by Jason Van Dyke, P.M.
(Managing Editor of the Voice & Member: Benjamin B. French No. 15; Past Master: The Colonial Lodge No.1821)
Washington, DC is a unique city in many respects. It’s an industry town, a capital city, a planned development, and a university town with a largely transient population – all at once. And while Freemasonry in most other parts of the country might be slowing and shrinking, membership here is booming. The reasons for this renaissance in DC are as diverse and unique as the city itself.
For many other jurisdictions this radical diversity would be a barrier – too many competing interests and voices – but for us, it not only works, it thrives. It’s a fact that is less surprising when one considers that not only was our fraternity created with this social and cultural blending in mind, but our city was, too.
Big Idea, Small Space
As capital cities go, Washington, DC is tiny and quaint. It was created by an Act of Congress in 1790, and originally measured about 10 square miles, fashioned from five miles of land donated from the “northern” state of Maryland and five from the “southern” state of Virginia. This was a purposeful balance of territory that came from a compromise made by the founding fathers in congress, who were already struggling to broker difficult conflicts within their new country between states in the south that were largely agrarian production centers, and those in the north which held our financial and shipping hubs.
But the real reason behind the design of our city actually starts with the Constitution – the cornerstone of “The Great Experiment.” It lays out a political system of government where no one constituency can quickly or easily promulgate laws without the buy-in or consent of others. It’s a process that requires cooperation and civility in order to work, and the capital city was meant to be a physical representation and reminder of that process, physically built on land that was in itself a compromise.
Freemasonry in the District started about the same time. In particular, one lodge traces its roots to 1793 when it was chartered by Lodge No. 9 (meeting in Georgetown) of the Grand Lodge of Maryland. That Lodge’s first Master was James Hoban, an Irish immigrant and architect. He had just won the competition to design and build the President’s new “palace” in the city and he needed two pieces of critical infrastructure for his imported Irish and Scottish stonemasons: a church and a lodge. The church would be St. Patrick’s on 10th and G Streets NW, and the lodge would become Federal Lodge No. 1. Already, Freemasonry in the District was welcoming the diversity of itinerant and foreign workers.
Today, the District is both a bustling hub city and a small town. With a population of a little over 670, 000 people crammed into 68 mi2, the City of Washington is a dense metropolis that continues to grow every year. Unsurprisingly, the city’s vast cultural and racial diversity has also continued to grow - directly translating into its 43 Masonic lodges, several of which are foreign-language based.
A Social Capital
Another reason for Freemasonry’s health in DC lives in the psyche of those that choose this industry city as their home. The District, you see, is a one-trick pony of employment – almost everyone here works for or around the government. Like Los Angeles, whose existence in the desert of southern California can largely be attributed to the movie industry, DC exists because of the government. And for those who work in this industry, a spirt of service and community engagement and involvement are inherent in their personalities – they are “joiners” by nature. So, it makes sense that fraternalism, and membership in Freemasonry in particular, is robust in Washington.
Most interesting is the trend towards younger men becoming involved in Masonry here in the District. While the average age of a Master Mason here is about 60, the average age of our EA’s, Fellowcrafts, and Candidates hovers around 40; a significantly lower number. This is even more significant when compared nationally, where average membership age across the board is older. Add to this the modern trends in Social Media and E-engagement, and you have a savvy, well-connected population (both in the city and in Masonry) that is more involved, and linked-in to the broader world around them. And while the natural assumption is that this generation is just “virtually” engaged, the truth is they have proven that they take their online knowledge into the real world to test and act on.
There are examples of this trend in every Lodge in DC. In William R. Singleton-Hope-Lebanon Lodge No. 7, they focus on community involvement whether it’s by sponsoring, planning, and paying for a flag pole in front of a new local recreation center, to handing out free sno-cones at a local park festival during the blazing District summer. In Benjamin B. French Lodge No. 15, the members connect with each other on the Slack app, where they can talk together about Big Masonic Thoughts©, like esotericism and cigar smoking. And that’s not mentioning the University Lodges, the Capitol Hill Congressional breakfasts, or the young, active, leadership present in every Lodge’s officer line, including the Grand Lodge’s.
So, while the oft-heard narrative is that Freemasonry is dying along with its aging membership, and that Masons just aren’t active in their communities anymore, the exact opposite is true here in DC – our “joiner culture” has translated into Lodge-joiners.
