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WHAT MAKES YOU A MASON
-by- Wallace M. Gage
Grand Historian, Grand Lodge of Maine
Every Mason has heard that question - "What makes you
a Mason" - and had to answer it. It is, of course a part of
the catechism he has to learn, in some jurisdictions, for the
Entered Apprentice degree and others for the Master
The answer of course, is "My Obligation!"
This being the case, the Obligation is the thing that
separates the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff,
and the Mason from the non-Mason. This being the case,
the Obligation has to be the most important part of the
conferral of the degrees, but unfortunately once it has been
given, all too often no more attention is given to it.
The purpose of this paper is to look at this Obligation of
ours that makes us Masons, and see where it came from,
trace its development, discover its meaning and its
application in present day society.
Some of our jurisdictions refer to our subject as an
"Obligation" while others call it an "Oath." Some use the
expression "Oath or Obligation." Is it one or the other, or
neither or both?
The Dictionary defines an "Oath" as a " solemn
affirmation or declaration made with an appeal to God...."
An "Obligation" is "a duty imposed, something one is bound
to do as a result of a contract, moral responsibility, promise,
All rituals use the expression "promise and swear." A
promise means to "engage in a pledge." To swear means to
"declare solemnly in the name of God."
Using these guidelines, we have to conclude that we have
an "Obligation" up to the point where "So help me, God" is
Properly, therefore, our "Obligation" is really an "Oath."
Many of the critics of Masonry base their objections on
the "horrible oaths" they claim we require. A secondary
meaning of the word "oath" is "the irreverent or profane use
of the name of
God, a swear word, a curse." Therefore the word has
something of a negative inference, and Freemasonry has
generally chosen to refer to its vows as "Obligation," whether
correctly or not.
The root of the word "Obligation" is the same as that of
our word "ligament," meaning a cord or tendon by which
one thing is tied to another. Our Obligation is therefore a
pledge which ties a Mason to the Craft and ties himself to
the duties and responsibilities imposed by it.
Before looking into the background of the "Obligation,"
we have to touch briefly on various theories as to the origins
of the Craft.
The idea of descent of present day Freemasonry from
the operative builders of King Solomon's Temple, on which
our ritual is largely based, has long been discarded as pure
legend. The theory of evolutionary descent from the
operative stonemasons and cathedral builders of the middle
ages is the one generally accepted today, but it remains
largely unproven except in Scotland where there is evidence
to support it.
In recent years, other hypotheses have been advanced by
some Masonic scholars. One of these is that operative
masonry in England had little or no connection with the
speculative, and that the latter appeared as an entirely new
organization in the 17th century, formed by a group opposed
to the intolerance in the state politics and religion in
England, and who wanted to provide a common ground
where those of differing views might come together.
Another theory has it that our Speculative Craft is an
outgrowth of an organization created for charitable
purposes, to provide aid to sick and distressed members.
The adoption of operative builders' trappings only served as
camouflage to protect against interference by the State.
We have to emphasize that these are only theories, and
that we may never know which, if any, is the correct one.
The subject of this paper, "the Obligation," will be best
understood in relation to the operative/transition/speculative
theory, and we will therefore stick to this as the basis for
With the formation of the first Grand Lodge in London
in 1717, it became necessary to establish a constitution and
to draft regulations for the government of the Craft, taking
into account the relationships between individual Masons
and their lodges, and the newly established Grand Lodge.
Up to this time, lodges had operated under the authority
of documents various1y called "Old Charges" "Manuscript
Constitutions" or "Gothic Constitutions." (Some 113 of these
are still in existence.) These manuscripts served as a sort of
Constitution/Charter/Ritual, evidently coming from a
common original document of unknown origin, although all
differ slightly from each other.
In order to establish guidelines for operation of a
centralized Craft, in 1721 Dr. James Anderson was directed
by the Grand Master to review these available copies of the
Charges and develop a common method of operation. The
result is "The Charges of A Freemason" found in Anderson's
Constitutions of 1723, the first and without doubt the most
influential Masonic book ever published.
