The nature and necessity of oaths and oath taking is currently under general discussion in the United Kingdom, due to the social and demographic changes which have occurred in recent years, and so it is time for Freemasons to consider carefully the nature of the oaths and concomitant obligations current within their fraternities.
Freemasonry has never been immune to the forces of social and constitutional change, and has often in its global history been faced with the problem of choosing between adaptation, change, and resistance, if and when offered the choice. Sadly there are many historical examples of change being imposed upon jurisdictions where they were unable for one reason or another to articulate an appropriate response to the impetus for change.
The developing debate, within and outside Freemasonry, about the nature, viability, and the effects of oaths and oath taking requires freemasons to take account of the situation, and, along with other institutions, Freemasonry has a need to carefully consider the concepts involved and the consequences which accrue from such change. The danger is, of course, that Freemasonry could allow traditional oaths and obligations to be quietly dropped from its ceremonies, without due consideration, in order to accommodate the secularists, and that a vital element within Masonic tradition could be lost, or what might be worse, rendered empty and meaningless.
What would for many be totally unacceptable, would be the development of a situation in which ceremonies were generally entered into and empty phrases used, in a parody of sacred reverence, which would be hurtful to many of those within Masonry for whom there remains an essentially spiritual or religious dimension.
Albert C. Mackey's presumed position on the nature and status of Masonic oaths is often put forward as an authority for claiming that such oaths are far less powerful and significant than the actual words used would imply. In fact, some maintain that it is an error to even claim that oaths, in the religious or legal sense, are employed at all. However, even a cursory glance at Mackey's Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences published in 1874 will show that Mackey relies upon the view of a Doctor Harris for the manifestly incorrect opinion that:
What the ignorant call the oath, is simply an obligation, covenant, and promise exacted previously to the divulging of the specialities of the Order, and our means of recognizing each other; that they shall be kept from the knowledge of the world lest their original intent should be thwarted, and their benevolent purport prevented.
To the contrary of Doctor Harris's opinion, an oath in any conventional British sense is understood to involve the making of a formal statement or statements, or in declaring a truth of a claim or promising to fulfil a pledge, often calling upon God or a sacred object as a witness. Failure to observe such an oath would, of course, carry with it a severe penalty. It is hard to conceive of any sensible definition which relates to the Anglo-Masonic tradition in which the obligation is not entered into by way of an oath, moreover, an oath made in a religious or sacred sense.
Another point touching Masonic ceremony, but quite evaded by Mackey, is that it is general in oath taking, that something possessing a numinous quality, something involving a sacred or holy conotation is held, touched, or deliberately placed in the vicinity, at the time of the administration of the oath. It is difficult to ignore in this general approach to the administration of oaths, the current Masonic necessity for a Holy Book/Volume of the Sacred Law to be present at such administrations.
Before assessing the significance of the debate for Freemasonry, there are two other areas within British society to be considered, where the current debate about oaths and oath taking is taking place. First in respect of Britsh Citizenship, and the second regarding the relevance of the Hippocratic Oath within the British medical profession, before considering the theological and mythological background to the debate, including the concepts of equivocation and mental reservation.
One wonders at the degree of invective directed at Lord Goldsmith for his recent but merely tentative suggestion that school-leavers might be encouraged to swear an oath of allegiance to Queen and country, in the context of encouraging the notion of British Citizenship. However, it was not the anticipated broadsides from Baroness Kennedy, for whom the proposals were "puerile" and "rather silly" and John Dunford of the Association of School and College Leaders, who considered any citizenship ceremony a "half-baked idea," but the seeming absence within society generally of the recognition that there is a means of binding people together whilst promoting the general good, by means of oath and ceremony. Indeed, there seems to be to-day a disturbing lack of interest in what is involved in oath making, despite its continuing and frequent use within our society.
