Symbolical Masonry, by H.L. Haywood, , at sacred-texts.com
The turning point in the ceremony of each degree is the Obligation, for it is that which marks the Apprentice an Apprentice, the Fellow Craft a Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason a Master Mason; consequently the subject is worthy of careful consideration in this connection, especially as there will be no need of a repetition of the discussion in our study of the Second and Third Degrees.
Obligation, being a Latin word, literally means a "binding to"; it is more than an oath, and more than a vow, for it combines both, and it has been used, in one form or another, from antiquity. Philo described it as "the most sure symbol of good faith," and Cicero defined it as "an affirmation under the sanction of religion." Brother Twining (American Tyler-Keystone, vol. xviii, p. 423), writing in our own day, gives it a similar meaning: "An oath may be defined as an asseveration or promise made under non-human penalty or sanction." Some oaths have an imprecation attached but others do not.
The widespread use of oaths, in ancient and in modern times, has been well described by J. E. Tyler: "Through all the diversified stages of society from the lowest barbarism to the highest cultivation of civilised life—where the true religion has been professed, no less than where paganism has retained its hold, recourse has been had to oaths as affording the nearest approximation to certainty in
evidence, and the surest pledge of the performance of a promise."
In the England of Operative days, oaths were taken as a matter of course, as witness Gould's "Concise History": "From the time of Athelstan down to the Norman Conquest, and from the Conqueror to Edward I and later, the oath of allegiance was annually administered to every free man." Gould suggests that this oath of allegiance to the king may have been the original of the Masonic Obligation: "The wording of this oath, as given in a publication of 1642; 'you shall be true and faithful to our Sovereign Lord the King,' is substantially the same as that of the corresponding 'charge' or inculcation which is met with in Masonic Constitutions. The two obligations . . . virtually stand on the same level as regards antiquity, and, as survivals of still earlier forms, their close resemblance is very suggestive of their common origin." It must be remembered, however, that the guild of that day could enforce its oaths only within narrow limits; grave offences were necessarily turned over to the courts which administered the common law. At the present day oaths and obligations are in very common use, from the crowning of a king to the "swearing in" of a juror. "The world is held together by oaths and affirmations, administered by the proper authorities, to all rulers and officials of a high and low degree in State and municipalities, and in every phase of human society. Without official oaths the country would undoubtedly lapse into a state of disorder, confusion, and finally anarchy." (Trestle Board, vol. xx, p. 247.) This right Freemasonry also enjoys, and for the same reasons, as another writer has expressed it: "In Freemasonry a number of men form themselves into a society, whose main end is to improve in commendable skill and knowledge, and to promote universal beneficence and the social virtues of human
life under the solemn obligations of an oath. This liberty all human societies enjoy without impeachment or reflection."
It is difficult to believe, in the light of all this, that any sane person could attack Masonry for being an oath-bound Fraternity, especially since its oath is itself a symbol of those ties and obligations which everywhere bind men together; but such has been the case. The Roman Catholic attacks, from 1738 when Pope Clement the Twelfth issued the first papal bull against us, until the present year of grace, have all been principally aimed at our Obligation, a very inconsistent course in a society that authorises such a secret fraternity as the Jesuits. A few other churches and sects have followed suit, usually on the ground that Christ's saying that "whatsoever is more than yea or nay cometh of evil," makes oaths unchristian. Laying aside the false interpretations thus made of the Gospel text, this position is difficult to explain on the part of such organisations, for they use an obligation in the marriage ceremony of the most solemn kind, and their members often do not refuse to take oath when entering public office. The attack on Masonry made in America early last century, which used the Morgan affair as its subterfuge, and which was really a political scheme in disguise, grew savage in its condemnation of the Masonic Obligation, as is made clear by the words of one of its leaders, John Quincy Adams:
"The whole case between Masonry and Anti-Masonry, now on trial before the tribunal of public opinion, is consecrated in a single act. Let a single lodge resolve that they will cease to administer the oath, and that lodge is dissolved. Let the whole Order resolve that this oath
shall be no longer administered, the Order is dissolved; for the abolition of the oath necessarily imports the extinction of all other landmarks."
