by Bro A H Busfield

Our Rise and Fall

For seventy years, the New Zealand Constitution prospered. From the uneasy beginnings of 1890, the Craft grew in numbers and influence (apart from an understandable hesitation during the great depression) at a remarkably consistent rate, expanding its influence for good throughout the community and attracting many men of eminence and authority. Several Governors General and Premiers were masons; in the mid-fifties all the Cabinet Ministers were freemasons except one 'and she would join if we'd let her', said Prime Minister Holland. Our centennial in 1990 was approaching with an anticipated membership in excess of 65,000.

The first thirty years have been a different story. From 1963 the fall in membership has been sadly just as consistent and steep. Our numbers have fallen by 14,061 or 30% in the last twenty two years.

The present 1.01 percentage of masons to the country's total population is the lowest ever in the history of the Constitution, to be compared with 2.1% in 1956. (Our Sister Constitutions' normal policy of non disclosure of membership prevents the coverage of the total craft in New Zealand but their experiences have been very similar. Dual membership has not been eliminated from the figures in this paper, but, with the Grand Lodge estimate of 5% in the forties and 7% today, may not be of material significance. The masonic years quoted have varied in length slightly from time to time. Information helpfully supplied by the Grand Secretary, by RWBro D M Holmes and VWBro R E Pugh-Williams has been of great assistance.

In 1982 'The Condition of the Craft Committee' (more about their work later) completed various projections of our membership for the remainder of the century. The results of the last three years show that their severest calculations not to be over pessimistic. Noting the drop of 10% in the previous five years, the Committee warned our numbers could fall in


1986 to 32,800
1991 29,520
1996 26,568
2001 23,912


(In August 1985 the actual total was 33,076

They concluded that by hard work and constant application our total in 1995 should not be less than 25,500. With the benefit of hindsight we should accept that even with this dedication we will be hard put to retain 23,500. If the trend of the last decade continues into the next century, there will be by 2020 scarcely enough masons in New Zealand to hold a Lodge. And well it might! Similar drifts throughout the masonic world are no consolation. The present experiences of the mainline churches and similar institutions do not in any way enhance our situation.

Factors Involved

The factors involved must be looked at. The trends shown in the graph of initiates precede by fifteen years the total membership movements. The peak of 1868 initiated in 1947 was followed by a continual drop to under 600 in 1985.

The average age of our new members is increasing. A survey in the 'white paper' covering North Auckland, Auckland, South Auckland and Waikato districts with participating lodges representing one third of New Zealand membership, reveals that the average percentages of initiates under forty years of age were in


1955 60.8%
1965 53.7%
1975 48.6%
1985 40.7%


The average age of all initiates in the sample were in


1955 36.8
1965 39.1
1975 40.1
1985 42.6


Superficially not a great increase, but when translated into potential service to Masonry (accounting for increasing life span), the average life expectancy of an initiate in


1955 was 35.71 years
1965 33.16 years
1975 32.79 years
1985 30.95 years


a reduction over the past four decades of 13.3% in the average possible years of membership.

The NET movement of members (joining versus resignations and strike off's), after the first post war decade, deteriorated sharply until the mid-sixties; thereafter the net annual loss 'out of the door' has fluctuated around the seven hundred mark

Our ageing has resulted in an increase in deaths from the 350 mark in 1940 to the six hundreds in the fifties, seven hundreds in the seventies. There has been a slight decrease in the eighties, but the percentage of deaths shows a constant increase.


1955 1.4%
1960 1.5%
1965 1.7%
1970 1.9%
1975 2.0%
1980 2.2%
1985 2.3%


These three factors, Initiations, Movement and Deaths directly affect our membership figures. In the foreseeable future all will have a tendency to further increase the rate of decline. Even at the present time, if all movement of members in and out were to cease our membership would continue to fall - our deaths are more numerous than our initiations; and the same, were we able to eliminate all deaths, the net movement 'out of the door' is more than the initiates coming in. This has never happened before the 1980s.