Of course one objection loudly voiced against oath-taking is precisely that it does have the ability to bind a defined group of people together, rendering other persons "outsiders," an objection often heard within the context of medicine and medical practice. However, the religious element within oath-taking is capable of protecting against the type of abuse usually referred to by such objectors, but continuing with the example of oath-taking within the medical profession, one needs to consider the current debate regarding the Hippocratic Oath.
The Hippocratic Oath is traditionally sworn in a university by medical students or graduates about to embark upon a medical career. Whilst there are those who maintain that the Hippocratic Oath was written by either Hippocrates or one of his students in 4 B.C., or possibly by the Pythagoreans, the earliest actual evidence for an oath administered in a university and recognizable as the Hippocratic Oath is restricted to the sixteenth century, and there seems to be no evidence for the oath being sworn regularly by such persons until as late as 1804.
Whatever the genesis of the oath, the fact remains that it promotes two essential features. First, the faith of the patient in the doctor's moral avowal, an essential aspect one would have thought in a post-Shipman society, and secondly the setting apart of the doctor in a medical brotherhood. However, in the United Kingdom the Hippocratic Oath is not sworn in all medical schools, and the oath has undergone many revisions, the most recent being that undertaken by the British Medical Association, an independent trades union. The question posed within the medical profession is whether the mere incantation of a formal oath accompanied by obligations has the power to bind the entrant to the profession, or whether the casual entry into an oath without any committment is actually nothing more than an act of cant hypocrisy. This is especially so, as the medical profession has been governed under the terms of various Medical Acts since the nineteenth century, and recent developments within the General Medical Council including the increased lay element, have certainly eroded the notion of the medical profession being independent.
It is at this point that the current debate about oaths and oath-taking bears most directly upon the Moderns form of Anglo-Masonry which continues to require a belief in a Supreme Being. Masonic obligations are found within a context which takes for granted both the existence of a Deity and an after-life. In such an environment, an oath made without refernce to deity appears to be more akin to a declaration, a statement of intent perhaps, but in any case nothing more than the proffering of an unattested form of guarantee. The Olympic Oath best represents this form, and the guarantee is clearly non-existent. The Olympic Oath was originally called for by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1906, and was first used in 1920, since when it has undergone a number of revisions. A later development has been the construction of a judges'' oath.
The current athletes' oath declares, in the absence of any attestation:
In the name of all competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams".
Without a religious context, in Masonic terms a real belief in God, a "Supreme Being", a Masonic oath is a hollow undertaking, one which renders the insincere oath taker a hypocrite. In the face of such a situation, the question must be posed whether an oath is really necessary within Freemasonry, or whether an unattested pledge or declaration would serve as well.
Turning back to the medical profession, the students of Imperial College, London designed their own "Declaration" as an alternative to the Hippocratic Oath, so, the argument might go, why should Freemasonry maintain oaths at all? Why not construct a declaration or pledge, especially given the looseness of the term "Supreme Being" found currently within a number of Grand Lodges?
In order to refute the possibility of our oaths being replaced by pledges or declarations, it is necessary to consider the theological and mythological background to oaths within regular Freemasonry.
The Theological and Mythological Background to Oaths
From earliest times, organised Freemasonry has drawn upon a Judaeo-Christian tradition. This tradition is one in which some earlier religious forms have been accommodated, including a reverence for stone. In northern Europe, true oaths have always been considered to be of a permanent nature, and to have been "stone like" in their durability. We know from the writings of the Danish medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus (c.1150 to c.1206), who had been asked by Bishop Absalon to write a history which included that of the heathens, that in earliest times when the "ancients" chose a king they would stand on stones proclaiming in this act the steadfastness of their commitment, and likening it to the enduring nature of the stones themselves.
One may also consider within this tradition the continuing symbolic importance of the Stone of Destiny, or as it is sometimes called the Stone of Scone, used in the coronation of the British monarch as part of this notion of steadfastness and commitment found within the northern European tradition. The actual stone, a sandstone block, weighing a little over three hundred and thirty pounds, was captured by Edward I in 1296 and placed in Westminster Abbey, where, as part of the throne of Edward the Confessor. it has been used ever since by English and British monarchs during their coronation ceremonies.
