The Meaning of Masonic
Past Grand Master, P Gd Secty, Nova Scotia
The obligation is the turning
point of every degree; it makes a man an E.A.; a F.C.; a M.M.
As early as 1738, objection
was taken to an oath of secrecy taken on the Holy Bible and a few years
later in 1757, the Synod of Seceders of Scotland condemned the Masonic Order
on five grounds, namely; that it is on oath of secrecy; secondly that such
an oath is considered by Freemasons as paramount to the laws of the land;
thirdly, that such oaths are administered before the secrets of Freemasonry
are communicated; fourthly that they are accompanied by certain
objectionable ceremonies, and lastly that to each is attached a penalty
which is ridiculous and absurd. Is there anything in these criticisms?
What is an oath or
obligation? The word "obligation" comes from a Latin word obligatio - a
binding to, a tie. The same root lig is to be found in the words, ligament
and religion. An obligation is more than an oath, it is more than a vow, it
combines both. An obligation is a promise made solemnly and under the
penalty or sanction of one's religious belief.
Let us now consider the five
objections made: - First, "Freemasons require oaths of secrecy"
An oath cannot be
objectionable or open to criticism unless immoral; nor simply because it
imposes secrecy, or the performance of a good action, or requires the person
who takes it to refrain from something objectionable, or obliges one to do
something which is not forbidden by Divine or human law. Where the time,
place and circumstances do not involve levity or profanity or crime, an oath
of secrecy; or of obedience, or to be truthful, and calling on God to be a
witness or to punish one for its violation is incapable by any perversion of
Scripture or of reasoning to be regarded as criminal or immoral. Calling on
God to witness is a recognized part of all oaths, and calling down God's
wrath for its violation is implied even if not expressed.
Oaths are as old as mankind
and were used by pagans and barbarians to secure certainty in evidence or
the performance of a pledge. Oaths were common in Old Testament times. In
early England from King Alfred to Edward I, an oath of allegiance to the
King was administered to every freeman every year. The King himself was
sworn into office and afterwards all officers of the Crown and all judges
and jurors. The world is held together today by oaths and obligations. All
rulers and administrators, legislators and executive officers of high and
low degree in State and municipalities, and in every phase of human society
are bound by their oaths of office. Without oaths the world would lapse into
disorder, confusion and anarchy.
In civil society we find that
ties and obligations bind all men together. We speak of the marriage bond or
tie; all fraternal orders, good, bad and indifferent, are built on formal
obligations; as are all religious orders and societies. Baptism is a form of
obligation and so are many Church ceremonies. If we ceased to administer
oaths or obligations, society itself would be dissolved and, of course, all
justice and right dealing.
The obligation in the Old
Charges was very brief; "There are several words and signs of a Freemason to
be revealed to you which as you will answer before God at the great and
terrible Day of Judgment, you are to keep secret and not to reveal the same
to any in the hearing of any person whatsoever but to the Masters and
fellows of the said Society of Freemasons. So help me God." A Masonic
obligation was originally taken "By the holy contents of this Book and Holy
Church," or "So help me God and the holy contents of this Book."
Second; Are oaths "placed
higher by Freemasons than the law of the land?"
To us, as Freemasons this is
an absurd charge, for the observance of law and order and the duty of
patriotism are primary duties imposed on all freemasons. Freemasonry is
organized patriotism, standing for just laws, loyalty and cooperation. There
is no room in Freemasonry for treason or disloyalty. Freemasonry is the
enemy of communism and anarchy; does not tolerate the undermining of public
virtue or social stability; and has no use for the man who plots behind the
flag which protects him. "In the state you are to be a quiet and peaceable
citizen, true to your government and j just to your country. You are not to
countenance disloyalty or rebellion, but patiently submit to legal authority
and conform with cheerfulness to the government of the country in which you
live." A Masonic lodge is a guarantee of good order, and strength to the
community, it stands for morality and law and for law-abiding citizenship.