Of the dozens of members spoken to in recent months, no one has appreciated the situation to be as serious as now outlined - many have misconceptions:

Our Grand Masters have said:

1981 '... I can assert that there is growing evidence to show that we have arrested the decline ... The future now offers real hope for improvement.'
1982 '... the decline is showing signs of levelling off and we will, I am confident, show an increase in the near future.'
1983 'referring to the years decline (848 compared with 815 the previous year) 'This indicates that with the co-operation and support of all the members there will be an early return to increasing membership.'
1984 'We have inherited a wonderful institution which I believe is in a healthy condition...'

In 1979 the President of the Board of General Purposes, and in 1982, 1983 and 1985 the Grand Master, expressed the pleasure at the greater numbers of younger men joining our ranks. There must be great variation throughout the country, as in the northern third of New Zealand membership, the numbers of initiates under 30 years of age were in:


1965 84
1975 55
1985 27


Similarly for those in their thirties, the totals were in:


1965 137
1975 107
1985 74


Many masons believe our post war growth was too fast with a consequent lowering of initiate standard. In the fifteen years 1945-60 we grew by 16,086 or 57%, but in the earlier period 1925-30 we grew by 13,824 and more than doubled in membership (102%). Are the fewer candidates of today of higher standard?.

Some claim 'this has happened before' and will rectify itself. The only previous set back was in the middle of the worst depression of modern times (1931-36) when membership fell by 1855 or 6.8%. In the relatively prosperous and progressive years since 1963 we have declined by over 14,000 or 30%.

Others emphasise the distorting influence of dual membership during the rapid increase in new lodges post war. It is worthwhile reviewing the movement chart while noting the pattern of new lodge formation.

New lodges formed 1945-64


1945 3 1950 10 1955 7 1960 5
1946 6 1951 5 1956 5 1961 3
1947 8 1952 6 1957 6 1962 5
1948 11 1953 6 1958 5 1963 6
1949 9 1954 5 1959 6 1964 3



Many masons believe the number in the Craft to be of little consequence - that Freemasonry will still continue. Others are concerned with the situation but adamant that no changes be made. To them this paper may be of little interest. They seem undaunted by the future financial burden (our costs go up while our numbers fall) and the physical problem of managing and maintaining the many masonic charitable organisations throughout the country; or by the history of other fraternal groups which have just 'faded away into the nigh''.

Some claim all organisations have recession and recovery cycles, and our position will right itself in due course. These members are invited, taking into account these facts, to extend for a few years the factor graphs and consider the effect on our outlook.

Many are worried and have expressed their concern. At the Annual Communications of Grand Lodge, in the Grand Masters addresses, the matter was only raised twice in the first decade after 1963, but in the second decade seven times and given prominence on the last two occasions. The President of the Board of General Purposes has almost always referred to the continued loss, yet strangely the situation was only discussed once in the first ten years since 1963, twice in the second ten and not at all in 1984 or 1985. The record of the last years references to the Craft's condition occupies fifteen lines (in comparison, say, to three pages debating the precedence of the precedence of the Boards). For several years The New Zealand Freemason, by editorial and article (with the assistance of the Educational and Condition of the Craft Committees), has constantly emphasised the growing problem. Seminars at several Communications, meetings of interested members and of Past Masters groups, discussions in refectories and Standing Committees have enabled views to be expressed concerning our downward drift. Much has been written, even more has been said about out falling numbers, but what has been done?

Activity at Board Level

In his busy life the President of the Board of General Purposes was unable to respond to my enquiries, access to the Boards minutes was not available, (the P J Oliver index of resolutions proved some assistance), and several past Boeard members were vague over specific initiatives. However, it is interesting to discover that, appreciating negative symptoms appearing in the late fifties, the Board of General Purposes in 1959 completed and supplied to lodges a report and practical suggestions.