Although some claim biblical origin for the stone, and that it is a holy relic, what is known is that Dalriadic, Scottish, English, and then British monarchs have employed the stone realising its profound symbolic power. The stone, returned to Scotland on St Andrew's Day 1996, retains its potency for political exploitation. Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, claimed earlier this month (August 2008) that the stone captured by the English King, whom Mr Salmond bitterly refers to as "the most ruthless king in Christendom", was a fake, and that he believes that the true stone was hidden from King Edward somewhere in the Perthshire hillside.
We know too that in classical times the Iuppiter Lapis (Jupiter Stone) was considered to represent the god Jupiter, and in a sense was the god, as Jupiter's role as the divine law giver was confirmed by the fetial, one of the twenty priestly officials concerned with international relations, when standing at that point as the representative of the people, in the act of treaty making. The terrible penalty for breaking the oath entered into was made plain at the time of sacrifice which formed an integral part of the ceremony.
Stone has, of course, always possessed a profound relevance within the ceremonies of Freemasonry, and the Old and New Testaments are repleted with religious and ceremonial references to stone. We know that in England early Christian churches were often built upon already existing religious sites. Such sites were frequently marked out by the presence of sacred stones, as is likely to be the case with St Mary's Church at Eversley, in north-Hampshire, where a sarsen stone is located between the font and the choir stalls. Charles Kingsley served as Rector at Eversley from 1844 to 1875, and we will return to Kingsley later, when considering the nature of mental reservation, along with Kingsley's disagreement with John Henry Newman over its use when making statements of fact, or belief.
We read in the Old Testament frequent references to the steadfastness of stone, and the token of permanence proffered by it. The stone set by Samuel between Mizpeh and Shen and named "Ebe-nezer", betokened the help of the Lord. 2
There is, as Sir James Frazer made abundantly clear, a common custom of swearing upon a stone, and Frazer thought it likely that it was the strength and stability of the stone that provided confirmation of an oath. 3 The strength and stability of the stone could be readily contrasted with the frailties to which mortal men were heir.
The notion of "confirmation" in respect of oaths is vitally important if the true nature of an oath is to be recognized. Such confirmation demands the invocation or referral to a power greater than that of the mortal person sworn.
When God made his ever-lasting promise to Abraham, a promise found in Genesis, "He sware by Himself", because it was not possible to swear by any greater power. 4 It is this aspect of oath making, the nature of the supreme power evoked, which makes oaths and obligations indispensible within Freemasonry, as well as requiring within Freemasonry a real belief in God, a "Supreme Being". If the prevaracations and devices found recently upon some Masonic websites, designed to avoid the need for a real belief in God, a "Supreme Being" holds sway, then the whole basis for the obligation entered into by the candidate simply disappears.
The great advantage recognized by our Masonic predecessors, who followed a Judeo-Christian approach when framing our Constitutions and our ceremonies, was within this tradition, as the writer of Hebrews makes clear, there was a standard of confirmation by which the actual obligation entered into could be judged or measured:
For men verily swear by the greater; and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. 5
"Strife" in this context is, of course, a bitter or heated dispute in which the ordinary word is of insufficient weight to settle the matter, but an oath for confirmation of one's intent relies upon the same standard applied to one's obligation.
An obligation for our Masonic predecessors was just that, a promise or duty entered into under terms involving a penalty. The nature of the Masonic penalty is outside the scope of this article, but the nature of the oath itself is clear, both in terms of its religious solemnity and its permanence. The oath in its clear meaning stands opposed to the devices of equivocation and mental reservation.
Equivocation and Mental Reservation
Both terms have a well established and recognized role within logic and canon law, and offer relief for those who would wish for some purpose or another for their words to mean less, or other than would appear to be the case. Both terms are encountered frequently today within Freemasonry, but with perhaps less understanding that was formerly the case.
