Obligation 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.