Things Aren't Always What They Seem
Harold J. Littleton, P.G.M., Delaware, member
Southern California Research Lodge

Over the last 10-12 years there has heen a growing tendency among
some Grand Lodges to consider either elimination of the penalties
from the obligation or to shift the penalties from the obligation
to the historical lectures. By March 1990 three of the 57 Grand
Lodges had removed the penalties from the obligation while four
more had moved them to a separate explanation. (27) of the Grand
Lodges surveyed, 52 of 58 have made no change except to insert
the word "symbolic." Why have these changes been made? Partially to
answer some of Freemasonry's critics, partially to modernize the
ritual and partly because many Masons don't understand the
significance of the penalties.

Two schools of thought have developed on this subject -- one
suggesting major changes and the other minor changes, if any.  A
committee report at the 1988 annual session of the Scottish Rite
Supreme Council (N.M.J.) says, "Prompt, orderly and thoughtful
reform is needed in the area of penalties sworn to in the
ohligation of all Masonic bodies.... It is becoming increasingly
apparent that thinking candidates are having trouhle giving honest
assent to the current Penalties contained in the obligations.
Oaths required deal with "ancient" penalties which are ohsolete,
unbelievable, unacceptable and simply not relevent to today's
society. Further, it rings very hollow to attempt to explain away a
penalty as heing merely symbolic in nature. Factually and usually,
the oath is taken at an altar and upon an open Bible. An oath taken
anywhere on a Bible, be it in the courtroom or in one's church, is
far from heing symholic in nature.... It is exceedingly difficult
to make the case to an intelligent young man as a candidate that
solemn ohservance and announced assent are in fact meaningless."(29)

P.G.M. Singer of New York suggests that (a) the obligation binds a
man on his word, not by some physical penalty and (b) the ancient
penalties are not so ancient, were in fact not in the earliest
Masonic Constitution, were not part of the original obligation
and are not landmarks. (21) (2) His arguments reflect the view
expressed in 1970 by the note-  British Masonic scholar, the late
Harry Carr. Carr suggests that "to argue that the penalties are
only symholical is sheer nonsense." He asks how can you take a
symholic oath "without evasion, equivocation or mental
reservation." (5)

In 1978 the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts relocated the
penalties from the obligation cipher commenting that previously "we
have been less than intellectually honest with the candidate." (3)

A quote on this subject from DARKNESS VISIBLE. by Walter Hannah,
repeated in one Catholic report and by the Grand Master of
Pennsylvania says, "Either the oaths mean what they say, or they do
not. If they mean what they say, the candidate is entering into a
pact consenting to his own murder by barbarous torture and
mutilation should he break it. If they do not mean what they say,
then he (the candidate) is swearing high-sounding schoolhoy
nonsense on the Bible, which verges on blasphemy." (5) Bear in
mind that some of these critics have not been exposed to the full
teachings of our order -- they may he taking part of the ritual out
of context. There is no shred of evidence that the physical
penalties have ever been inflicted! (4)

In 1986 England made these physical penalties optional. ( 12) At
the Grand Lodge of Vermont in 1983 and 1984 there was a lengthy
discussion on this subject. (7, 8) Among the Grand Lodges that have
removed the physical penalties are Pennsylvania (10), North Dakota
(16) Nebraska (17), New Zealand (11) and a few others.

The second school of thought suggests because these penalties are
historical, symbolical and an essential part of the ritual, they
should not be changed. When the penalties were inserted into the
ohligation in the 15th century they were similar to actual
punishments carried out by English courts. Similar oaths were
taken by mariners in the 15th century. (26) And in the recently
published book, BORN IN BLOOD, there are noted many gruesome
penalties. (28)

On the subject of penalties, Mackey says, "The adversaries of
Freemasonry have found, or rather invented, abundant reasons for
denouncing the Institution; but on nothing have they more
strenuously and fondly lingered than on the accusation that it
makes, by horrid and impious ceremonies, all its members the
willing or unwilling executioners of those who prove recreant to
their vows and violate the laws which they are stringently bound to
observe.... The only Masonic penalty inflicted hy the Order upon a
traitor, is the scorn and detestation of the Craft whom he has
sought to betray." (1)

Included in arguments to retain the ancient symholic penalties are
a couple of overlooked facts. First, the penalties are preceded by
the phrase "under no less a penalty than that..." If a Mason
violates his vow he would not receive the physical penalties, but
being expelled from the fraternity, with the knowledge that he is
despised by whose whom he called brother, is a more fearsome
punishment. (8)

The other point, loudly proclaimed by those of the Christian faith,
leads one to review the communion act -- the act of consuming the
body and blood of Christ which is the central mystery of the
Christian faith. Is this act nothing more than an inducement to
cannibilism?  No reasonable man would make this suggestion because
it is rightly seen, as a symbol of the relationship of God to Man
and Man to God. Does the Eucharist mean what it says, or does it
not? (14)

In 1950 P.G.M. J. Allen Frear in his address to the Grand Lodge
made the following observation, "One of the charms of Freemasonry
is our ritual. We are always intrigued with its quaint phraseology
which links us to the past. The heart of the ritual is the
ohligations. They are designed to strengthen our Institution by
setting forth standards of conduct and responsibility becoming a
man and Mason. They also unite us with our brethren in fellowship
and purpose. They are vital to the Craft, but I strongly feel that
the penalties of our obligations, as given in Delaware, weaken the
obligations and lessen their effectiveness. In this modern age, it
is doubtful that any candidate believes that they will be enforced
regardless of the gravity of the offense.

