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Lutherans and the ‘lodge’

When most people these days think about the term “lodge,” their minds most likely run in terms of some rustic main building at a lakeside resort. So when they hear the American Lutherans have, at times, fought long and hard about the “lodge issue,” they are rightly confused.
But in this case the term “lodge” has nothing to do with summer camp, but is rather a synonym for social, fraternal organizations such as the Masons and many other similar groups that used to be very popular in America. So why did a large swath of American Lutherans come to the conclusion that being a Lodge member was antithetical to being a good Lutheran Christian?

The major doctrinal issue that some Lutherans had with these “secret societies” was the question of unionism.

Mark Granquist

While groups like the Masons, Rosicrucians, and the Illuminati had a long history back to the Middle Ages (and were, in their origins, religious alternatives to Christianity), most of these fraternal organizations, such as the Odd-Fellows, Knights of Pythias, and dozens of others are of 19th century origin. By that time, many of these groups functioned as fraternal societies for men, providing not only a social outlet, but also valuable professional contacts and even financial support for the “brothers.”
There were many of these groups, some of which were general in nature, while others targeted specific groups of individuals. Some early labor “brotherhoods” and college “Greek” fraternities would be an example of the latter. These groups were a widespread part of male life in 19th and 20th century America, and many men were members of these groups.

Benefits of membership

Many of these lodges (sometimes referred to as “secret societies”) were highly organized and had very detailed and ornamented rituals, complete with secret ceremonies, knowledge of which were supposed to be known only by the “brothers” themselves. Some of the groups were organized on a quasi-religious but non-sectarian basis, complete with chaplains and rituals that paralleled and mimicked traditional religious belief.
There were generally no doctrinal requirements for membership, and the “brothers” could be from a variety of religious groups, including many forms of Christianity and Judaism, as well as those who were Deists and other forms of “free-thinkers.” American Roman Catholics, generally not accepted at the time as members in some of these groups, formed their own parallel fraternal society, the Knights of Columbus.

Confronting unionism

The major doctrinal issue that some Lutherans had with these “secret societies” was the question of “unionism,” or of being in religious fellowship with others without being in doctrinal agreement with them. Many of these groups did have definite religious elements, even if many lodge members ignored or downplayed them, and their membership was often religiously mixed. As one Lutheran critic of the lodges wrote in 1899, “In most of these societies, members join in stated religious rites and exercises conducted by religious officers, chaplains, priests, etc. according to accepted rituals or books of forms.” Further they did these things in mixed religious company. Whether or not you actually believed these rituals, or found them religiously persuasive, you were in essence (these critics suggested) worshiping with them.
There was a second, and more practical set of issues. In essence, these fraternal groups were competitors to the Christian churches for the time and affiliation of men. Though many members of these secret societies were also members of their local congregations, there was often a rivalry and a tension between the lodge and the church. In their membership churches tended to be a majority of women, and it was often a struggle to get men to commit to being active church members. Sometimes the activities and rituals of the lodge could come into conflict with congregational life, especially funerals. The Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) funeral service included the following warning: “The ceremonies or tributes of social or fraternal societies have no place within the service of the Church.”

These fraternal groups were competitors to the Christian churches for the time and affiliation of men.

Since these groups were so popular, Lutherans struggled to determine the best approach to dealing with them. In some Lutheran groups, lodge membership was not a major concern, and laymen and even many pastors were members of them. Other Lutheran denominations maintained a concern about these organizations, but believed that a pastoral and persuasive approach to the issue was necessary; they would try to convince their members that lodge membership was not proper for good Lutheran Christians, and try to “wean” them away from the lodges.
Still other Lutherans took a firm approach to the issue, suggesting that lodge membership was never allowable and threatening disciplinary action against lodge members in their congregations. It even became an intra-Lutheran issue, with some Lutherans suggesting that other Lutherans were “soft” on the lodge issue.
In the 21st century, this issue has faded in importance, primarily because the membership in these secret societies has plummeted. Still, it is a concern for some Lutherans, especially the question of divided loyalties and participation in quasi-religious organizations.
Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.

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