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 been 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 obligation of all Masonic bodies.... It is becoming increasingly apparent that thinking candidates are having trouble giving honest assent to the current Penalties contained in the obligations. Oaths required deal with "ancient" penalties which are obsolete, unbelievable, unacceptable and simply not relevant to today's society. Further, it rings very hollow to attempt to explain away a penalty as being 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 being symbolic in nature.... It is exceedingly difficult to make the case to an intelligent young man as a candidate that solemn observance 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 noted British Masonic scholar, the late Harry Carr. Carr suggests that "to argue that the penalties are only symbolical is sheer nonsense." He asks how can you take a symbolic 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 schoolboy 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 obligation 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 cannibalism? 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 obligations. 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 symbolic 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. (8)


  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 Petersburg 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
  13. 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
  18. England, Newspaper article, 1987
  19. Letters, Philalethes Magazine, June 1987, p. 20, 21
  20. New York, The Empire State Mason, Spring 1987, p. 7
  21. Delaware, Grand Lodge Proceedings, 1950, p. 27
  22. Delaware, Grand Lodge Proceedings, 1951, p. 61
  23. Delaware, Grand Lodge Proceedings, 1987, p. 17
  24. Nevada, Grand Lodge Proceedings, 1986, quoted in Indiana Freemason, Sept. 1987, p. 118
  25. Aldridge, K.W. "Ancient Symbolic Penalties," M.S.A. Short Talk Bulletin, August 1988
  26. M.S.A. Questionnaire, March 1990
  27. Robinson, John T., Born in Blood (1989)
  28. Scottish Rite Proceedings, 1988, p. 239 (N.M.J.)