Committee on Foreign Correspondence
In none of the Grand Lodges of this century up to early in the eighteenth century, wall such a committee as that on foreign correspondence ever appointed. A few of them had corresponding secretaries, to whom were entrusted the duty of attending to the correspondence of the Body; a duty which was very generally neglected. A report on the proceedings of other Bodies was altogether unknown.
Grand Lodges met and transacted the local business of their own Jurisdictions without any reference to what was passing abroad.
But improvements in this respect began to show themselves. Intelligent Freemasons saw that it would no longer do to isolate themselves from the Fraternity in other countries, and that, if any moral or intellectual advancement was to be expected, it must be derived from the intercommunication and collision of ideas ; and the first step toward this advancement was the appointment in every Grand Lodge of a committee whose duty it should be to collate the proceedings of other Jurisdictions, and to eliminate from them the most important items. These committees were, however, very slow in assuming the functions which devolved upon them, and in coming up to the full measure of their duties.
At first their reports were little more than "reports of progress." No light was derived from their collation, and the Bodies which had appointed them were no wiser after their reports had been read than they were before.
As a specimen of the first condition and subsequent improvement of these committees on foreign correspondence, let us take at random the transactions of any Grand Lodge old enough to have a history and intelligent enough to have made any progress; and, for this purpose, the proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Ohio, two volumes of which lie conveniently at hand, will do as well Many other.
The Grand Lodge of Ohio was organized in January, 1808. From that time to 1829, its proceedings contain no reference to a committee on correspondence; and except a single allusion to the Washington Convention, made in the report of a special committee, the Freemasons of Ohio seem to have had no cognizance, or at least to have shown no recognition, of any Freemasonry which might be outside of their own Jurisdiction.
But in the year 1830, for the first time, a committee was appointed to report on the foreign correspondence of The Grand Lodge. This committee bore the title of the Committee on Communications from Foreign Grand Lodges, etc., and made during the session a report of eight lines in length, which contained just the amount of information that could be condensed in that brief space, and no more.
In 1831, the report was fifteen lines long ; in 1832, ten lines; in 1833, twelve lines; and so on for several years, The reports being sometimes a little longer and sometimes a little shorter; but the length being always measured by lines, and not by pages, until, in 1837, there was a marked falling off the report consisting only of one line and a half. Of this report, which certainly cannot be accused of verbosity, the following is an exact copy: "Nothing has been presented for the consideration of your committee requiring the action of the Grand Lodge. "
In 1842 the labors of the committee began to increase, and their report fills a page of the proceedings.
Things now rapidly improved. In 1843, the report was three pages long ; in 1845, four pages; in 1846, seven, in 1848, nearly thirteen; and 1853, fourteen.; in 1856, thirty; and in 1857, forty-six. Thenceforward there is no more fault to be found.
The reports of the future committees were of full growth, and we do not again find such an unmeaning phrase as ''nothing requiring the action of the Grand Lodge."
The history of these reports in other Grand Lodges is the same as that in Ohio.
Beginning with a few lines which announced the absence of all matters worthy of consideration, they have grown up to the full stature of elaborate essays in which the most important and interesting subjects of Masonic history, philosophy, and jurisprudence are discussed, generally with much ability.
At this day the reports of the committees on foreign correspondence in all the Grand Lodges of this country constitute an important portion of the literature of the Institution. The chairmen of these committees for the other members fill, for the most part, only the post of "sleeping partners"-are generally men of education and talent, who, by the very occupation in which they are employed, of reading the published proceedings of all the Grand Lodges in correspondence with their own, have become thoroughly conversant with the contemporary history of the Order, while a great many of them have extended their studies in its previous history. The Reportorial Corps, as these hard-laboring Brethren are beginning to call themselves, exercise, of course, a not trifling influence in the Order. These committees annually submit to their respective Grand Lodges a mass of interesting information, which is read with great avidity by their Brethren. Gradually -for at first it was not their custom-they have added to the bare narration of facts their comments on Masonic law and their criticisms on the decisions made in other Jurisdictions. These comments and criticisms have very naturally their weight, sometimes beyond their actual worth; and it will therefore be proper to take a glance at what ought to be the character of a report on foreign correspondence.