As to the content of these Old Charges, they all begin
with a prayer, Christian in character, followed by a legendary
history of Masonry (and some of these were pretty far out),
then charges for moral conduct and trade practices to be
followed by Masters and Apprentices, and finally the oath to
The oldest of these Old Charges is the Regius Manuscript
written about 1390. In it we find reference to an oath which
And all these points here before
To them those must need be sworn,
And all shall swear the same oath
Of the Mason, be they leif, be they loath.
The basic laws of Freemasonry are the "Ancient
Landmarks", those fundamental principles which make
Masonry what it is. They are not subject to change, but are
very difficult to codify. As Bro. Robert Freke Gould wrote
facetiously, "Nobody knows what they comprise or omit;
They are of no earthly authority, because everything is a
Landmark when an opponent desires to silence you, but
nothing is a Landmark that stands in his own way."
Back in 1858, Bro, Albert G. Mackey undertook to draw
up a list of 25 Landmarks. Some Grand Lodges have
adopted Mackey's list, others have drawn up their own, and
others have steered clear of the matter altogether. A
definition of "Landmarks" which seems to be as satisfactory
as any, states that they are "Those time honored customs of
Freemasonry which have been the fundamental law of the
Fraternity from a period so remote that their origin cannot
be traced, and so essential that they cannot be modified
without changing the character of the Fraternity.
Most of the generally accepted "Landmarks" are included
in the Old Charges, either directly or indirectly, and the
~obligations in our rituals are taken almost entirely from
them as we'll see.
Speculative Masonry came to America from England,
Ireland and Scotland by way of settlers emigrating to this
country. When a number of these transplanted Masons got
together and decided to form a lodge, they had to rely on
their memories for the ritual used in their home lodges
which they might not have visited in many years. Nothing of
a ritualistic nature was ever written down in those days. It
isn't surprising that the rituals they came up with often bore
little resemblance to any of those used in the "Old Country."
The eventual result was that each of our 51 American
Grand Lodges now has its own standard ritual, nearly all
differing from each other.
Each of these Grand Lodges had a hard time
standardizing the ritual even in their own jurisdictions. At
one time a serious effort was made to develop and adopt a
common ritual to be used throughout the United States. The
so-called "Baltimore Convention" held in 1843 for this and
other purposes eventually broke up in bickering and
disagreement, although many of its recommendations on
other matters were eventually adopted by individual Grand
Lodges. Bro. Allen Roberts is the author of an interesting
Short Talk Bulletin published by the Masonic Service
Association in October 1986, describing the work of the
We should note in passing that the obsession with letter
perfect delivery of a standard ritual is mainly found in
America. In England and Scotland there are many approved
workings, and each lodge is free to chose whichever one it
prefers to use.
For the purposes of this paper, we've chosen to use as
a base for consideration the ritual Obligation used in Maine,
a part of the "Norton" ritual adopted by the Grand Lodge in
1894. For comparison, we have taken the rituals of New
York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Scottish
"Standard" and English "Emulation" rituals. The review has
been restricted to the Master Mason's Obligation, as it is the
most important and comprehensive of the three.
This Obligation to be examined consists of ten sections -
an opening clause which we've called the "Preamble," eight
"Furthermores," of which four are positive and four negative,
and ending up with a concluding clause containing the
penalties and the oath.
Let's look at the "Preamble."
The first thing we find is the expression "free will and
accord." Just when this first came into use isn't known, but
it is obviously a product of Speculative rather than operative
masonry. In it we discover the origin of the practice followed
in varying degrees, of prohibiting solicitation of candidates.
The reference to "Almighty God" reflects the
requirement for a belief in a Supreme Being on the part of
the candidate. The Regius Manuscript of 1390 says: "That
who will know this craft and come to estate / He must love
well God and Holy Church always."
There are a good many thoughts as to the place of the
Saints John in Masonic ritual. The Saints are, of course,
Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. The
old operative gilds customarily adopted patron saints, and
Masons chose the Sts. John. This incidentally, is one of the
few Christian aspects remaining in our ritual after the
transition to a nondenominational basis was made in 1723.