1965 The Board receive a report on the loss of membership emphasising that the cause was decrease in initiations rather than resignations. The Committees recommendations for remedy were not accepted by the Board and 'referred back'. Grand Lodge was informed that year a comprehensive report together with recommendations would be presented at the next Communications
1966 Communications was advised that the Board was ' not yet in a position where it feels that it could make a worthwhile recommendation to Grand Lodge'.
1970 A progressive new rule (210A) relating to masons changing abode was recommended to Grand Lodge and has been refined in subsequent years
1973 The Board resolved to establish a permanent Condition of the Craft Committee.
1977 At the instigation of a Wellington Past Masters group, the Board decided to conduct a survey of members opinions and attitudes to Freemasonry.
1978 Saw the proposals discussed and authorised in August but sad events required postponement of action until November 1979. The extensive Raines survey of Lodge buildings was tabled. External publicity and internal education committees were formed.
1980 The Board reforms the Condition of the Craft Committee as an active body. Changes of emphasis in the work of Grand Lodge office were initiated, and the Knox 'five initiates' plea recommended to the Craft.
1981 The Condition of the Craft Committee completed appreciation of the pilot survey and supervised the conduct of a further questionnaire.
1983 After a two year investigation of a Canterbury information project and overseas schemes the Educational Committee launched the Mentor scheme (hopefully under the supervision of regional {or district} committees, but very few appear to have been established?

The Condition of the Craft Committee presented a summary of survey findings, authoritative forward projections on the future of the Craft, and their recommendations (now known as the 'Twenty One Points'). This was widely distributed and parts published in The New Zealand Freemason. At the conclusion of the paper the Committee 'sees its role as a continuing one and fundamentally on the action front. Many reports of a similar nature have been prepared in other Constitutions. In most cases they have dies in the hole. The same fate could well overtake this report...'. Of the six papers of consequence prepared the Board apparently considered one in depth (relating to district committees) before disbanding the Committee in February this year.

The 'Twenty One Points' raise many questions. For example, what has happened about:

  • Item 3 The major overhaul of our transfer system?
  • Item 9 Educational programmes in addition to the Mentor scheme (and what support given to the enthusiastic mentor co-ordinator)?
  • Item 16 Clarification of our attitudes to 'de facto' relationships?
  • Item 18 Development of the district committee scheme?

What action has been taken about ritual revision and the proposed study of selected progressive lodges. (The recent progress of several sister Constitution city lodges bears examination).

The Board, always with an extensive agenda, has approved many advices to the lodges, sponsored changes in acceptable dress, penalties presentation, and streamlined executive control and administration. Communications have improved with publicity much more widespread, but has there been any rethink of our objectives and operations?

There is no evidence yet published of any forward policy or plans for the future being developed although, to quote an eminent brother, '...Goodness knows, we have the expertise within the Craft to do just that'. Many resigning brethren do not express the same confidence in us.

Activity in our District

The detailing of actions taken in this district have faced similar difficulties, despite the co-operation and interest of many brethren. A Past Provincial Grand Master, RWBro S H Downes, responded positively to my enquiries. He emphasised 'that mere numbers were not the be all and end all of our aims', while explaining his main task, in command of the district, was to encourage the maintenance of the highest possible standards in the lodges under his control.

The minutes of our Masters and Wardens meetings record since 1960 only thirteen items relating in some way to the sustaining of membership. A very efficient school for Masters and Wardens continues to interest many of our principal officers, but instruction nights for Fellowcrafts and Entered Apprentices, commenced in 1971, continued for only a few meetings. The Roskill village attracts active interest from many brethren, while its annual dance, bowling and golf tournaments help sustain the spirit of fellowship among us. A valiant attempt to rejuvenate St Benedict's Street as a masonic centre continues today.