Of the penalties supposed to be attached to the Obligation, and which have especially aroused the animosity of the Anti-Masons, we have already spoken but more may be said in the present connection, with due reserves of secrecy; and I may say that I am herein much indebted to the illuminating article published in The Builder (vol. n, p. 135) by my friend and Colleague, Brother Robert I. Clegg.
Commenting on one phase of the matter he writes: "Death by slow drowning was once by legal authority [in England—H.L.H.] established as a proper punishment. . . . Consider the following: In the curious ordinances of Henry VI. for the proper conduct of the Court of Admiralty of the Humber, are enumerated various offences of a maritime connection and their due punishments. To adhere closely to the character of the Court, and to be within proper jurisdiction of the Admiralty, the punishments were generally inflicted at low-water mark." This court, he says, being composed of "Masters, merchants, and marines, with all others that do enjoy the King's stream with hook, net, or any engine" (or implement), was addressed, when assembled, as follows:
"You, Masters of the Quest, if you or any of you discover or disclose anything of the King's secret counsel or of the counsel of your fellows (for the present you are admitted to be the King's Counsellors) you are to be, and shall be, had down to the low-water mark, where must be made three times, O Yes! for the King, and then and there this punishment, by the law prescribed,
shall be inflicted upon them; that is, their hands and feet bound, their throats cut, their tongues pulled out, and their bodies thrown into the sea."
In the England of the seventeenth century the death penalty, and that in its most terrible forms, was often inflicted because of comparatively small offences such as petty theft. Oaths were so freely given and taken that every little organisation had its own, even the brotherhood of pig drivers! If certain far-off echoes of these practices seem to be heard now and then in our own form it is because the Obligation was probably cast in its present mould in the early eighteenth century. This contention that the Penalties are thus of comparatively recent origin is apparently borne out by the fact that such Obligations as are found in the Old Charges are very brief and of quite a different character. I may cite, as one specimen of these, that found in the Harleian Mss. No. 2054, of the seventeenth century:
"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 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." (Spelling modernised.)
As to the agitation for the simplification of the Obligation, the Penalties more especially, much may be said pro and con. Archaic usages and obsolete terms, often unintelligible to the modern Mason, may be often found in the Ritual. Many are contending that these should be eliminated or modernised, as witness the following from Brother MacBride: "There are many errors in our ceremonies to be corrected, and not a few rude customs should be abolished, before our lodges can become what they ought to be, schools, in which men may learn the
ways of right living and high thinking." With the spirit of this I am in sympathy, but I have often felt, while witnessing the work in lodge, that these very "errors" and archaisms are valuable in that they link us up to a long past and thus give us the feeling, so much needed in a hasty age too often irreverent of the past, of historical continuity. But, on the other hand, other considerations connect up with the Obligation, and other issues are at stake, and I have long believed that the Penalties should be changed to conform, not only with common sense and practicality, but with the modern spirit of humanitarianism, of which Masonry itself was one of the first exemplars.
After all, the one object of the Obligation, aside from its official function of legally binding men to the Craft, is to secure secrecy, is it not? And there is one little word often used by Masons which carries all this within itself. This word is often spelled as it is pronounced, "Hail," but it is properly the Anglo-Saxon word "hele" ("hell" is derived from it!) and means "to bury, or to cover up." If "I hail" it means that down in the underground of my memory, far out of reach of the profane, I hide away all the affairs of my lodge, and all the secrets of my brother.
Too much, perhaps, has already been written on the subject, but there is yet another angle of it which deserves a word. We use all our arts and influences to make the member realise his obligation to the Craft; should we not do as much to make the lodge realise its obligation to the member? A man spends a sum of money he can sometimes ill spare to join the Fraternity; he devotes much time to learning the lectures; he is admitted and
entered as a member; and very often—very often indeed—the lodge itself does not do one thing to explain to that man its symbolism or to instruct him in its history! Is this right? I do not believe it is. I believe that every lodge should do its utmost to place the right type of literature in the hands of its members; that it should conduct courses of lectures and Masonic schools; that it should encourage and support study classes whenever possible; in short, that it should as completely fulfil its duties to the candidate as it asks the candidate to do for it.