The Meaning of Masonic Obligations


                                                  ARTICLE NO. 35


                    THE MEANING OF MASONIC OBLIGATIONS


          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 an 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 free man 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.

                                                       ...2
                                  -  2  -


          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 and 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 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 lie.  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.

          
                                                       ...3

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          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 or 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
it general import is, whether an oath or allegiance to the King, or
a declaration that he will not reveal the manes 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 thine."  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 


                                                       ...4

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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 these 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 mor
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 and 1700'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
prisoner's 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 Frisians 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.


                                                       ...5

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          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 wiling 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 ceremonies.

                                                       ...6
                                  -  6  -




          Again obligations with archaic phrases and penalties ink
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 Masonic
world.

          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 of 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 inuring 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 criticise as it will; it can never
tear down the structure we have built which we call Brotherhood.


                                     


THIS PAPER WAS PREPARED BY M.W. BROTHER R.V. HARRIS, PGM, PGS OF
THE GRAND LODGE OF NOVA SCOTIA.  IT WAS DONATED TO THE BOARD OF
MASONIC EDUCATION BY R.W. BROTHER G. VICKERS, PGS OF THE GRAND
LODGE OF NOVA SCOTIA IN JULY 1990.