The balance of the Preamble is a somewhat wordy
promise by the candidate not to reveal any of the secrets of
the degree to any one not entitled to them. Just what these
secrets are is subject to a wide variety of interpretations.
Secrecy was much overdone in earlier times. Today it's
generally considered to be the means of recognition, parts
of the ritualistic work, and matters that are just no one's
business but our own.
It seems to be human nature in our present day to
assume that anything kept secret must be sinister and that
it poses some kind of threat to those not in the know.
Because of it, Masonry has been accused of plotting world
domination, seeking to overthrow the church, of trying to
gain political or business advantages for its members and all
sorts of evil designs against the welfare of society.
In any family, business and other organization there are
private matters of no one else's concern. It's ironic that the
Roman Catholic Church, one of Masonry's severest critics,
has many secrets which are not divulged to the outside
world, including those of its many Orders and the Knights of
One of the crosses we have to bear today is the term
"secret society" formerly accepted as describing the Craft. In
earlier times it was a fairly innocuous expression seldom
arousing the suspicions we encounter today. Today's proper
term would be "a society with secrets" which better describes
It's interesting to recall the detailed prohibitions in the
Entered Apprentice degree - not to "write, print, paint, cut,
etc." The earliest reference to this is found in the Edinburgh
Manuscript of 1696 in which it says: "...you shall not reveal
any pairt of what you shall hear or see at this time whether
by word or write nor put it in write at any time nor draw it
with the point of a sword, or any other instrument upon the
snow or sand...."
We now come to the first of the "Furthermores" as it
appears in the Maine and Massachusetts rituals. [Portions
were not written, but were covered verbally briefly.]
The sources of Masonic laws are:
1. The Ancient Landmarks
2. The Old Charges
6. Customs and Usages
and of course, the by-laws of individual lodges which are a
part of Masonic law to its own members. These are the
"laws, rules and regulations" referred to in the Obligation.
Some other Grand Lodges have chosen to elaborate a bit
by adding references to Grand Lodge Constitutions, Laws
and Regulations, and one specifically mentions the by-laws
of any lodge of which the candidate may hereafter become
With regard to lodge by-laws, we might suggest in
passing that it wouldn't be a bad idea to remind our newly
raised Brethren to observe that part of the by-laws that
specify the dues and time of payment. This might possibly
reduce the number of suspensions for non-payment of dues.
All of the rituals consulted end with the spoiler "so far as
the same shall come to my knowledge." In our system of civil
law, ignorance of the law is no excuse for its violation. Try
explaining to the traffic officer that you didn't know the
speed limit in the location where you were pulled over and
see how far you get.
This particular escape clause certainly takes away a good
deal of the incentive for learning anything much about
Masonic law, and serves as a ready excuse for violation of
almost any of them. At his installation in office, the Master
of a lodge is presented with the Book of Constitutions and
told to "cause it to be read in your lodge that none may
pretend ignorance if its requirements." In practice, however,
this is seldom done. The result is that very few Masons know
much about Masonic law, and fewer put it into practice.
Bro. Wallace McLeod in his Prestonian Lecture for 1986,
"The Old Charges," has reconstructed and homogenized the
many existing variations of these Old Charges and arrived at
a reconstructed "Standard Original" with an assumed date
somewhere between 1470 and 1560. In it we see the origin
of this "Furthermore" appearing in our present day ritual.
With the candidate's hand on the "Book" (Bible) the charges
are then read to him: "These be the charges in general that
every Mason should hold, both Masters and Fellows..."
(Some 19 charges are then read to him, some having to
do with operative working conditions and others with morals
And after this, the Oath:
These charges that we have rehearsed, and
all other that belong to Masonry ye shall
keep, so help you God and Haledom [Holy
doom] and by this Book to your power.
The second "Furthermore" has to do with the definition
of "signs and summonses" and the meaning of "cabletow."
