SHORT TALK BULLETIN - Vol.IX March, 1931 No.3
Every Master Mason understands that a summons is a command to attend
the Communication of the lodge for which the summons is issued, or
the occasion - funeral, trial, cornerstone laying; or other function
- to which he is bidden. Every Master Mason knows why he must "due
answer make," either by attendance, or submitting an acceptable
excuse, such as illness, absence beyond the length of his cable tow,
or other inability to be present.
The summons appears to be very old; older perhaps in civil law than
in Masonry, and it has there no considerable antiquity. Indeed,
while the word does not appear in the Old Testament, both Numbers and
Deuteronomy set forth instructions as to testimony of witnesses at
trials, and by implication, if not by detailed statement, indicate
that the presence of such witnesses was compulsory. Funk and
Wagnall’s Standard Bible Dictionary states that the Israelites
Civil summons was known in Rome, first by word of mouth, later by
written citation to appear. In Chaucer’s "Canterbury Tales" (written
about 1386) is a "sompour" or summoner to the ecclesiastical court.
The use of summons in English procedure goes back into the dim
distance where fact and mysticism meet. It was a part of the feudal
system of England and the clan organization of Scotland. When the
Baron in England or the Laird in Scotland summoned his fiefs and
retainers, they answered in person. Failure to do so meant death.
The safety of the Baron depended upon absolute fealty; the safety of
the realm depended upon prompt obedience of the Laird to the call of
the King. But importance of obedience to summons goes further back
When King Arthur founded his mystic, if not mythical, Knights of the
Round Table, one of the inflexible rules was that every knight must
appear on a fixed day in every year to report to the table his acts
and adventures of the past year. Only one excuse, other than death,
was acceptable; that the Knight was on a quest that so required his
attention as to render it impossible for him to appear. He was then
expected to send an excuse for his disobedience of the requirement.
In the Anderson Charges of 1772, we read:
"In Ancient times no Master could be absent from the lodge,
especially when warned to appear at it, without incurring a severe
In the Constitutions of the Cooke MS., about 1490. we are told that
the Masters and Fellows were to be forewarned to come to the
congregations. All the old records, and the testimony of writers
since the revival, show that it was always the usage to summon the
members to attend the meetings of the General Assembly or the
In the United States the use of the summons grows rarer with every
passing year, as applied to a whole membership. In certain
Jurisdictions the Master summons his lodge once a year, as much,
perhaps, to keep the idea of the summons alive, as to assemble the
whole lodge for any purpose. Occasionally lodges are summonsed
regularly twice a year, a custom which doubtless grew out of the
original once-a-year summons to come and pay dues, when such
particular lodges decided to receive dues every six months. In some
Jurisdictions the summons is used for the whole membership only upon
extraordinary occasions, as when its proposed to finance a temple, or
consider some extremely important question of policy such as giving
up the Charter. In many Jurisdictions a lodge can not legally give,
or surrender its Charter without the action being considered by the
whole membership at a summonsed meeting.
Most jurisdictions would commonly use the summons to command
witnesses at a Masonic trial. In some the master uses the summons to
get a sufficient number of brethren present for Masonic Funerals.
Unhappily, the press of modern life, the casual manner in which too
many regard their Masonry, the laxness of some Masters and the
"laissez faire" policy of some Grand Lodge leaders, has allowed the
sanctity of the summons to be somewhat tarnished.
A Mason is Masonicaly bound to "due answer make" to a summons.
Failure to answer a summons, then, is a Masonic offense, for which
the offender may be tried.
But few who are interested in their lodges desire to see Masonic
trials held, if they can by any possibility be avoided. Lodge trials
often produce lack of harmony and disunion among the membership. To
prefer charges and stage a trial for the apparent trivial offense of
failure to answer a summons is sometimes held to be unwise. Yet, not
always so. From a hundred instances one is chosen at random; the
Grand Master of Louisiana wrote a letter to the Master and Wardens of
a certain lodge, which read in part as follows:
"Brother R, Norman Bauer, D.D.G.M., has reported to me that the
proceedings of your lodge in the matter of the trial of
Brother__________. My attention is especially called to the fact
that out of a membership of more than 200, only 75 brothers answered
the summons to be present at the trial. You are hereby directed to
require of the brethren who were absent, to give a proper explanation
of their failure to be present, and in the event satisfactory
explanation is not given, you are directed to have charges filed
against each of them who fails to provide you with a satisfactory
explanation. The charges are to be, Un-Masonic Con-duct in failing
to obey the summons of the lodge, in accordance with their obligation
and in accordance with the requirements of Masonic Law."