Activity in Local Lodges

Progressive moves have been made by some lodges in our district. One change to daytime meetings, two dining lodges, some moves to new premises, improvement to many buildings, meetings for prospective members, presentations to local schools have all been positive steps. Many individual moves to create interest are of course subject to the enthusiasm of the Masters at the time. The United Masters Lodge, responding to the Provincial Grand Masters request, produced in 1966 a paper 'The Problem of the Apathetic Mason' (by our present Provincial Grand Master); in 1976 Wbro E B Isham spoke on 'Can we Reverse the Drift', while in 1984 WBro J F Y Schinka detailed many practical suggestions in 'Communications within our Lodges' a paper reproduced in full by The New Zealand Freemason. Two papers, 'Fifty Years Ahead' with its special discussion evening (1973) and 'Looking Backwards - Looking Forwards' (1979), reflected little concern over our downward drift. The continuing supply of lecturers and lectures to our lodges helps sustain the interest. In my own lodge, considered to be one of the bright masonic areas of Auckland, high levels of attendance at meetings and social functions, comparative youth of many of the officers, involvement in the relatively new Howick and Districts Trust Centre all auger well for the future.

Enquirers receive a comprehensive practical coverage of Craft membership and there is an air of enthusiasm among many members and their wives. Yet in its life of twenty five years (apart from founders, deaths and present members) over seventy men have passed through the lodge. My mother lodge, in the same area and one of the largest in New Zealand, has a similar pattern; in its first twenty years, seventy four members came and went but in the last two decades 140 disappeared. This increasing pattern of interested entrants becoming disenchanted departures is repeated throughout the country.

Whether action within the Craft has been adequate is a matter of opinion. Certainly it has not been sufficient to restrain our decline.

Appeals for Progress

Many appeals for progress have been heard:

from Grand Masters:

'To allow Freemasonry to take the road to apathy and indifference ... is a gratuitous insult to our early brethren.'

'No progress has ever been made by the unthinking and complacent acceptance of existing conditions.'

from a Board President and a Past Grand Secretary:

'We cannot get improvements unless we make changes - we must adapt to different conditions and circumstances - we dare not remain static.'

from Grand Lodge Officers:

'Let us not wait for tomorrow - it may be too late. Let us put our house in order today.'

'... not much has changed and not much has been done - except talk.'

from Past Masters:

'Interest and enthusiasm cannot be induced by legislation.'

'(We) need a bold new approach from the top.'

All are illustrations of pleas printed in the past.

My Appeal to the Craft

I believe the facts speak for themselves. We face not just a problem but a crisis. I believe we must act now. We have no time to adhere to our usual pedantic business procedures or search for consensus answers, nor is this the time to debate solutions. The Craft has an abundance of ability to produce promising remedies to explore. I urge that consideration of this paper be concentrated on the extent of the problem and the need to gain urgent and general acceptance of it.

There is no intent to criticise - but hopefully to galvanise. If with full appreciation of the crisis, we with urgency and resolution take bold, even radical action now, we may yet preserve the future of Freemasonry. But the first vital step is - I submit - to stimulate the will of all in the Craft to readily accept, absorb and apply the remedies developed. If we fail to do this, we could be well within the Final Forty Years of Freemasonry.


Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of New Zealand 1940-85

History of the Grand Lodge of New Zealand 1890-1969 RWBro F G Northern PDepGM

Transactions of the United Masters Lodge No. 167

P J Oliver Index to Board of General Purposes Minutes

Seminar papers

Published Reports to Board of General Purposes and Lodges

White Papers 1927-85

Pilot Survey of Opinions and Attitudes July `980

Second Survey of Opinions and Attitudes February 1982

Profiles of Membership Trends WBro D G Wolstenholme

Copyright 1986 United Masters Lodge No 167, Auckland, New Zealand. Readers may redistribute this article to other individuals for non commercial use, provided that text, all html codes, and this notice remain intact and unaltered in any way. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission of the author. If you have any questions about permissions, please contact the author or United Masters Lodge


Preferred citation: Alan H Busfield, "The Final Forty Years of Freemasonry?" published in the transactions of the United Masters Lodge #167

Vol 26, No. 12, pp243-251, 1986 and the Discussion in Vol 26, No. 13, pp271-282, 1986