The trestleboard or newsletter is a good example of a
"sign" in the present day meaning of the term - a notice or
report of lodge meetings and programs sent out for the
information of its members. Presumably it also includes the
so-called Grand Hailing Sign of Distress.
On the other hand, a "summons" is of more importance
than the lodge bulletin, and is used where matters of
urgency are involved. The Grand Lodge of Maine defines a
"summons" as "An imperative injunction to appear at a
communication of the lodge or to attend the Grand Lodge
or Grand Master." It is a request for your presence issued
only on occasions of great importance.
This emphasis on attendance goes back to the Regius
Manuscript of 1390, which says:
...that every Master that is a mason
Must be the general congregation,
So that he it reasonably be told
Where that the assembly shall be held,
And to that assembly he must needs go,
Unless he have a reasonable excuse.
In present day use, the wording in the Scottish ritual is
more descriptive, reading:--
to answer and obey all lawful signs and
summonses sent to me from a MMs lodge
if within the length of my c...t... and to
plead no excuse save that of sickness or the
pressing emergency of my own public or
The word "cable" is a marine term referring to a ship's
hawser. It is also a measure of length, being 100 fathoms
(600 feet). A hawser being often used for towing, evidently
coined the phrase "Cabletow." An expos‚ published in
England in 1762 carries a footnote which says: "A cabletow
is three miles in length, so that if a Fellowcraft is that
distance from his lodge, he is not culpable on account of
non-attendance." In other Old Charges the distance is given
as 50 miles.
The present day meaning of the term is given by Coil in
his Masonic Encyclopedia: "In Masonry it is purely symbolic
and means the scope of a man's reasonable ability, as
decided by the Baltimore Convention of 1843."
And now for "Furthermore" Number three:- Help, aid
and assist are references to "Relief," one of the tenets of
Freemasonry along with Brotherly Love and Truth, which go
back to the earliest records, the Regius Manuscript, where we
find an admonition to the operative mason to help a Brother
who is doing his work improperly:-
A mason if he this craft well know
That seeth his fellow hew-on a stone
And is in point to spoil that stone
Amend it soon if that thou can
And teach him it to amend
That the lord's work be not spoiled.~ ~
In many places in the Old Charges we find references to
extending help to the needy operative Brother. In McLeod's
reconstructed Standard Original, it notes:-
...every mason shall receive and cherish
strange fellows when they come over the
country, and set them to work.;.and give
him his pay, and if he have no stone (work
for him, he shall refresh him with money to
the next lodge.
An additional reference to relief to a distressed Brother
is found in Three Distinct Knocks an expos‚ published in
1769. The obligation of a Master Mason stating:-
"I will also serve a Brother as far as lies in
my power without being detrimental to
myself and family.
What about the present day interpretation of this
section? One of the main criticisms directed at Freemasonry
is that it supposedly teaches that Masons are to favor each
other over non-Masons in business, politics and other
situations. Stephen Knight in his book The Brotherhood,
which recently stirred up some latent hostility toward
Masonry in England, makes a great to-do about favoritism
in the British police, especially Scotland Yard. He infers, as
do many of those opposed to Masonry, that whenever
management includes Masons, promotions from below are
almost invariably made because of Masonic membership
rather than by reason of ability.
It can't be denied that favoritism does occur occasionally,
but it isn't the intention that it be so. It is intended to apply
to those in distress, whether Masons or not. This is
emphasized in the Charge at the closing of a lodge (not used
often enough today), which says:- "Every human being has
a claim on your kind offices. Do good unto all...." (Taken
from Galatians 6:10)
Just a word before moving along. In earlier days, there
used to be frequent reports of "mendicants" claiming to be
Masons without funds or otherwise in distress and seeking
money. Once again in the last several months we've received
notices from our Grand Lodge warning that this is
happening again and cautioning Masons to be on guard lest
they be taken in - hence the need for "finding them worthy"
before giving aid.
Now the last of the positive "Furthermores," and one
poorly worded and often misunderstood. This brief section
does not mean what it says, nor did it ever, although similar
wording is found as far back as 1760 where it appears in
Three Distinct Knocks a British expos‚.