Into the question as to when it is wise and right to prefer charges
for failure to answer a summons, and when the best interests of all
are served by a mere reprimand to the guilty absentees, this paper
cannot attempt to go. But it may be said that while failure to
answer a summons may be deemed trivial, violation of an obligation
cannot be so considered. Those who look at the matter from this
standpoint, say that some disciplinary action is the only wise course
It is not possible to blame modern conditions with all of our
troubles! It is only fair to say that sometimes disrespect for law
is caused either by the law or the law-giver. Grand Lodges
themselves have not always looked very far ahead in legislating upon
The General Regulations of the Craft (1721) specifically state:
"The Master of a particular Lodge has the right and authority of
congregating the members of his lodge in a Chapter at pleasure, upon
any emergency or occurrence, as well as to appoint the time and place
of their usual forming."
The Regulations also specifically say : "Every annual Grand Lodge has
the inherent power and authority to make new Regulations or to alter
these, for the real benefit of this ancient Fraternity, provided
always that the old landmarks be carefully preserved."
It is, then, perfectly within the power of a Grand Lodge to set up a
new regulation regarding summons, or "right to congregate the lodge."
In some Jurisdictions this has been done, and the right of summons
shared between the Master and the lodge; that is, the Master may
summons when he thinks it wise; and the lodge can issue summons when
it thinks wise.
But as has been proved often in the past and probably will again in
the future, the power to set up a regulation is one thing; to make it
right - or even legal - is another!
It is practically universal that a Master has complete charge of the
work of his lodge; he is responsible for what it does; he opens and
closes it at his pleasure; he says when degrees are to be conferred;
he controls absolutely the debate on any question and can close it,
curtail it, initiate it as he thinks wise, and can put, "or refuse to
put" any motion which in his judgment is subversive of the peace and
harmony of the Craft.
A lodge can only act, as a lodge, as a result of a Master’s order, or
of its own order - that it, its vote. If a lodge would spend money,
a motion must put and voted upon. If it would receive a petition,
the motion to receive must be put and balloted upon. If it would
call off during a summer month, a motion to call off stated
communications is put and balloted upon. (This, of course, if the
Grand Lodge permits calling off.)
Hence, in a Jurisdiction in which the Grand Lodge has vested power to
issue summons in the lodge, as well in the Master, the lodge must
vote upon the question, which must be put. If a Master refused to
put the question up "Shall the lodge issue a summons" the lodge could
not vote upon it. If then, some brother feeling aggrieved, should
appeal from this failure to put the question, to the Grand Master or
the Grand Lodge, that higher authority would have to rule upon the
right of a Master to control his work, if such an authority desired
to discipline the Master for failure to permit the Grand Lodge’s
other behest - the power of a lodge to summons - to be exercised!
Let nothing in these words be construed as a criticism of the Grand
Lodges which in their wisdom have altered the original General
Regulations and given to lodges as well as to their Masters the right
to summons. A Grand Lodge is supreme within its Jurisdiction. No
matter how inconsistent with laws, usages, customs, landmarks,
constitutions or immemorial practices of the Fraternity its
enactments may be, within its Jurisdiction what a Grand Lodge says is
law, and therefore right - or right, and therefore law!
In Jurisdictions where the Grand Lodge has ruled upon any matter,
that matter has been rightly decided for that Jurisdiction - aye,
even if the Grand Lodge has ruled that black is white!
In this connection it is interesting to read that actions of a Grand
Lodge which has decided this matter one way, and then the other!
In 1834 the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia decided that the
Master had not the exclusive right to summons the members.
In 1909 a proposed by-law of a constituent lodge was referred to the
Grand Lodge committee on By-Laws. The proposed by-law read:
"Whenever the lodge is called upon to attend the funeral of a
deceased brother, the Worshipful Master shall summons a sufficient
number of the resident members of the lodge, naming them in regular
alphabetical order, and a brother so summoned shall be present or
furnish an acceptable substitute. No brother attending a funeral in
obedience to a summons shall again be called upon until his name is
reached in regular order."
The Committee on By-Laws reported that the lodge had no right to pass
this by-law, in spite of the ancient decision of 1834, on the ground
that while lodges have the right, subject to Grand Lodge approval, to
fix the time and place of their stated communications, they have
neither right nor power to legislate as to the time or place of
special meetings, which are wholly under the control of the Master.
