft, each Mason ought to know the story of his own lodge and of his Grand Lodge.

We have seen stabs made at the recommendations made by Newton in many jurisdictions, perhaps more of a result of finally recognizing and accepting that fundamental Masonic education is best provided as men pass through degrees, instead of just hoping each will later pursue much more than they got from just going through ritual. Some jurisdictions have done much better than others, and, unsurprisingly, many subordinate lodges around the nation, have, especially since the late 1990s, designed and adopted their own education program initiatives that do not conflict with the constitution of their jurisdiction. These efforts have been achieved with some success―success based not only on the content of their programs, but the continuity and leadership required to make them work well.

Newton’s idea has been put to the test of reason in those lodges and jurisdictions that have faced and tackled the problem, and he has been proven correct.

Newton was right about something else. A the end of his chapter on education in Short Talks on Masonry, he observes, “How little we have done, how much remains to be done.”

While what has been accomplished with regard to fundamental Masonic education, thus far, is commendable, it is hardly a drop in the bucket.

  1. Writings by Newton include: 212 works in 542 publications in 1 language and 5,862 library holdings. Genres: Biographies, Sermons, Periodicals, Devotional literature, History, Prayers and devotions, Diaries Academic theses, and Freemasonry (Joseph Fort Newton, 1876-1950, OCLC Worldcat Identities, https://www.worldcat.org/identities/lccn-n50006008, accessed January 4, 2022.
  2. Translated into six languages, The Builder is internationally considered a classic of Masonic literature and one of the most readable introductions to Masonic history and philosophy. Newton explains brilliantly and clearly the allegorical nature of what it means to be a Freemason and claims that the world has benefited greatly because of the Masonic ideals of liberty, fraternity, and equality. The Builders tells the Masonic side of this story. The intent of these pages is, rather, to emphasize the spiritual view of life and the world as the philosophy underlying Masonry, and upon which it builds the reality of the ideal, its sovereignty over our fragile human life, and the immutable necessity of loyalty to it, if we are to build for eternity.
  3. Joseph Fort Newton, Short Talks on Masonry, Masonic Services Association, 1928, Macoy, 1969, Allen E. Roberts, “Joseph Fort Newton, D.D.” from The Altar Light March-May 1979.
  4. All quotations made by Newton in this work are from is 1928 book, Short Talks on Masonry, “Masonic Education,” 200-208, which includes the summarization of Newton’s answer to the question that he put forth his plan through his writings and presentations by asking the question, “Should a Grand Lodge decided to teach Masonry to its young men, how would it go about such an undertaking?”
  5. George Schoonover was the man who started The National Masonic Research Society, which published the Masonic periodical The Builder from 1915 – 1930. Schoonover of Anamosa, Ia., who was to become Grand Master, Grand Lodge of Iowa, some five years later, became deeply impressed by the fact that among the three million Masons in America were a rapidly-increasing number of Masonic students; and that newly-made Masons, imbued with the spirit of the time, were more and more demanding to know "what it is all about." He was familiar with the world-wide influence of the Iowa Grand Lodge Library, and with the work of Research Lodges in England, but believed that the American Craft needed a facility of a different kind, not localized but national, and one not an official arm of any Grand Lodge yet one that could be approved by each Grand Lodge and could cooperate with them. He worked out a plan for a national society, to be devoted to Masonic studies and to be a way-shower in Masonic education, and to be composed not of Lodges or of Grand Lodges but of individual Masons who would join it voluntarily, each paying a small annual sum for dues; he also believed that such a society would require a monthly journal; not a Masonic newspaper but a competently edited, well-printed, illustrated magazine, carrying no advertisements, which could compare favorably with the best non-Masonic journals. He believed also that while the society ought to stand on its own feet and pay its own way it should be examined, approved, and officially endorsed by a Grand Lodge beforehand. From MasonicDictionary.com, http://www.masonicdictionary.com/nationalrs.html, accessed, August 2017.
  6. Stephen Dafoe, “Reading, Writing and Apathy: The Decline of Masonic Education,” lecture, Lodge Vitruvian No. 767 F. & A.M, Indianapolis, Indiana, 2005.
  7. Andrew Sommerville MacBride, The MacBride Ritual, introduction, Third Edition, Masonic Publishing Co., 2008.
  8. J. F. Newton Dies, Pulpit Orator, 73. New York Times. 26 Jan 1950, B.J. Leonard, "Joseph Fort Newton: Ecclesiastical Nomad," Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church,” 50 ,299-311, 1981.