It has given rise to another criticism of Freemasonry, that
Masons consider themselves above the law, and are bound
to protect each other under all circumstances except in those
specified. Again, going back to the 1390 Regius Manuscript:-
He must steadfast be and true also
To all this ordinances wheresoever he go,
And to his leige lord the king,
To be true to him over all things.
The same idea is expressed in many of the Old Charges,
and as Josiah H. Drummond, a noted Masonic jurist put it:
"The laws of Masonry are subordinate to the civil law.
Whenever one's duties as a Mason conflict with his duties as
a citizen, the-latter are paramount and the former must
The Scottish "Standard" and English "Emulation" rituals
are much clearer in presenting the point when they state
"...murder, treason, felony and all other offenses contrary to
the laws of God and the ordinances of the realm being at all
times excepted..." And finally, the Old Charges emphasize
that "A Mason is to be a peaceable subject to the civil
powers wherever he resides or works, and is never to be
concerned in plots and conspiracies against the peace and
welfare of the nation..."
This fifth of the "Furthermores" is the first of the
negatives - the "Thou shalt not's:" This is one of the most
non-controversial of the candidate's obligations. It goes back
to the Regius Manuscript's admonition: "There shall no
master supplant another, and The Master Mason must be
full securely... and pay thy fellows.... And pay them truly
what they may deserve."
In another of the Old Charges we find a form of the
Golden Rule: "And also ye shall be true one to another, that
is to say, to every Master and Fellow of the Craft of
Masonry that be Masons allowed, ye shall do to them as ye
would they should do to you."
Some Grand Lodges have today expanded the wording
of their rituals to include the duty of preventing harm to
come to a Brother, if in the candidate's power to prevent it,
and to refrain from speaking evil behind his back. This is
also found in the Old Charges stated: "And also that no
fellow slander another behind his back to make him lose his
good name or his worldly goods."
While the meaning of this "Furthermore" is straight
forward and clear, the next one has a number of obscure
The sixth "Furthermore": In the operative stages of the
Craft we find a lack of references to women, although we do
hear of a few women being members of the London
Company of Freemasons as early as 1663, although this was
a guild rather than a working lodge. We also find that a
woman was apprenticed to a Master Mason from about
1713-14. In general though, this didn't present a problem in
the operative days as few had the desire or the upper body
strength to do the hard, physical labor of a stonemason.
By the time speculative masonry had taken over,
however, we find in Anderson's Constitutions one of the
Charges stating that "The persons admitted members of a
lodge must be good and true, free born, and of mature and
discreet age, no bondsmen, no women, no immoral or
scandelous men, but of good report."
The American courts have always upheld the right of
private associations to prescribe their own rules regarding
membership as a fundamental Constitutional right. In recent
years, however, they have narrowed the type of Organization
given that right. Private clubs have been allowed to set these
qualifications, but for example, the Jaycees were recently
ordered by the courts to accept women members as the
Jaycees didn't qualify as a private club. Other similar groups
have recently received the same treatment.
Masonry has been permitted to follow its traditional laws
and regulations in this regard, but there is no assurance it
won't have to defend itself in the future against attacks from
the radical wing of the women's rights movement. In
addition to membership questions, those organizations
excluding women could possibly lose tax exemptions.
Obviously should the courts ever require Freemasonry to
admit women, it would require Masons to either violate their
solemn obligations or terminate their membership, thus
bringing an end to Freemasonry.
Others disqualified are those who from age or mental
condition or lack of good morals would neither benefit from
nor contribute to the Craft, and, of course an atheist.
Seldom heard today but formerly emphasized when the craft
was in its operative phase, was the attention placed on
physical fitness and the ban on those with deformities or
The Regius Manuscript notes:
...to the Craft it were great shame
To make a halt man and a lame,
For an imperfect man of much blood
Should do the Craft but little good
A maimed man he hath no might.
