The George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association (GWMNMA), the Masonic Service Association (MSA), and the Conference of Grand Masters of North America (CGMNA) are three notable Masonic organizations founded early in the twentieth century. They were all established at around the same time, with some of the same individuals involved in all three organizations. While the GWMNMA, the MSA, and the CGMNA are and have always been considered separate organizations, could they originally have been connected in some way? This article explores their history in order to answer that question.
Freemasons from around the country gathered in Alexandria, Virginia, on February 22, 1910, to discuss plans for organizing an Association whose purpose would be to construct a memorial temple. Bro. Thomas J. Shryock, Grand Master of Maryland, was elected President of the new GWMNMA. Bro. Charles Callahan organized the first meeting of the GWMNMA in 1910, and the two of them, working together, made the building of the Memorial possible. The first step was the purchase of Shuters Hill in Alexandria, the property on which the Memorial was later built. Today, the GWMNMA continues to support the Memorial and guide its vital work.
The Conference of Grand Masters held its first conference in Philadelphia in 1909. Generally, the purpose of the CGMNA is open. It enables Grand Masters to become acquainted with each other and to understand and to appreciate the sort of situations and complexities with which Grand Lodges deal, such as issues of recognition. At times they have indicated interest in Masonic education and leadership. It must be stressed that the Grand Masters do not vote in their conference, except for electing certain offices or to establish internal rules. Each Grand Lodge is sovereign in its own Jurisdiction, and the conference of Grand Masters does not undertake to change that. No proposal that limits or directs the activities of any Grand Jurisdiction is considered by the CGMNA.
The Resolution for the Masonic Service Association’s foundation came into being in 1918 at the Conference of Grand Masters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Proceedings from this Conference are fascinating. They explain that, from the time of America’s entry into the First World War, Masonic organizations in the United States desired to provide assistance to military personnel in Europe. Masons who had seen the European situation first hand made a strong case in favor of the need for organized assistance and relief. For various reasons—including General Pershing’s unwillingness to deal with large numbers of civilian organizations in general—the Federal Government decided that it could not deal with 49 separate Grand Lodges performing the same tasks with soldiers.
In light of the great need, and after significant debate and discussion, the Conference resolved to organize the MSA, for “the Service of Mankind through education, enlightenment, financial relief and Masonic visitation, particularly in times of disaster and distress.” The Conference established an Executive Commission of the Masonic Service Association to be chaired by Grand Master George Schoonover from Iowa, with six other members: R. Kenworthy, N.Y.; H. McPherson, Michigan; A. Wherry, Utah; C. Homer, Maryland; E. Gross, R.I.; and W. Stockwell, N.D. Although the original impetus for the MSA was to help servicemen overseas, it quickly took on other challenges: to provide relief after natural disasters and to provide Masonic education.
Were these three organizations connected in some way? There is no obvious organizational interconnection. However, of the seven members of the MSA’s Executive Commission listed above, four—Schoonover, Kenworthy, Homer and Stockwell—were Board Members of the GWMNMA. They were senior members of two organizations and influential in the founding of the third, as were five other members of the 1918 CGMNA: C. Clark, W. Farmer, G. Lusk, T. Scudder and L. Watres. In addition, examination of the minutes of MSA meetings indicated the presence of a number of others who were board members of the GWMNMA: W. Daniels, N.J.; M. Johnson, Mass.; A. Randell, Texas, and O.D. Street, Alabama. And in 1930, the MSA decided to meet one day either before or after the GWMNMA–presumably to accommodate the travel arrangements of those who were members of both organizations.
Between the 1930s and the 1980s, out of convenience and overlapping membership, all three organizations gathered each February in Washington, D.C., and convened in the auditorium George Washington Masonic National Memorial. These meetings inspired the Allied Masonic Degrees and other Masonic bodies to hold their annual meetings in Washington just prior to the “big three.” This created the so-called “Masonic Week.” In 1980, the CGMNA began regularly meeting in various Grand Lodges within the United States and Canada. The GWMNMA and the MSA followed suit and continue to do so.
In conclusion, while since the 1930s the GWMNMA, the CGMNA and the MSA have usually meet in the same place and on the same day each year, they each have separate and unique missions. While formed within a few years of each other, and often by the same men, they are separate Masonic organizations.