In the first place, then, a reporter of foreign correspondence should be, in the most literal sense of Shakespeare's words, a brief chronicler of the times. His report should contain a succinct account of everything of importance that is passing in the Masonic world, so far as his materials supply him with the information.
But, remembering that he is writing for the instruction of hundreds, perhaps thousands, many of whom cannot spare much time, and many others who have no inclination to spare it, he should eschew the sin of tediousness, never forgetting that ''brevity is the soul of wit." He should omit all details that have no special interest; should husband his space for important items, and be exceedingly parsimonious in the use of unnecessary expletives, whose only use is to add to the length of a line. In a word, he should remember that he is not an orator but a historian. A rigid adherence to these principles would save the expense of many printed pages to his Grand Lodge, and the waste of much time to his readers.
These reports will form the germ of future Masonic history. The collected mass will be an immense one, and it should not be unnecessarily enlarged by the admiration of trivial items. In the next place, although we admit that these "Brethren of the reportorial corps" have peculiar advantages in reading the opinions of their contemporaries on subjects of Masonic jurisprudence, they would be mistaken in supposing that these advantages must necessarily make them Masonic lawyers. Ex quovis ligno non fit Mercurius, meaning in Latin, a Mercury (the Roman god of commerce) is not to be made out of any chance piece of wood. It is not every man that will make a lawyer. A peculiar turn of mind and a habit of close reasoning, as well as a thorough acquaintance with the law itself, are required to fit one for the investigation of questions of jurisprudence.
Reporters, therefore, should assume the task of adjudicating points of law with much diffidence. They should not pretend to make a decision ex cathedra (officially or with authority, from the Latin, meaning literally from the bishop's throne or the professor's chair), but only to express an opinion ; and that opinion they should attempt to sustain by arguments that may convince their readers.
Dogmatism is entirely out of place in a Masonic report on foreign correspondence. But if tediousness and dogmatism are displeasing, how much more offensive must be rudeness and personality. Courtesy is a Masonic as well as a knightly virtue, and the reporter who takes advantage of his official position to speak rudely of his Brethren, or makes his report the vehicle of scurrility and abuse most strangely forgets the duty and respect which he owes to the Grand Lodge which be represents and the Fraternity to which be addresses himself.
And, lastly, a few words as to style. These reports we have already said, constitute an important feature of Masonic literature. It should be, then, the object and aim of everyone to give to them a tone and character which shall reflect honor on the society whence they emanate, and enhance the reputation of their authors. The style cannot always be scholarly, but it should always be chaste ; it may sometimes want eloquence, but it should never be marked by vulgarity. Coarseness of language and slang phrases are manifestly out of place in a paper which treats of subjects such as naturally belong to a Masonic document.
Wit and humor we would not, of course, exclude. The Horatian maxim bids us sometimes to unbend and old Menander thought it would not do always to appear wise. Even the solemn Johnson could sometimes perpetrate a joke, and Sidney Smith has enlivened his lectures on moral philosophy with numerous witticisms. There are those who delight in the stateliness of Coleridge; but for ourselves we do not object to the levity of Lamb, though we would not care to descend to the vulgarity of Rabelais. To sum up the whole matter in a few words these reports on foreign correspondence should be succinct, and, if you please, elaborate chronicles of all passing events in the Masonic world; they should express the opinions of their authors on points of Masonic law, not as judicial dicta (Latin, verdicts), but simply as opinions, not to be dogmatically enforced, but to be sustained and supported by the best arguments that the writers can produce; they should not be made the vehicles of personal abuse or vituperation; and, lastly, they should be clothed in language worthy of the literature of the Order:
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