As we’ve looked at the obligation and it’s construction in connection to obligations that were common to our founding brothers, we’ve found that there is generally a preamble where the obligant admits that he is not being coerced, that it is being witnessed by some authority or group and invokes Deity. The end of obligation then contains a further admission that there is no mental, philosophical or theosophical trickery being employed to abrogate the obligation, followed by a much more serious appeal to Deity to assist the obligant in fulfilling the obligation.
So now it’s time to turn our attention to the core of the obligation. The specific things that your obligation is binding you to do and are worth risking the penalties both secular and spiritual.
At this point, I had originally thought to take each of the “I further more promise and swear” statements and examine it’s meaning and how it would still apply over 300 years later to modern day Masons. But as I was reviewing these clauses and comparing them to other secular and religious obligations, I was struck by a difference that is so important it literally defines Masonry and why it has had such a powerful effect on man and society, and why our obligations have often been the source of much disapproval by outside groups.
First let’s look at the obligations in common use during the 1700’s that our Brothers would have to have taken and therefore would have been very familiar with when creating the obligation for Masonry
As the various families battled for the crown and the Catholic and Protestant faiths became embroiled in a battle to be the state religion, it became common for someone living in England and Scotland to have to take various oaths of allegiance to the King and abjure the Catholic church in part or in whole. Obligations became a tool for the crown to control the church and it’s subjects simultaneously.
Here are four very common obligations that span the formative years of Masonry:
To James I (1603- 1625 / Also James IV of Scotland
King James I
I, A.B. do truly and sincerely acknowledge, profess, testify, and declare in my conscience before God and the world, that our Sovereign Lord King James, is lawful and rightful King of this realm, and of all other in his Majesties Dominions and Countries; And that the Pope neither of himself, nor by any authorities of the Church or See of Rome, or by any means with any other hath any power or authority to depose the King, or to dispose any of his Majesty’s kingdoms, or dominions, or to authorize any foreign prince to invade or annoy him, or his countries, or to discharge any of his Subjects of their allegiance and obedience to his Majesty, or to give any license or leave to any of them to bear arms, raise tumult, or to offer any violence, or hurt to his Majesty’s royal person, state, or government, or to any of his Majesty’s subjects within his Majesty’s dominions. Also, I do swear from my heart that, notwithstanding any declaration or sentence of excommunication or deposition made or granted, or to be made or granted by the Pope or his successors, or by any authority derived, or pretended to be derived from him, or his See against the King, his heirs or successors, or any absolution of the said subjects from their obedience: I will bear faith and true allegiance to his Majesty, his heirs and successors, and him or them will defend to the uttermost of my power, against all conspiracies and attempts whatsoever, which shall be made against his or their persons, their crown and dignity, by reason or color of any such sentence or declaration or otherwise, and will doe my best endeavor to disclose and make known unto his Majesty, his heirs and successors, all treasons and traitorous conspiracies, which I shall know or hear of to be against him or any of them. And I do further swear, that I do from my heart abhor, detest and abjure, as impious and heretical, this damnable doctrine and position, that princes which be excommunicated or deprived by the Pope, may be deposed or murdered by their subjects, or any whatsoever. And I do believe and in conscience am resolved, that neither the Pope nor any person whatsoever, hath power to absolve me of this oath, or any part thereof, which I acknowledge by good and full authority to bee lawfully ministered unto me, and do renounce all pardons and dispensations to the contrary: And all these things I do plainly and sincerely acknowledge and swear, according to these express words by me spoken, and according to the plain and common sense and understanding of the same words, without any Equivocation, or mental evasion, or secret reservation whatsoever: And I doe make this recognition and acknowledgement heartily, willingly, and truly, upon the true faith of a Christian: So help me God.