There are today thousands of Freemasons in positions of trust and
responsibility in the state. No rebellion was ever plotted in a Masonic
lodge for the Masonic obligation binds us to uprightness and fair dealing
and there is not even a line or a syllable to support the charge or
objection made to the contrary.
Third: "That the oath is
exacted before the secrets of Freemasonry are made known."
This too is equally absurd,
for it is obvious that if the secrets were made known first, the candidate
would have an option as to whether he would take it. If an oath of secrecy
is itself proper then the proper time for such an oath is before revelation
and not after. If you wish to tell your friend a secret, you first exact a
promise from him not to tell. The person to be bound knows what its general
import is, whether an oath of allegiance to the King, or a declaration that
he will not reveal the means of recognition such as the words, grips, and
tokens, and he is assured that there is nothing therein contained which will
conflict with his duty to God, his country, his neighbour or himself.
The fourth objection is that
"Masonic oaths are accompanied by certain ceremonies;" presumably the
placing of one's hand on the Holy Bible and kissing it three times.
We all know that all oaths in
all countries are accompanied by peculiar rites, obviously to increase the
solemnity of the occasion. An ancient Hebrew placed his hand on the thigh of
the person to whom the promise was given. Abraham said to King of Sodom - "I
have lifted up my hand unto the Lord, that I will not take anything that is
The Greeks placed their hands
on the horns of the altar or touched the sacrificial fire, or extended the
right hand to heaven and swore by the earth, the sea and the stars. The
Romans laid their hands on the hand of him to whom a promise was given. In
solemn covenants, oaths were accompanied by sacrifice and a portion of the
hair of the victim's head was given to all witnesses. The ancient Germans
solemnized the occasion by placing their hands on holy relics. A soldier
placed his hand on his country's standard. In China to break a saucer or
extinguish a light is regarded as imposing greater solemnity. The Jewish
oath in court today is given with the hat on, followed by kissing the Old
Testament. In English Courts, we have, since A.D. 528, held up the hand or
kissed the Bible or placed the right hand on the Bible. The ancient Church
approved of this ceremony as far back as the Council of Nice 321 A.D.
The last objection, namely
that "the penalties are absurd and ridiculous" is perhaps the most difficult
to answer. The criticism is made that not only are these penalties
ridiculous and absurd but they are terrorizing and shocking. They are
however, not to be taken literally, although Kipling records an instance
where a Lascar crew carried out the penalty of the M.M. degree on one of
their number who violated it! Some Freemasons who are timid and uninstructed
may be disposed to accept this criticism.
Freemasonry is described as
"the gentle Craft." Its teachings are brotherly love, relief, truth, Love of
God, charity, immortality, sympathy and mutual help. Its penalties would
naturally shock their timid minds. They come with some surprise and
consternation, and there has been some agitation to simplify and modernize
there obligations and their penalties.
It must be admitted that they
are archaic and obsolete and altogether unintelligible to modern minds and
so much misunderstood. It is contended that Lodges are schools in which men
may learn the way of right living and high thinking; that Freemasonry
exemplifies the spirit of humanitarianism, kindliness and charity and that
vengeance and retaliation have no place in Freemasonry. It is argued that
simpler penalties would be more sensible and more solemn and binding.
The fact is that these
penalties were in everyday life in the 17th and 18th centuries; the 1600's
The English Court of
Admiralty had jurisdiction from High water mark over the seven seas, and
that above high water mark other Courts exercised their jurisdiction. The
code of Henry VI, therefore, directed that the punishments of Admiralty
should be inflicted at low water mark. They were terrible and barbarous; the
prisoners hands and feet were tied; his throat cut; his tongue pulled out
and his body thrown into the sea or buried at low water mark.
The Laws of the Friesians or
Low Germans directed that for robbing a pagan temple, the criminal should be
dragged to the sea shore and buried in the sands at low water mark.