In concluding its report, which was unanimously adopted by the Grand
Lodge and thus became the law in the District of Columbia,
superseding the decision of 1834, the committee said:
"The Master has the sole authority to convene his lodge in special
communications; he may compel the attendance of the members by
summons; he alone can exercise this power and in its exercise he is
not subject to the will of the lodge because he is the judge of the
exigency or emergency that may require a special meeting. These
powers are inherent in the office of Master, and no by-law is needed
to validate their exercise and none is legal which attempts to
curtail, control or direct them. That their exercise has been
entrusted to the Master alone is doubtless due to the fact that the
Grand Lodge looks to him, and not to the lodge, to see that the
business of the lodge is properly conducted."
There is good Masonic authority for this decision, which, of course,
is law only in Jurisdictions which have so ruled. Mackey’s "Masonic
"No motion to adjourn, or to close, or to call from labor to
refreshment can ever be admitted in a Masonic Lodge. Such a motion
would be an interference with the prerogative of the Master and could
not, therefore, be entertained. The Master has the right to convene
the lodge at any time and is the judge of any emergency that may
require a special meeting. Without his consent, except on the night
of the Stated or regular communications, the lodge cannot be
congregated and, therefore, any business transacted at a called or
special communication without his sanction or consent would be
illegal and void."
Simons (Principals of Masonic Jurisprudence) says:
"It is an immemorial usage - and therefore a landmark - that none but
the Master (when he is present) can congregate the brethren. Under
this prerogative the Master may call or summon a meeting of his
lodge at any time he thinks proper. The summon can be issued by
authority of the Master only, while he remains in discharge of his
functions, and is a preemptory order which must be obeyed, under
penalty, unless the excuse of the defaulter be of the most undeniable
In one Jurisdiction where it is held that the lodge as well as the
Master may issue a summons, failure to answer a summons is treated
with first, a merciful, then an iron hand. The brother who is
summoned but does not answer is re-summoned to the next communication
of the lodge. If he does not then answer with a valid excuse he
shall be put to trial and if found guilty, may be reprimanded,
suspended, or expelled, in the judgment of the lodge.
Any intelligent student of Freemasonry must have noted that its
Jurisprudence is largely concerned with what may be done, rather than
what may not; with duties and responsibilities, rather than
prohibitions and penalties. The gentle way of Masonry is to set up
the right, and believe that every brother will adhere to it, rather
than the wrong, forbidden under penalty of some punishment.
The best way to recreate the old respect which Masons had for a
summons is not by trial and punishment, but by education and
The vast majority of men are honest. Most brethren want to do what
is right. Most Masons want to live up to their obligations, perform
their duties, give as much as they get. The exceptions stand out
more because they are exceptions than because of their number.
In a certain Jurisdiction in which it is customary to summons the
membership once a year, Masters have long been distressed because so
many members ignored the summons.
One Master believed that members ignored the summons from the
lack of understanding of its importance, and their own obligation to
answer it. His lodge has 191 members. He wrote 191 letters to go
with the yearly summons. The letters were short, but they were
cordial, personal, brotherly. They explained what the summons was,
why it was issued, the duty of the brother to "due answer make" and
closed with the assurance of the Master’s certainty that there was no
question of its being answered, once it was understood.
One hundred and sixty-five members answered in person; twenty-one
replied by letter giving good reasons why they could not come!. In
large lodges a summons may be all but an impossibility. A lodge with
a thousand members could not crowd them into the usual lodge room if
all responded to a summons. Summons by such lodges presupposes a
special and sufficiently large place in which to meet. Lodges with
widely scattered members - as in small towns in large and sparsely
populated states - may make the summons a real hardship on members
who may have to travel long distances to answer. It is for such
reasons as these that the summons is used less and less merely
because it is not possible to use, and more and more, when it is
used, for only vital and essential matters.
Whether used once a year or oftener by Grand Lodge rule; or seldom,
and only by the discretion of the Worshipful Master, respect for the
summons may be inculcated by education, by talks in lodge, by letters
accompanying the summons, and by word of mouth communication from
member to member.
Enforcement, by Masonic trial and punishment, is essential when Grand
Lodge so orders; unless it is mandatory, the gentler way will usually
be found the wiser - and the more effective because it is more