"Considering serious obligations with absurd penalties, reminiscent
of the pirates of old on the Spanish Main, given with equal
solemnity, casts doubts on the sincerity of the whole proceedings.

"I understand that in some jurisdictions the candidate is told that
the penalties are symbolic -- not to be taken literally -- that the
real penalty of a violated obligation is that the violator stands
debased and foresworn, a false man and Mason, in the eyes of his
fellowmen. Adding such comments will not affect the purity of our
ritual. Certainly, it would strengthen and make more impressive
our obligations and ritual as a whole." (22)

At the 1951 annual communication a special joint report of the
Committee on Work and the Jurisprudence Committee reported, "The
Committees were unanimous in their decision that no change be made
in our ritual itself." However, they recommended that a new
paragraph be inserted in the Charge at the Initiation into the
First Degree which today we all take for granted. "As you
progress in Masonry, you will find that it is a speculative art,
taught by allegory, emblems and symhols. Even the penalties of the
obligation, seemingly so severe, are not to be taken literally.
They are meant to convey to you the mental suffering that would be
your punishment if you should be base enough to violate your
vows." (23)

In 1988 Delaware added this same paragraph to the Secretary's
charge to the candidates before they enter the lodge. (24)

What do we conclude about ancient symholic penalties?
1. Grand Lodges may have wasted a lot of time discussing a subject
easily corrected by simple ritual revisions. Gordon Bennett
P.S.G.C. of Canada says, "Our principles are God given, but our
rules, customs, programs, lectures, structure and operating
procedures are man made." To that I would add that our obligations
are also man made.

2. Changes in the ritual resulting from external pressures are
inappropriate; our critics will never he satisfied. We should not
allow our critics or our enemies to rewrite our Masonic ritual.
(14) As Judge Sentelle told the Senate when debating his
appointment, to reject his vows would he saying that what he had
been doing in the past was wrong.

3. The symbolic penalties have never been inflicted; the only
penalties Masonry inflicts are expulsion, suspension, or reprimand.


1. Mackey, A.G., Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, 1927 ed.
2. Scotland, Grand Lodge Year Book, 1966
3. Massachusetts, Grand Lodge Proceedings, 1978, p. 87-88
4. Carr, Harry, "Penalties in the obligation," Aug. 29, 1978 from
   The Freemason At Work, p. 38-45 ( 1977)
5. Carr, Harry, The Permissive Changes In The Work, Aug. 28, 1979
6. Vermont, Grand Lodge Proceedings, 1983, p. 74-76
7. Vermont, Grand Lodge Proceedings, 1984, p. 68-71
8. Marsengill, Jerry, The Philalethes Magazine, August 1985, p. 7, 9
9. Southern California Research Lodge reprint St Petershurg Times,
   Aug. 10, 1985
10. Pennsylvania Grand Lodge, Freemasonry Answers Its Critics, William A.
    Carpenter, October 16, 1985
11. Hart, Ron W., Ancient Penalties, Conf. of Grand Masters 1986,
    p. 209-215
12. England, Grand Lodge Proceedings, June 11, 1986, p. 158-169
18. Walker, L.L., The Philalethes Magazine, Oct. 1986, p. 5-8,17
14. Hillard, John Mauk, The Philalethes Magazine, Oct. 1986, p. 10, 11, 17
15. Birt, Lewis J., Royal Arch Magazine, Fall 1986, p. 209-215
16. North Dakota, Grand Lodge Proceedings, 1986,  p. 7, 70
17. Nebraska, Grand Lodge Proceedings
19. England, Newspaper article, 1987
20. Letters, Philalethes Magazine, June 1987, p. 20, 21
21. New York, The Empire State Mason, Spring 1987, p. 7
E2. Delaware, Grand  Lodge Proceedings, 1950, p. 27
23. Delaware, Grand Lodge Proceedings, 1951, p. 61
24. Delaware, Grand Lodge Proceedings, 1987, p. 17
25. Nevada, Grand Lodge Proceedings, 1986, quoted in Indiana Freemason,
    Sept.  1987, p. 118
26. Aldridge, K.W. "Ancient Symbolic Penalties," M.S.A. Short Talk
    Bulletin, August 1988
27. M.S.A. Questionnaire, March 1990
28. Robinson, John T., Boorn in Blood (1989)
29. Scottish Rite Proceedings, 1988, p. 239 (N.M.J.)