Scranton, Pennsylvania’s magnificent Masonic Temple will get the national spotlight turned onto it this week as the U.S. presidential campaign season shifts into high gear. President Donald Trump will take part in a Town Hall meeting hosted by the Fox News Channel on Thursday, March 5th at the Masonic Cultural Center. Before everybody gets their aprons in bunch over Masons and “No politics in the lodge!” this is EXACTLY what our Masonic temples used to do on a regular basis.
In the 1930s, Scranton’s Masons hosted the biggest New Years Eve parties in the whole city at this temple – 4,000 attended in 1935 alone. Scranton’s Masonic Temple is especially huge. At approximately 180,000 square feet, the Temple has two theatres, lodge and appendant body meeting rooms, a grand ballroom as well as numerous other rooms and areas.
The main auditorium can accommodate 1,800 people. They formed an independent, not-for-profit organization in the early 2000s to preserve the place and operate the facility as a regional performance and cultural hub — in addition to still being a hub of Masonic activity. That separated it from specifically Masonic ownership, and the arrangement has worked well for the Masons and the community alike. Masonic temple associations these days confronting similar issues of big, underused buildings would do well to consider these types of arrangements.
Scranton’s Temple has branded itself as a cultural center in that city for more than a decade now, but up until the 1960s or so, communities regarded all of our larger temples and halls as centers of civic culture automatically, without needing it plastered on signage. That was when the Freemasons were still considered to be vital players in the social and civic fabric of a city or town, and before the mass exodus from town centers into anonymous steel pole barns.
I will cite my local examples because I’m most familiar with them. In my own home town of Indianapolis, our first combined multi-lodge/grand lodge temple was built in 1850, but before it even officially opened in 1851 for our own use, it was turned over to the State of Indiana for three months for use by the delegates for a convention charged with drafting the state’s new Constitution.
The Indianapolis Masonic Temple and its grand Freemasons Hall was considered the first large-scale public building in the city. Abraham Lincoln came to town and spoke there in 1859, and for decades no election went by without one candidate or another, from any party, holding a speech or debate at the Masonic Temple. It hosted the Republican Party convention of 1866. That was in addition to hosting countless theater shows, musical performances, talks by traveling orators and authors, anti-slavery rallies, and much more.
In 1904, Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs began his presidential campaign at a speaking engagement held at the Masonic Hall in Indianapolis. Debs, by the way, was a member of Terre Haute Lodge No. 19, F&AM.
Arguments over “regular” or “clandestine” Masons? Nope. The first public procession of the state’s Prince Hall-derived, so-called ‘African Masons’ marched to our Masonic Temple, which hosted their inaugural banquet.
No religion in Masonic lodges? Balderdash. The first Indianapolis Masonic Temple provided its Freemasons Hall to two different churches for their Sunday services, and we weren’t alone in that. Masonic lodges in America frequently partnered with a local church to share facilities as the western frontier pushed farther and farther into the wilderness.
The reason why churches and Masonic lodges in countless states were both tax exempt from the beginning is because government leaders realized the importance of both institutions in forming and perpetuating the kind of ‘civic virtues’ that were (and are) so vital to the smooth functioning of a democracy. Churches and Masonry had (and have) the same ultimate goal – to make the world a better place by making our congregants and members better individuals.
During World War II, almost 100 of the major Masonic temples in the U.S. took part in the Masonic Service Association’s Army/Navy Service Center program to provide vital services to military personnel. As late as the 1960s, before government took on the massive domination of public and civic life it has today, Masonic temples were frequently the hosts for new immigrant naturalization ceremonies.
It was a perfect location to impress upon new citizens the sort of idealism that Masonry shared with the United States: toleration, cooperation, honesty, integrity, “with malice toward none, and charity for all.” There could be no better institution than Freemasonry to hold out that shining example.
These days, I wish more Masonic halls were used as polling places, and it makes sense to periodically volunteer our spaces for that purpose to local election boards. They don’t change very often, but if you have a lodge building that has great parking (few do), AND is easily handicap-accessible on one level (even fewer are), AND has a large enough clear space like a dining hall to hold the required tables and equipment, make sure your community’s election officials are reminded that the Masons want to help.
Regardless of your political affiliation or opinion of any, or all, of the candidates this election season, let’s congratulate Scranton’s Masonic Temple for hosting this Town Hall meeting. Every single Masonic lodge in the U.S. should look to this example and offer its facility to local, state and national officials and candidates for their debates, public policy meetings, town halls, and other civic events like health fairs.
Don’t play favorites – be that deliberately neutral ground few others provide anymore. We’re not activists, we’re supposed to be formative, not performative.
We were once at the very center of civic life in America. It’s way past time for us to do it again.