To Charles I (1625 – 1649 / Son of James 1 / Executed by Cromwell
King Charles I
I A. B. doe truely and sincercly acknowledge, professe, testifie and declare in my conscience before God and the world, That our Soveraigne Lord King CHARLES, is lawfull King of this Realme, and of all other His Majesties Dominions and Countreyes: And that the Pope neither of himselfe, nor by any Authority of the Church or See of Rome, or by an other meanes with any other, hath any power or Authority to depose the king, or to dispose of any of his Majesties Kingdomes or Dominions, or to Authorize any Forraigne Prince, to invade or annoy Him or His Countreyes, or to discharge any of his Subjects of their Allegiance and Obedience to His Majestie, or to give Licence or leave to any of them to beare Armes, raise Tumults, or to offer any violence or hurt to His Majesties Royall person, State or Government, or to any of His Majesties Subjects within His Majesties Dominions. Also I doe sweare from my heart, that, notwithstanding any Declaration or Sentence of Excommunication or Deprivation made or granted, or to be made or granted, by the Pope or his Successors, or by any Authority derived, or pretended to be derived from him or his Sea, against the said King, His Heires or Successors, or any Absolution of the said Subjects from their Obedience; I will bear faith and true allegiance to His Majestie, His Heires and Successors, and Him and Them will defend to the uttermost of my power, against all Conspiracies and Attempts whatoever, which shall be made against His or their Persons, their Crowne and Dignitie, by reason or colour of any such Sentence, or Declaration or otherwise, and will doe my best endevour to disclose and make known unto his Majesty, His Heires and Successors, all Treasons and Traitorous Conspiracies which I shall know or heare of to be against Him, or any of them. And l do further sweare, That I do from my heart abhor, detest and abjure as impious and Hereticall this damnable Doctrine and Position, That Princes which be Excommunicated or deprived by the Pope, may be Deposed or Murthered by their Subjects, or any other whatsoever. And I doe beleeve, and in conscience am resolved, that neither the Pope, nor any person whatsoever hath power to absolve me of this Oath, or any part thereof; which I acknowledge by good and full Authority to bee lawfully ministered unto me, and do renounce all Pardons and Dispensations to the contrary. And all these things I doe plainely and sincerely acknowledge and sweare, according to these expresse words by me spoken, and according to the plaine and common sence and understanding of the same words, without any Equivocation, or mentall evasion or secret reservasion whatsoever. And I doe make this Recognition and acknowledgement heartily, willingly, and truely, upon the true Faith of a Christian. So help me GOD.
Oath of Abjuration / Test Act (1660 into the 1700’s)
Near the start of the English Civil War, on 18 August 1643 Parliament passed “An Ordinance for Explanation of a former Ordinance for Sequestration of Delinquents Estates with some Enlargements.” The enlargements included an oath which became known as the “Oath of Abjuration”:
I ..; Do abjure and renounce the Pope’s Supremacy and Authority over the Catholic Church in General, and over my self in Particular; And I do believe that there is not any Transubstantiation in the Sacrament of the Lords Supper, or in the Elements of Bread and Wine after Consecration thereof, by any Person whatsoever; And I do also believe, that there is not any Purgatory, Or that the consecrated Host, Crucifixes, or Images, ought to be worshipped, or that any worship is due unto any of them; And I also believe that Salvation cannot be Merited by Works, and all Doctrines in affirmation of the said Points; I do abjure and renounce, without any Equivocation, Mental Reservation, or secret Evasion whatsoever, taking the words by me spoken, according to the common and usual meaning of them. So help me God.
To George IV (1820 – 1830)
King George IV
I A.B.do sincerely promise and swear, That I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fourth, and will defend him to the utmost of my Power against all Conspiracies and Attempts whatever, which shall be made against his Person, Crown or Dignity; and I will do my utmost Endeavour to disclose and make known to His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, all Treasons and traitorous Conspiracies which may be formed against Him or Them: And I do faithfully promise to maintain, support, and defend, to the utmost of my Power, the Succession of the Crown which Succession, by an Act, intituled An Act for the further Limitation of the Crown, and better securing the Rights and Liberties of the Subject, is and stands limited to the Princess Sophia, Electress of Hanover, and the Heirs of her Body, being Protestants; hereby utterly renouncing and abjuring any Obedience or Allegiance unto any other Person claiming or pretending a Right to the Crown of this Realm: And I do further declare, That it is not an Article of my Faith, and that I do renounce, reject, and abjure the Opinion, that Princes excommunicated or deprived by the Pope, or any other Authority of the See of Rome, may be deposed or murdered by their Subjects, or by any Person whatsoever: And I do declare, That I do not believe that the Pope of Rome, or any other Foreign Prince, Prelate, Person, State, or Potentate, hath or ought to have any Temporal or Civil Jurisdiction, Power, Superiority, or Pre-eminence, directly or indirectly, within this Realm. I do swear, That I will defend to the utmost of my Power the Settlement of Property within this Realm, as established by the Laws: And I do hereby disclaim, disavow, and solemnly abjure any Intention to subvert the present Church Establishment, as settled by Law within this Realm: And I do solemnly swear, That I never will exercise any Privilege to which I am or may become entitled, to disturb or weaken the Protestant Religion or Protestant Government in the United Kingdom: And I do solemnly, in the presence of God, profess, testify, and declare That I do make this Declaration, and every Part thereof, in the plain and ordinary Sense of the Words of this Oath, without any Evasion, Equivocation, or mental Reservation whatsoever. So help me God.
Do you notice anything similar in each of these obligations? They are constructed to subsume the individual to the needs of whomever or whatever group is demanding the obligation! There is no wiggle room, no shades of gray, no situational ethics. They all very clearly demand absolute obedience to the obligation and therefore the person requiring the obligation. It does not say you will always support the King unless his policies are not productive for the people he rules then you reserve the right to effect changes. It says I will support the King and do nothing against him…period, full stop, black and white.