By the Scandinavian code a
creditor might subject his delinquent debtor to the penalty of having flesh
torn from his breast and fed to the birds of prey; and convicts were
adjudged to have their heart cut out, and you have the same penalty referred
to in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" for failure to pay a debt. The
oldest codes prescribed exposure of the body of a criminal to the fowls of
the air; or that it should be burnt to ashes and the ashes scattered to the
four winds of Heaven.
In the Roman code perjury was
punished by the tongue being torn out by the roots. In some codes a halter
or cord about the neck was used symbolically to denote that the accused was
worthy of decapitation or hanging or servitude or slavery. In England, until
recent centuries punishments were horrible and inhuman. As late as the 17th
century the punishments for treason and all crimes were absurd and severe.
Until 1827, the penalty for theft in England and all Canadian colonies was
hanging and there are numerous instances of this penalty for very petty
thefts within the past one hundred and fifty years. Fortunately humanity has
modified our penal methods; the punishment now fits the crime and fits as
well the criminal.
Now Freemasonry adopted the
present obsecrations and penalties at a time when they were familiar to
everyone and regarded as proper and reasonable. No Freemason in his sane
senses entertains the view that he may or is bound to take the law into his
own hands and punish a brother Mason for violation of oath in the manner of
the penalty of his obligation. We are all bound to observe the present laws
of society, not those which have been repealed. The only Masonic penalty is
suspension or expulsion; the scorn and detestation of the Craft.
An obsecration was, and is,
part of all ancient and modern oaths. The Romans said; "May the gods destroy
me!" or "May I die", for the offence of false swearing was not against man
but against the gods, and false swearing was to be punished by the gods and
not by man. "May the gods destroy me" means "I am so convinced of the truth
of what I say that I am willing to be destroyed by the gods if what I say is
untrue." There was no notion or agreement to submit to death at the hands of
his fellows. When a Mason adds a penalty to his obligations he declares that
he is worthy of such a penalty, if he speaks untruly, or that such a
punishment would be just and proper. "May I die if this be not true, or if I
keep not my vow" said the ancient. Not "may any man put me to death"!
In Masonic penalties there is
an invocation of God's vengeance should the maker of the obligation violate
it; and not a submission to human punishment. Man's vengeance is confined to
contempt and infamy which the perjury incurs.
The use of a "sharp
instrument" in our ceremonies is an intimation that a punishment awaits all
who violate their obligations, a reminder that the violation of any duty
brings its own penalty; the way of the transgressor is hard; "The wages of
sin is death." Masonic penalties are symbolical as are all parts of Masonic
Again obligations with
archaic phrases and penalties link us up with the long past. This modern age
is too hasty and too often irreverent of the past and of historical
continuity. The Church does not discard ancient practices merely because
they are old. The glory of the Church is its many links with the past; they
are evidence of continuity and authenticity.
Again, and most important,
these penalties are part of a universal system of penalties in Freemasonry
and the basis of unchangeable means of recognition everywhere throughout the
Our obligations bind every
member to the society and its aims and objects, make him feel his
brotherhood with other members of the lodge and the Freemasonry throughout
the world and with all who have taken the same obligations. Again our
obligations require all brethren to adopt a certain course of action towards
others who are brethren; our obedience to a summons; our duty to help aid
and assist others; to refrain from injuring others; to refrain from Masonic
intercourse with outsiders, and with irregular Freemasons and to
discountenance all irregularities and immoralities.
The ideal Mason is one whose
word is his bond; who can be depended upon to do what he undertakes to do;
to be what he ought to be; who recognizes his obligations, not only to his
fellows in Freemasonry, but to his brother man as well. To take a Masonic
obligation is to declare allegiance to all Masonic principles, so that he
may be accepted as a responsible member of the family of Masons. I accept
you, you accept me, because we have knelt at the same altar, taken the same
obligations, and are bound to the same service. Let the world rave and
criticize as it will; it can never tear down the structure we have built
which we call Brotherhood.
Designs Upon the Trestle Board
A Publication of lectures and talks
compiled by the Kings Count District (Nova Scotia)
Masonic Education Committee, 1984