Up until fairly recent times, one having lost an arm or
leg or otherwise disabled would have been barred from
membership under what was then called the "Doctrine of
the Perfect Youth." One Grand Lodge at least has even now
a ban in its Obligation on those who are "unable to earn a
livelihood or do the work of a Mason." This is now generally
interpreted to mean the work of a Speculative Mason where
the necessary qualifications are mental and moral, rather
than physical, as was the case with the operative.
Another subject not even covered specifically in the
Obligation is the matter of race. This is apparently under
control at present, and many American Grand Lodges have
declared that race is not a bar to membership. It is possible,
however, that action by individuals could cause trouble in
We understand that the Grand Master of Virginia
recently overruled a ballot involving racial discrimination.
And the Grand Lodge of New Jersey and a Shrine Temple
there are involved in counter law Suits over the refusal of
the Shrine Temple to accept black members of a New
Jersey lodge to membership or accept their petitions. The
recent recognition of Prince Hall Grand Lodge by the Grand
Lodge of Connecticut is also a case which bears watching.
The Grand Lodge of Louisiana has severed relations with
Connecticut because of it.
The next-to-last "Furthermore" is one that seems to be
bucking a head tide in our American society. To show the
antiquity of this subject, the following is quoted from the
Thou shalt not by thy Master's wife lie,
Nor by thy fellow's in no manner wise,
Lest the Craft would thee despise
Nor by thy fellow's concubine
No more thou wouldst he did by thine.
Of course this first part of this section of the Obligation
is an adaptation of one of the Ten Commandments, "Thou
shalt not commit Adultery," which is about as basic as we
can get for authority. The Old Charges generally contain a
clause on this general subject, with the wording varying
somewhat. For example: the Harleian Manuscript puts it as
You shall not take your neighbor's wife
villainously, Nor his daughter nor his maid
to use ungodly, and you shall not carnally lie
with any woman belonging to the house
wherein you are at table.
This latter evidently refers to the custom where the
apprentices often boarded at the house of their master and
lived in close proximity with his family.
The addition of "Mother" seems to have been of more
recent origin as it doesn't appear in any of the Old Charges
nor in the English or Scottish present day rituals.
Looking down the road, we expect our Obligations to be
taken seriously by the candidate, and for him to consider it
to be binding on him. Yet aside from the reference to the
first of those listed, this "Furthermore" is coming more and
more in conflict with the direction our society is traveling.
Since the advent of the "pill" and the resultant sexual
revolution, the rules of the game have changed radically.
Most of us grew up in times when the male was supposed to
be the aggressor and the female the passive party. Studies
published in recent years have indicated that this was pretty
much what society expected, but that actually the female
drive is likely to be as strong as the male's. In present day
encounters she is often the aggressor.
It's quite common today for men and women to live
together without benefit of clergy, pre-marital sex seems to
be the norm, illegitimate births to teen-age mothers are
increasing; single parent families are common, and public
figures seem to have little regard for the examples they set
for the young. These, together with television's obsession
with sexual themes, the young candidate for Masonry will
have acquired entirely different values than the older
It seems quite likely even today, that anyone trying to
exercise his "power to prevent" would be told in no
uncertain terms by both parties involved to "butt out and
mind your own business."
Freemasonry already shows the effects of these changing
values. Checking over the list of trials conducted for un-
Masonic conduct in one Grand Lodge jurisdiction there was
one expulsion in 1981 for drug trafficking. In 1982 there was
one for a sexual offense, and by 1987 there were thirteen
expulsions, nine for sexual crimes.
The situation is obviously beyond our ability to do much
about, but it's not going away soon, and we have to face up
to the Obligations we impose if they aren't going to be
The final "Furthermore" is another in which the origin is
somewhat obscure, but references to it are quite common in
the later versions of the Old Charges.
The earliest mention of the "Mason's Word" indicates a
Scottish origin, and goes back to 1638. It was obviously
connected with operative masonry. A letter written from
Scotland describes it as "A secret signal masons have
throughout the world to know one another by."
The Edinburgh House Register Manuscript of 1696 tells
how the "Word" is communicated and describes the five
points as "foot to foot, knee to knee, heart to heart, hand to
hand and ear to ear."