This is typical of all of the obligations I could find from this time and nearly all of them since. The key is always for the obligant of the obligation to give up their right to think for themselves and have independent actions.
Now let’s look at the Master Mason’s obligation. The 10 “I further mores” plus the preamble, state a desired condition or state of some interaction with the world or your own conscience and also end with instructions that require that you think about the situation, gather data and make the best decision based on YOUR knowledge, abilities, experience and situation; to be active in and a part of the decision. In other words, free will, free thought and no blind obedience!
I used to think of these as “escape clauses” but now see that that was a very immature way of looking at them. They are, in my opinion, valuable lessons and the unique things that set us apart from religions, cults or oppressive regimes or political systems.
Let look at each clause and see how this works:
- Secrets of Master Mason: Very clearly explains to whom they can be revealed but puts the onus for making sure those people are qualified to receive them on the obligant.
- Stand to and abide by: Binds you to the rule of the organization and it’s leader but only insofar as you are aware of the what the rules are. Ignorance can be a defense in this case.
- Answer and obey: Binds you to your Brothers and the Organization for taking action but also allows you to make the decision to do or not if doing so causes you harm.
- Help, Aid and Assist: This is a very laudable duty to take care of others but you are not to force yourself on them and you decide if they are worthy of your help.
- Keep the secrets of: Again we are back to secrets and again for two very specific cases, you need to make your own choice.
- Not be Present at: Here we delineate quite clearly several classes of people who cannot become Masons under any circumstance. However, this rule allows for the fact that you might not realize that the candidate you propose is in one of these categories. Allows for humanity.
- Not visit a: This clause instructs us about the company we keep but like the last one allows for the fact that you might not know you are in bad company at the time. Again, think!
- Cheat, Wrong or Defraud: How we treat each other on a personal basis is important and the standard is set in this clause again with the caveat that you must have knowledge that you are dealing with a Brother.
- Not have illicit: This clause creates a protected class of people and implies that if you know them to be such, there is a certain standard of protection expected. It also calls upon you to not allow harm of a specific type to happen to them IF you can do something about it. This demands that you make a decision, i.e. think for yourself.
- Masonic Word: Only one without an exception? Again, if they can’t come up with the proper position to receive it, then you don’t give it. No just taking their word that they are a Mason.
- Grand Hailing Sign: How far should I go to save a Brother from harm of any kind? When do I use it? It’s a decision that is left up to you to make within a framework of certain dangers. No individual of the organization is a more important life then your own. Not King, not Dictator…no one!
This is why the Masonic obligations were so radical for their time and still are to a great extent. The obligations forced upon the masses by Church and State all reduce man to an unthinking, blindly obeying cog in a greater machine. You are not to think for yourself, just do what the “Authority” tells you without question.
Living in a society of such unparalled freedom of thought, expression and self-awareness, it is nearly impossible for us to imagine how mind boggling the Masonic obligation was and how threatened the established power structures would have been; and still are. For example, while we take for granted that the government governs by the consent of the people, it was certainly not the case for most of history. This need to control thought and action so minutely has been the downfall of Religions and political systems throughout history and because of this, change has often come about through very violent and disruptive means.
Yet the designers of Masonry realized that true power, true knowledge can only be gained through each person making their own decisions within a framework of accepted standards. So they gave us a framework that shows us the perfect example but at the same time allows us to be human (self directed and make mistakes) and takes into account that we have to work hard to learn how to master this great power. And once learned, these lessons can be applied to all of your interactions with the world, leading eventually to a more ordered and peaceful society.
Having the kind of power to make the kinds of decisions that we are obligated to make is a difficult task and a tremendous responsibility. That may be why we say that Masonry is a progressive science and that it takes a lifetime to understand. It may be why the obligations go from the very simple to the quite complex and were meant to be learned over a long period of time, and that the study of the 7 liberal arts figures so prominently in our ritual. The obligant needed the time and experience to build up their abilities and knowledge to be able to fulfill the obligations.
This feature / construction of the obligation should also give us pause to consider more carefully the kind of men we bring into the Craft. Those candidates that we propose must have the ability, the temperament and spiritual and mental maturity to take on or learn to take on weighty responsibilities such as making life and death decisions.
Once again, we see how serious an undertaking it really is for a man to take the Masonic obligations. If he understands their true purpose and strives to uphold/complete the obligation, he will by natural consequence, have to live life carefully, thoughtfully but also with a freedom that is beyond the common man.
- Do you agree or disagree that the obligations are stated such that we have to make value or situational judgments?
- Do you think this is part of the “training” or education that Masonry professes to offer?
- If you agree, how will you change your behavior knowing that these things in the obligation are not just symbolic but are real situation that you may have to face someday?
- Is there ever a time when blind obedience is the right strategy as a person or as a Mason?
- Do you think all 11 are freethinking?