On 31 October 2016, the Grand Lodge of Oklahoma disseminated a letter to all Masonic grand lodges announcing the withdrawal of fraternal recognition of the Grand Lodge of Arkansas. The primary reason for this action, as cited in the letter, is the “violation of the ancient landmarks, customs and usages of the Craft.” Specifically, the letter cites the Grand Lodge of Arkansas for its violation of the “right to due process in the administration of Masonic discipline,” and its refusal to issue Certificates of Good Standing for the purpose of transferring membership to a lodge outside of Arkansas. The letter was signed by Oklahoma Grand Master Dudley Ridge Smith.
The number of internal problems in the Grand Lodge of Arkansas have been mounting since 2010. On 25 January 2010, Arkansas Ronald Hedge issued a letter addressed to all lodge secretaries in Arkansas, explaining that the Arkansas State Revenue Department had created a generic “Freemason license plate.” The proceeds from the sale of these license plates would go to a charity sponsored by the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Arkansas. As a result, Grand Master Hedge issued a directive, contained in the letter, that “no member of a subordinate lodge under the jurisdiction of the M.W. Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Arkansas purchase the license plates.” He further directed lodge secretaries to read the letter at the next stated meeting of the lodge, and that lodges were to form telephone committees to call every member of each lodge about the matter.
Within the next two months, Derek Gordon, Secretary of Sebastian Lodge No. 706 at Fort Smith, was suspended from the fraternity, and the charter for Sebastian Lodge was subsequently revoked by the Grand Lodge. Apparently, Brother Gordon and several members of the lodge had requested to form a committee to investigate Prince Hall recognition by the Grand Lodge of Arkansas. His request was denied, and unspecified Masonic charges were filed against him. Brother Gordon’s Masonic trial was set for the weekend of 17 April 2010, when he had a conflict with his military obligations. During a phone call with the Grand Master, Gordon was informed that the trial date would not be rescheduled to accommodate his military service.
In the summer of 2010, the website for the Grand Lodge of Arkansas disappeared, and was replaced with an “under construction” notice. According to one report, the Grand Master at the time expressed little concern over the status of the Grand Lodge website, but said he would try to get it back up during his term of office. The Grand Lodge website remained down for two years.
The seeds of a dispute with the Grand Lodge of Oklahoma began as early as 2011. Grand Master Martin E. Warren informed Arkansas Masons that they were not to sit in a lodge in any other jurisdiction where Prince Hall Masonry was recognized until they had ascertained that there were no Prince Hall Masons present. This, of course, put Arkansas Masons in a very provincial position, as, on the face of it, this pronouncement would prevent Arkansas grand lodge officers from visiting other grand lodges where Prince Hall Masons are visiting. 52 of the 61 so-called “mainstream” grand lodges in the U.S. and Canada recognize their counterpart Prince Hall Grand Lodge, not to mention the grand lodges of Ireland, Scotland and England, and many others that recognize Prince Hall grand lodges. Presumably, it also prevents Arkansas Masons from sitting in the national meetings of the many affiliated and appendant bodies of Freemasonry. The Masonic world appears to have become a lot smaller for Arkansas Masons.
This was especially true for many Arkansas Masons who live near the Oklahoma border and enjoy visiting Oklahoma lodges and affiliated organizations. For many Arkansas Masons, the only solution became clear – simply transfer your membership out of state, or at least apply for plural membership in a lodge outside of Arkansas, where a member could simply abide by the Masonic law of his out-of-state grand lodge.
In 2012, as a result of a growing number of Arkansas Masons seeking to affiliate outside of Arkansas, the Arkansas Grand Secretary’s office began denying Certificates of Good Standing to Arkansas Masons who requested them for the purpose of affiliating with, or transferring to, lodges outside of Arkansas. These denials appear to have been aimed at Arkansas Masons attempting to affiliate with lodges in jurisdictions that recognize their Prince Hall counterparts, and a large number of these denials involved Masons wanting to affiliate with lodges in Oklahoma, where the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Oklahoma is recognized.
As matters worsened, more and more reports began to filter out of Arkansas about a large number of Masons suspended or expelled pending a trial. This prevented them from speaking with other Masons about the fraternity, and effectively prevented them from finding Masonic representation. According to some reports, special trial commissions appointed by the current grand master were set up to handle these trials, and in some cases the lawyer for the accused was not allowed to speak. These reports have not been confirmed, but there are enough of them that they cause a great deal of concern about what is going on in Arkansas.
Probably the greatest indication that all is not well in Arkansas are the reports of plummeting membership there, now 9,078* as of 2015, down from about 16,000 in 2010, and 26,000 in 2000. The one-year loss of members in Arkansas from 2014 to 2015 was 2,948* – a 24.5% loss, higher than any other grand lodge in North America. This loss includes demissions, suspensions and expulsions. The average membership loss in U.S. grand lodges over the same one-year period was only 4.1%.* (* – Masonic Service Association membership figures.)
Earlier this year (2016), Arkansas Grand Master Billy Joe Holder, Jr., suspended Deputy Grand Master Patrick Carr for a period of 25 years, apparently without due process. He followed this up by suspending Past Grand Master Jarrod Adkisson for 30 years. The charges against these two men were not published. Then, in mid-August, Grand Senior Warden Aaron South was removed from office and suspended without being informed of the specifics of the charges against him. Reports coming out of Arkansas indicate that it was Grand Master Holder’s plan to have Grand Junior Warden Carl Nelson elected to the office of Grand Master in February 2017, effectively jumping over Grand Senior Warden Aaron South and Deputy Grand Master Patrick Carr. However, South seems to have objected, thereby necessitating his removal from office and subsequent suspension. I would add the caution that much of this is based on unsubstantiated reports, but the suspensions of DGM Carr and GSW South remain a fact.
Arkansas Masons are forbidden from communicating with suspended or expelled Masons about anything regarding the fraternity. This is a much narrower interpretation than is normally followed in other grand lodges, where only details of ritual and private lodge business may not be discussed with suspended or expelled Masons. But, this strict interpretation has recently taken an extreme turn, and now social media websites like Facebook and Twitter are being scrutinized by Arkansas grand lodge officials to see if members are commenting on the postings of suspended or expelled members. According to one report, this new policy was adopted by Grand Treasurer Ronald Hedge, the grand master who issued the now infamous license plate letter in early 2010. The Masonic code of the Grand Lodge of Arkansas now states: “Any form of electronic communication pertaining to matters of Masonic business are prohibited when used as a forum to debate Masonic Law or issues and will subject the member to [charges of] un-Masonic conduct.”
Now comes the Oklahoma Grand Lodge’s suspension of recognition of the Grand Lodge of Arkansas, issued on the last day of October 2016. For additional information about the two Masonic principles cited in the letter issued by the Grand Lodge of Oklahoma (the right to transfer membership and the right to due process in the administration of Masonic discipline) see Mackey’s Jurisprudence of Freemasonry, specifically “The Right of Affiliation” (p. 134-ff) and “The Right of Appeal” (p. 165-ff). (Richmond, VA: Macoy Publishing & Masonic Supply Co., Inc., 1927, 1980 edition.)
– Pete Normand