The Sloane Manuscript of about 1700 is an English copy
of the Old Charges has another version of the mason's oath,
giving the word which goes with the Five Points of
Fellowship. Harry Carr in his Six Hundred Years of Craft
Ritual gives it as quite similar to the one we're familiar with
It's interesting to find that in the Scottish and English
rituals reviewed the FPOF have a major part in the
Obligation. They include: "I furthermore solemnly pledge
myself to maintain and uphold the FPOF in act as well as in
word, etc, etc."
And now we come to the wrap-up, the concluding
paragraph in which the candidate binds himself to uphold
everything preceding it, under penalties which have become
a principal target of Freemasonry's critics. So much has been
said on the subject in recent years that it's not necessary to
go into any great detail here.
In the earliest of the Old Charges there were no physical
penalties for violation of the oath, but one of 1696 has a
theme of secrecy "By God Himself and you shall answer to
God when you shall stand naked before Him at the great
day, you shall not reveal any part,... and ends with "So help
The first of the physical penalties appearing in the Old
Charges will be familiar, "Under no less pain than having my
tongue cut out under my chin and of being buried within the
flood mark where no man shall know...."
The penalties and the Obligations were increased over
the years as the second and third degrees were added to the
ceremonies of the Craft, and the ritual expanded
The penalties as they exist now are actually meaningless
for all practical purposes. Bro. Henry Coil in his Masonic
Encyclopedia expresses it quite well when he writes:
The penalties enacted by any Masonic
body or authority or under Masonic law are
reprimand, suspension or expulsion. Why
then do Grand Lodges continue to use the
forms which have given the enemies of
Freemasonry such excellent grounds for
denunciation? The excuse is generally given
that the penalties have always existed and
no change can be made to them.
There appeared in the 1964 Ars Quatuor Coronatum a
paper by Bro. J.R.Rylands entitled "The Masonic Penalties,"
in which he propounded the theory that the physical
penalties were a product of Speculative Masonry, and that
they were made especially severe to protect the charity
funds. His point was that one who could prove himself a
Mason had a claim on the charity of private lodges and on
the Grand Lodge. The problem was with the large number
of impostors draining the resources of the lodges and Grand
Lodge. It's an interesting theory!
Bro. Harry Mendoza writes in the 1987 AQC a review of
the subject of penalties. In 1964, the matter was brought
before the United Grand Lodge of England, and it was
pointed out that the candidate was assured before taking the
Obligation, that there was nothing incompatible with his
civil, moral or religious duties. He is then asked to repeat an
Obligation which contains statements about physical
penalties which would seem to be incompatible with those
duties. All this while his hand is on the Volume of Sacred
Law. He has no prior knowledge of what he would be asked
to say, phrases that never have been and which never could
be enforced, and to make matters worse, he is asked to
invoke the help of God!
After much discussion, an amended section to the ritual
involving the penalties was drafted, to be used at the option
of the individual lodges.
It seems to be natural for Masons to be averse to any
change in anything, and there was widespread reluctance on
the part of many Lodges to adopt the optional clause, so in
1986 it was made mandatory. The change involved removing
the penalties from the Obligation and placing them
elsewhere in the ritual. Retention of the penalties was, of
course, necessary due to their relation to the signs. Scotland,
Ireland and the Supreme Royal Arch Chapter have made
similar moves, and a number of American Grand Lodges are
reviewing the matter and are considering removing the
penalties from the Obligation or adding explanatory wording
to indicate they are symbolic only. Maine is to vote on an
explanatory section to be given by the Junior Deacon in the
Preparation Room before the candidate is received into the
Bro. Mendoza in his article summarizes the objections
raised to any change. They are, briefly:
ANTIQUITY: The "We've always done it this way - what
was good enough for my grandfather is good enough for
CONSTITUTIONALITY: Innovations can't be made.
(See Charge to the Master at his installation.)
GENERAL: Not many find the penalties objectionable -
Once we start, there'll be no end to changes - Why should
we make changes simply because of outsiders?