Equivocation and its more literary counterpart, amphibology, provide for the misleading use of a term which possesses more than one meaning. Its provenance is essentially that of ambiguity, an example being that of Moses Hadas, the American teacher and classical scholar, "Thank you for sending me a copy of your book - I'll waste no time in reading it."
It is the area of deliberate and desired ambiguity, rather than in the area of the careless or ill-defined, that Freemasonry is concerned. Used in this devious manner, one party may employ distinct and separate meanings or undertakings which can be rendered as equivalent to that proposed or under consideration, with the potential for loss or harm occurring to the genuine party. Where a man's word is meant to be his bond, deliberate equivocation represents the opposite of Masonic virtue, and our predecessors also found in this device of subterfuge a clear and real danger to the very existence of the institution of Freemasonry.
Mental Reservation. The philosopher, Saint Raymund of Pennafort, dealt in his Summa of 1235, with the question as to whether, in dire circumstances, it might be permissible to lie. Raymund took the view that when one is asked by murderers bent on taking the life of someone hiding in the house whether that person is in, no answer should be given; and that if this betrays him, his death will be imputable to the murderers, not the other's silence. However, Raymund then proceeds to enunciate what to-day is considered to be the doctrine of wide mental reservation. For Raymund, the person questioned might use an equivocal expression, such as, "He is not at home", a mental restriction or reservation being employed in the mind of the person responding to the question.
The doctrine of mental reservation was developed in the sixteenth century, notably by the moral theologian, Martin Aspilcueta, who became a professor of canon law at Toulouse and at Cahors, and who, at the age of eighty, defended his friend Archbishop Carranza before the Inquisition. For Aspilcueta, in appropriate circumstances, a person questioned might mentally add some qualification to the words he speaks, and those words added to the mental qualification could provide for a true assertion, one in accordance with fact. In other words there is no need for the element of ambiguity that there is in the earlier doctrine.
The examples given in respect of Saint Raymund and Martin Aspilcueta, are in respect of dire or grave situations, but turning again to Masonry, our early Constitutions stem from times in which it was much easier than to-day for one to fall into grave circumstances. In Masonry, truth is held to be a virtue, and in a mason's dealings with others, false witness is held to be reprehensible. It is therefore safe to assume that in our lodges, when a requirement for answers to be given without equivocation or mental reservation is made, the requirement is perfectly clear.
Kingsley and Newman. There can be no form of lampooning more uncomfortable to those targeted than that addressed to those who are found to have engaged in the activity of encouraging others to believe in what they themselves do not. Where those subject to the lampoons are men of faith and belief, the discomfort is all the more felt. Such was the fate of two of the most highly regarded clergymen and intellectuals of the nineteenth century, a fate Freemasonry ought ever to guard against. The men referred to are the Reverend Charles Kingsley, and the man who was to become the Cardinal-Deacon of St George in Velabro, John Henry Newman.
The reduced influence of organized Christian religion in the United Kingdom of to-day makes it difficult to appreciate either the intellectual strength of the clergy of former years, or the depth of feeling engendered by religious and moral debate. It is therefore not surprising that some of the best minds of the Victorian period considered the question of oaths as well as the question of equivocation and mental reservation.
Of the many protagonists of the Victorian period, we consider Charles Kingsley (referred to earlier in the section dealing with the sarsen stone at St Mary's Church, Eversley), and his long-time opponent, John Henry Newman, later Cardinal Newman.
Kingsley was born at Holne in Devon on the 12th June 1819, the same year as Queen Victoria. His interests marked him out as a man of those times. He was a parson of the Church of England, an amateur naturalist, a Christian Socialist of the "Muscular Christian" type, an educationalist, poet and novelist. He is to-day, one supposes, most remembered as the author of The Water Babies, originally written between 1862 and 1863 as a serial for Macmillan's Magazine, and first publised in its entirety in 1863.
