Obligation in Freemasonry


Obligations in Freemasonry
J. MORTON HEAPS, MRS (Canada)



The current trend in many jurisdictions to examine and revise the penalties in 
the obligations in the three degrees is continuing. Perhaps a review of what the 
complete obligations are, what  hey mean, and their purpose in our ritual will 
be of interest at this time.

The word "obligation" comes from the same root as the word "ligament," and means 
a cord, or tendon, or tie, by which one thing is bound to another. An obligation 
is therefore a solemn pledge whereby a man binds himself to a society, on his 
honor, and assumes the responsibilities, and duties imposed by it. Such an 
obligation may have no legal standing in the court of the land, but it is 
morally binding, and man cannot disregard it, without imperiling his personal 
honor. An obligation, such as taken by a Masonic Candidate, has no time limit 
upon it, and it is therefore always binding on him who takes it. The old adage 
"Once a Mason, always a Mason," is quite true, and whether or not he is an 
active Lodge member, he can never violate it without proving himself 
dishonorable. This applies also to those who have been suspended, or expelled, 
from the Fraternity, they are still bound by their obligation. A Candidate in 
the first degree becomes a Mason when he takes his obligation. Before that time 
he may withdraw without penalty, but afterwards he is always bound by his 
obligation. Similarly, in the second degree the Candidate becomes a Fellowship 
when he takes his obligation, and becomes a Master Mason when he has taken his 
Master Mason obligation.

Obligations can be divided into clauses of which there are two types. The 
clauses which are sometimes called points, can be affirmative or negative. As 
might be expected the affirmative points consist of those clauses which require 
certain acts to be done, and the negative points those clauses which forbid 
other certain acts to be done.  The positive and negative sides are tied 
together by the general clause requiring that the whole obligation be kept in 
strict secrecy.

At this point some of the reasons for the regulations governing the selection of 
Candidates become clear. A Candidate must take his obligation of his own free 
will and accord, and be a free man in every sense of the word, or else it cannot 
be binding on him.  Similarly, he must be of sound mind, not in his dotage or 
extreme old age, but of mature age so that he can properly and fully understand 
the implications which it contains. At every step, he is checked to see he is 
fully aware of the responsibilities which he is assuming. At no time in the 
future can he claim ignorance or attempt to evade the consequences. To the very 
end he will be held responsible for every promise he makes and for every pledge 
he gives.

Among the laws of Freemasonry are those which govern an individual's conduct in 
the Lodge and in his public and private life. These are known as the 
"Disciplinary Law of the Craft:' It is for transgressions against this code that 
most Masonic Trials are held. It is important to remember that the obligations 
are the foundations of this Disciplinary Law. Although the obligations are part 
of our symbolic ritual, you should not feel. that the obligations are merely 
symbolic and are a kind of formality or ceremony. The truth is that the 
obligations are in force in the same manner as all other disciplinary law, and 
that they are themselves law in its most definite and specific form. 

The obligations of Freemasonry are very old and traces of them can be found in 
the "Old Charges:' In interpreting them, it must be realized that they are 
written in language and words of which the meaning has changed over the years. 
There has been much controversy lately about the penalty clauses and their 
wording. Any evaluation of them must be in light of their original context way 
back in medieval times, in the days of the operative mason. In those days, there 
were only two classes of crime, heresy and treason. Heresy included all 
violations of the current religious principles, morals, and ideals of the 
church. Treason included all crimes against the political and legal authority of 
the state. The traditional penalty for heresy was burning at the stake, or some 
variation of it, for treason the penalty was hanging in some form. These two 
types of punishment were so familiar and common that they became synonymous with 
the crimes.

Like the obligations the penalties were handed down to us from the medieval 
times By modern standards they are very gruesome and horrible, but when they 
were lated penalties were severe and were intended to deter men from incurring 
them. It is interesting to note that the penalties in all three degrees, except 
for the second penalty in the first degree, are very similar. Some part of the 
body is removed and destroyed, and the remains are disposed of in unhallowed 
ground. People in those days thought it was imperative that they appear before 
the Throne of God, on the Day of Judgement, with a complete and perfect body. 
Anyone with a part of his body missing had little chance of a favorable 
judgment. Those who had not been buried in Holy Ground were cast into eternal 
darkness. These penaltieswere then very severe ones to the people concerned. 
However, they seem to have worked and been effective as there is no record of 
any of them ever having been enforced and carried out, so perhaps they served 
their purpose.

Like everything else in Freemasonry the penalties in all three degrees have a 
symbolic meaning. In the first degree the part of die body to be removed is the 
tongue. The Entered Apprentice has been specifically told in the obligation to 
say nothing of what he sees or hears, therefore, the removal of the tongue is 
symbolic of the violation of that injunction. The Fellowcraft penalty is the 
removal and destruction of the heart which is the generating force enabling the 
candidate through his brain to undertstand and acquire wisdom and knowledge. The 
removal of the heart is symbolic of the Candidate losing all ability to 
understand the meaning and significance of anything that has taken place. In the 
third degree the penalty is the removal of the bowels which, since olden times, 
meant the central part of the body including the stomach. This represents the 
area where food of the body was gathered and digested to give the body necessary 
elements to enable it to function effectively. Symbolically, how could one be a 
Master Mason if one was denied the means of assimilating and digesting the 
mental and spiritual food needed to serve as a qualified, understanding master 
of his trade.

The penalty in each degree would result in death. The Brother would cease to 
exist as a functioning Mason. The offending portion of the body is specifically 
mentioned as being removed as the offending cause, and each is relative to the 
degree, speech in the first, reasoning and understanding in the second, and the 
ability to function as a skilled Craftsman through knowledge gained in the 
third.

However, the only penalties that are ever carried out, or ever have been, are 
those of Reprimand, which may be private or open; Suspension from all the rights 
of Masonry for a definite period or indefinite period; and Expulsion. I repeat, 
there is no record that any other punishment has ever been used by Freemasonry, 
on anyone found violating any written, or unwritten law, or of flouting the 
authority of its officers, than that of reprimand, suspension or expulsion

Masonry is often accused of practicing impious horrid ceremonies, that all its 
members are willing or unwilling, executioners of those who betray their vows 
and violate the laws which they are strictly bound to observe. Some timid and 
uniformed Masons may even have believed this. This misapprehension arises in the 
minds of those who are led astray as to the true character and design of vows, 
or oaths, which are accompanied by an imprecation. It may relieve their minds 
and consciences, to realize that no matter how solemn may be the promises of 
secrecy, obedience and charity, which are required of all initiates, there has 
never been any thought of imposing upon a Brother the painful and illegal task 
consequence of an outrage committed by the violator. The only penalty inflicted 
by their Order is scorn and detestation the Brethren whom he has sought to 
betray.

As the obligations have a literal meaning they are the foundation of our 
disciplinary law, and they signify the nature and place of obligations in all 
human life. All through our lifetime we assume obligations of all kinds, to our 
families, our country, to employers or employees, to friends and fellow 
citizens, and to God. Any tie, contract, pledge, or promise, vow or duty, can be 
an obligation which we may voluntarily or involuntarily assume. Those to our 
Brotherhood we have assumed of our own free will and accord, let us honor them 
all our days so that we may demonstrate our fidelity and honor to all men.