Dense and Diverse
Due to the small land area and its subsequent high population density, it follows that there would be a ton of options for everything in DC, including Lodges; and that largely holds true – there are currently 43 lodges in the District, ranging from the old, historical Lodges (Federal No. 1, Justice-Columbia No. 3, Naval No. 4, and Potomac No. 5), to the smaller, niche Lodges (Arminius No. 25 – the German-speaking Lodge, or Freedom Military No. 1775 - a Lodge for active and veteran members of the military, Fraternity No. 54 – a Lodge for Greek-letter fraternity members, or The Colonial No. 1821 – a University Lodge affiliated with The George Washington University). Each of these Lodges present their own unique identity that mirrors the great diversity this capital city offers.
This is further illustrated in the number of plural and dual members there are in this jurisdiction. While there are about 3,500 members in Washington, DC, there are about 4,100 memberships, so there is a great deal of cross-pollination within our Lodges – and that’s not even counting how many dual members there are.
The physical size of the city works to its advantage, as well. Because it is a small area with high population density, driving (or more importantly, parking) in the District can be challenging. Luckily, the public transportation options are what you would expect out of a top-line capital city. There is the Metro (subway), a great bus system, bike sharing, and inexpensive cabs and car sharing options. Therefore, most lodges are easily accessible to its members and visitors alike.
The credit for who we are today, of course, goes to the Masonic leadership of the past. They are the giants on whose shoulders we now stand, after all. And this Grand Lodge has done a magnificent job in the last 30+ years of fostering a view of Freemasonry that translates to equal parts fraternalism and deep philosophical study. They saw the bigger picture of what made this city unique, and they went about forging a Grand Jurisdiction that reflected that novelty.
This is reflected in the foreign language Lodges, the affinity Lodges and even in our old Lodges who have had hundreds of years to grow and evolve. Each offers a facet of social and popular culture that creates a mosaic of opinions and life experiences for our members to draw upon, and it tends to inform our fraternal relations both inside the jurisdiction and out.
We were one of the first Grand Lodes to recognize Prince Hall in our jurisdiction, and recently we affirmed our commitment to diversity by publishing “Freemasonry Universal” – both were bold moves for a small jurisdiction. Our Lodge meetings are just as apt to feature a lecture from internationally known Masonic scholars or famous political pundits as they are to sponsor a day of trap-shooting or an exploration of the art and symbolism of tattooing. Our members are equally at home in white-tie and tails as they are in the muddy running clothes at a Tough Mudder.
This wide range of cultural curiosity and discovery is possible because it has been carefully nurtured by a long succession of forward thinking and responsible leaders, both from inside the constituent Lodges of this jurisdiction and their governing Grand Lodge. And while the culture of the city certainly helps inform the culture of our Lodges, leadership will always be the primary motivator in a top-down organization such as Masonry.
What’s clear is that Washington, DC is still growing and evolving as a city, and our Gentle Craft seems to be keeping pace with the city. Our culture of progress and inclusion is actually preserved through a conservative and disciplined interpretation of Freemasonry’s Enlightenment Age roots. The great thinkers of this age not only created our fraternity but imbued it with a deep commitment to reason and balance – ideals that ensure harmony and good will, the essential ingredients to progress. This resulting collegiality has paved the way for Masonry in DC to thrive while it recedes elsewhere.
As we look to the future, it is hard to predict what role the fraternity of Freemasons will have in this city, our country or the world. But, if current trends persist, we can be sure that the blend of diversity and idealism of our unique membership will continue to have a positive effect. It is a silent and thankless role we should each be proud to have participated in – because it could only have happened here, in Washington, DC.
 At that time, there wasn’t yet enough population in the District for its own Grand Lodge, and the government wouldn’t actually move into the city until around 1800. So, the Grand Lodge of DC didn’t appear until a little over 20 years after the city’s founding, in 1811.
 This is especially true after the “retrocession” of 1846, when Virginia took back its portion of land (mostly the slave market-centric city of Alexandria), in anticipation of the outlaw of slavery in the Union.
 Noted political commentator and one-time Bill Clinton strategist Paul Begala famously said, “DC is Hollywood for ugly people.” This is at once the funniest and most honest assessment of these two cities in history.
 But, from anecdotal evidence, it seems that most jurisdictions are indeed getting younger as more and more Millennials join the Craft.
 Plural Members are members that belong to multiple Lodges within the jurisdiction; Dual Members are members who belong to Lodges across multiple jurisdictions.