Newman had been born in London on the 21st February 1801, the son of a banker. He is celebrated as the Cardinal-Deacon of St George in Velabro, the leader of the Tractarian Movement, and as a philosopher, man of letters, and a divine. It is expected that the Commission of Theologians which is due to meet in Rome in September of this year (2008) will recommend to the Pope that he beatifies him in a process leading to sainthood.
Kingsley had for many years taken the view that superstition and untruthfulness militated against Christianity, and when in January of 1864 he reviewed Volumes VII and VIII of Froude's History of England for Macmillan's Magazine, he included in the review the opinion that:
Truth for its own sake has never been a virtue of the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not, to be; that cunning is the weapon which Heaven has given the saints wherewith to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world which marries and is given in marriage.
Kingsley relied for support for his comments about Newman's attitude regarding truth upon one of Newman's sermons entitled Wisdom and Innocence, which had been published years before, in 1844.
Unfortunately for Kingsley, Newman had actually said that the weapons, with which the Church defends herself, prayer, holiness, and innocence, are to the world of physical strength so incomprehensible that it must believe that the Church conquers by craft and hypocrisy. "The words "craft" and "hypocrisy" are but the versions of "wisdom" and "harmlessness", in the language of the world."
Kingsley apologised for his having "so seriously mistaken" Newman in the February edition of Macmillan's Magazine, but there followed, instigated by Newman, a most acrimonious debate conducted in print between the two men, they never actually met with each other, a debate which it is generally agreed Newman won, but at a cost.
It was organized Christian religion in the United Kingdom which counted the cost of what became a highly publicized debate about the nature of truth and belief in the affairs of the Church, and the spectacle the affair presented to a general public still inclined towards religious faith and observance.
The editor of the Athenaeum wrote of how briskly, "do we gather round a brace of reverend gentlemen when the prize for which they contend is which of the two shall be considered the father of lies". 6
The editor of the Athenaeum was an educated man, and the periodical was intended to be read by other educated men, men who would have been expected to immediately have recognized the wit, but also the barb, of suggesting that at least one of the two clergymen was to be considered the father of lies because, of course, the author of the Gospel of St John clearly identifies the devil in such terms. 7
Any institution whose fundamental beliefs and activities are found to be without true significance to its membership is likely to suffer ridicule from the rest of society. No amount of public relations work designed to lessen the need for the absence of significance is likely to redress such a situation. This is what makes the current debate about oaths and oath taking important for Freemasons within the United Kingdom.
For the rich ceremonial and moral integrity of Anglo-Masonry to be maintained, it is necessary to preserve vital elements of Masonic ritual, and to encourage comprehension of the nature of oaths and oath taking, as well as the Masonic relevance of notions such as equivocation and mental reservation. This will do more to foster the cause of Freemasonry than will the efforts of those who seem to think that there is merit in presenting Masonic ritual to the general public as some sort of harmless but ultimately pointless amateur dramatic activity.
The possible objection that taking oaths might foster fellowship and group identity within a group, and render others "outsiders" should be considered, precisely because fellowship and group identity are produced in such circumstances. By retaining the vital sacred and moral elements, traditional within Freemasonry, such a situation may be celebrated, and any objection overcome with full confdence. Freemasonry is, after all, a brotherhood of Masons, not of general society, which is in any event, the intended ultimate beneficiary of our Masonic endeavours.
It is to be hoped that the sacred, will continue to possess relevance within Anglo-Masonry, and that candidates will not be encouraged to believe that the obligations they enter into by way of oath are devoid of either meaning or significance, or that the presence of the Holy Book/Volume of the Sacred Law is necessary, only as part of the Mise en scene.
NOTES ON THE AUTHOR: Richard Martin Young is a retired Law Lacturer and Grand Chancellor of the Grand Lodge of All England.
1. The term "Anglo-Masonic" is meant to incorporate those jurisdictions whose lineage is traceabe to the British Isles.
2. 1 Samuel v12
3. Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, p33
4. Hebrews 6:13
5. Hebrews 6:16
6. Susan Chitty, The Beast and the Monk, p.230
7. John 8:44