As commentary, we'd like to add our own thoughts to
ANTIQUITY: We hope this paper has disproved that
"we've always done it this way." There were no penalties at
all up until fairly recently.
The changes do not do away with anything, but merely
move the penalties from the Obligation to another section
of the ritual.
CONSTITUTIONALITY: To the statement that
innovations can't be made in the ritual, changes have been
made frequently. The ritual for Maine wasn't adopted until
1894, and several changes have been made since that time.
GENERAL: To answer those who say that not many find
them objectionable, we might ask how many of the
numerous EAs who never advance may be doing so for this
Changes are considered only for good and sufficient
Changes are not considered just because someone else
does something differently, or because outsiders criticize us
for something or other.
Masonry doesn't claim to have a monopoly on wisdom.
It's possible that our critics just might have a valid point. It's
certainly worth examining. If it isn't well taken, then we
As a final thought, we should care what outsiders think
of Freemasonry! Every one of our future candidates is now
an outsider. If the Craft acquires a bad name in society,
these potential candidates will stay away in droves and it will
be only a matter of time until we go the way of the many
fraternal organizations that are now long forgotten.
So, I hope this will help a bit to add some insight into
the background, application and importance of the answer
to that question -
What Makes You a Mason? - Your Obligation, that's
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HAUNCH, T. 0.; IT IS NOT IN THE POWER OF ANY
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UYER, C.F.W.; IN SEARCH OF RITUAL UNIFORMITY,
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McLEOD, WALLACE; THE OLD CHARGES, Prestonian
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JACKSON, A.C.F.; OUR PREDECESSORS, THE
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17th CENTURY, AQC - 1976
RYLANDS, J, R.; THE MASONIC PENALTIES, AQC -
CARR, HARRY; THE OBLIGATION AND ITS PLACE
IN THE RITUAL, AQC - 1961
MENDOZA, HARRY; THE TRANSFER OF THE
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ALDRIDGE K.W.; ANCIENT SYMBOLIC PENALTIES,
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PICK AND KNIGHT; THE POCKET HISTORY OF
KNOOP AND JONES; AN INTRODUCTION TO
CLAUDY, CARL H.; INTRODUCTION TO
MacBRIDE, A.S.; SPECULATIVE FREEMASONRY
KNOOP AND JONES; A SHORT HISTORY OF
FREEMASONRY TO 1730
HIGHAM, M.B.S.; FREEMASONRY - FROM CRAFT
TO TOLERANCE, Grand Lodge of Scotland Year Book
DRAFFEN, GEORGE; THE MAKING OF A MASON
CERZA, ALPHONSE; THE COURTS AND
HAMILL, JOHN; THE CRAFT - A HISTORY OF
CARR, HARRY; THE FREEMASON AT WORK
JONES, BERNARD E.; FREEMASON'S GUIDE AND
SHEPARD, SILAS H.; THE LANDMARKS OF
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DRUMMOND, JOSIAH H.; SOURCES OF MASONIC
LAW, Maine Masonic Text Book
CARR, HARRY; THE EARLY FRENCH EXPOSURES
JACKSON, A.C.F.; EARLY ENGLISH EXBOSURES
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KNOOP, JONES AND HAMER; THE EARLY MASONIC
COIL, HENRY W.; COIL'S MASONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA
HARRIS, RAY B.; THE WILLIAM L. BOYDEN
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LOCKWOOD, LUKE A.; MASONIC LAW AND
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DUNCAN's RITUAL OF FREEMASONRY
OFFICIAL CYPHER Grand Lodge of Maine
ANCIENT CRAFT MASONRY, Grand Lodge of New
York Standard Work and Lectures
MNEMONICS, Grand Lodge of Connecticut
RITUAL CIPHER, Grand Lodge of New Jersey
THE STANDARD RITUAL OF SCOTTISH
FREEMASONRY, Grand Lodge of Scotland
OFFICIAL CIPHER, Grand Lodge of Masons in
THO. CARMICK MANUSCRIPT Masonic Service