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The transfer of the physical penalties from the obligations
by Bro. Harry Mendoza
AFTER THE DEBATE in Grand Lodge on 11 June 1986 Grand Lodge resolved that 'all references to physical penalties be omitted from the Obligations taken by Candidates in the three Degrees and by a Master Elect at his Installation but retained elsewhere in the respective ceremonies'.
The recommendation of the Board of General Purposes having been accepted by Grand Lodge it now becomes, under Rule 229 Book of Constitutions, an Edict of Grand Lodge. Every Master and Past Master has already agreed, and every Master Elect has to agree, to conform to every Edict of Grand Lodge. So in effect, the Resolution is mandatory.
The matter having been decided by Grand Lodge, therefore, it might well be asked 'What is the purpose of this paper?'
Despite the large number of brethren who attended the debate in Grand Lodge, there are very many brethren who did not attend and who are unaware of the pros and cons of the matter. There are others who, despite what they heard in the debate, are still opposed to the idea of transferring the physical penalties from the Obligations and placing them elsewhere. I hope that once they have heard or read this paper (which includes detail not heard in Grand Lodge) they may at least be willing to concede that the case for the change is at least as strong as the case against the change and that they are prepared, for the good of the Craft in general, to give the change their willing and enthusiastic support.
Let's start by looking at some historical facts.
In many manuscripts dating from 1696 we find references to cutting the tongue from the throat if the secrets of masonry are not kept. However, it is not until 1730 that we have definite evidence that a physical penalty was included in the Obligation taken whilst the candidate has his naked right hand on the Volume of the Sacred Law.
The exposure giving this information purports to give details of all three degrees, but there is only one Obligation, and that is taken in the first degree. The penalty clause includes all the physical penalties we have been reciting in the three different Obligations.
By 1760 we have Obligations in all three degrees, each with its own physical penalty.
In 1964, following a discussion in Grand Lodge, the Provincial Grand Master for Norfolk, R.W. Bro. Bishop Herbert, addressed Grand Lodge on a matter which he said had been exercising the minds of many experienced masons. He asked that sanction be given by Grand Lodge to a permitted variation in the Obligation.
The gist of the argument put forward by the Bishop in the subsequent debate was that the candidate had been specifically assured that in the Obligation he was about to take, 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; and all this whilst his hand is on the Volume of the Sacred Law. He has had 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 a lengthy debate in a very full Grand Lodge, it was resolved that a permissive variation in the Obligation be adopted. Supreme Grand Chapter adopted a similar resolution about three years later.
Consequential amendments to the ritual were subsequently agreed by the governing bodies of the various forms of ritual working.
There was reluctance in some lodges to use the permissive variations and on 25 April1979 the Grand Master urged all lodges who had not adopted them to reconsider the matter and urged that 'full and open-minded consideration be given to the problem'.
Let me, therefore, briefly summarize the arguments both for and against transferring the physical penalties from the Obligations.
The main arguments for the transfer are; first, the feeling of repugnance felt by the candidate and many of those witnessing the ceremony when the candidate is asked, whilst his hand is on the Volume of the Sacred Law, to give a faithful promise to observe an Obligation which contains a barbarous and unenforceable penalty clause. Indeed, some have argued that by taking an Obligation containing statements they know cannot be enforced, they are taking the name of God in vain and thus violating the third of the Ten Commandments.
Second, it is a known fact that there are some brethren who, having heard for the first time the physical penalties in the Obligation, have refused to participate any further in the Craft because they felt that what they had been asked to repeat was puerile, offensive or wholly out of keeping with what they understood to be the principles of Freemasonry. We are also losing good prospective candidates who have become aware of what they would be asked to recite whilst their hand is on the Volume of the Sacred Law.
Third, their transfer would take a potent weapon from the hands of our adversaries.
These are all powerful reasons.
Now let me turn to the arguments against the transfer. I have summarised them under different headings.
1. Antiquity: We've been using these Obligations for years and there is no good reason for changing them; and The ritual was good enough for my father, my grandfather and great-grandfather, and it's good enough for me; I don't want any change.
2. Constitutional: 'You are forbidden to alter the ritual'. The arguments here cite:
(a) the Antient Charge dealing with innovations which every master-elect agrees to on the night of his Installation;
(b) the Articles of Union, 1813 which includes the phrase 'There shall be the most perfect unity of Obligation ... until time shall be no more', and
(c) the Landmarks of the Order, which cannot be altered.
3. General:
(a) Very few brethren find the penalties repugnant; most accept them without any qualms.
(b) Once you start making ritual changes, there will be a continual demand for more; where will it all end? The ritual will never be the same; and
(c) Why should we make changes simply because of outside criticism?
All these arguments are put forward with a great deal of sincerity; all demand an answer.
Let me try to provide it.
Firstly, Antiquity. It is true that there is a long history of masonic penalties and that they could be said to be part of our masonic tradition. But antiquity itself is not a sound criterion for the retention of physical penalties in the Obligations. There are good reasons for change. One in particular was referred to by the Grand Master who summed it up well when he said that the 'moral implications are... much more important than any consideration of preserving tradition.'
I suggest that the next group of arguments which I summarized under the heading of Constitutional have no validity, as they are all based on a false premise. They all assume that any change in the ritual is forbidden. But which ritual? There is no official ritual under the English Constitution; there are many variants, and every one of these has undergone some form of change in its history.
On the question of innovations referred to in the Antient Charges and Regulations agreed to by the master-elect on the night of his Installation, one eminent masonic scholar, the late Bro. Harry Carr, considered that 'innovations' in this context related only to the Basic Principles which are the very foundation-stone of our Order, beyond change even by the Grand Lodge itself.
But it is not as widely known as perhaps it should be that the Antient Charge read to the master-elect on the night of his Installation is not the full wording approved by Grand Lodge. Let me quote the relevant Minute dated 23 June 1723. 'And the question was moved; That it is not in the power of any person, or Body of Men, to make alteration or innovation in the Body of Masonry, without the consent first obtained of the Annual Grand Lodge. And the question being put accordingly, Resolved in the Affirmative'.
Note the phrase 'without the consent first obtained of the Annual Grand Lodge'. This Resolution has never been repealed, so surely Grand Lodge has the right and power to give its consent to an 'Alteration or Innovation in the Body of Masonry'.
It might well be asked why this phrase has never been included in the Antient Charge read to the master-elect. I suggest that the answer to this is found in events during the period 1775-1789.
In 1775 William Preston had published the second edition of his book Illustrations of Penalties in the Masonic Obligations Masonry. It included the Charges and Regulations read to the master-elect on the night of his Installation. This is the first record of them in something like their present form. That dealing with innovatlons read; 'No alteration or innovation in the body of Masonry shall be made without the consent of the Grand Lodge first had and obtained', wording very similar to the 1723 Grand Lodge Minute.
Shortly after the book had been published, Preston committed what Grand Lodge considered a gross error of judgement. When called to task, he refused to accept that Grand Lodge had any power to enforce laws that it had made following its formation in 1717, on his lodge which was, at that date, already in being and that his lodge had an inherent right to act in the way it did. Grand Lodge then expelled him.
It is not surprising, therefore, that when Preston published the next edition of his book he omitted the last few words of the 'no innovation' Charge; nor was it published in any subsequent edition. (In fact, the wording was changed to that we use today.) He stood by his doctrine of inherent right, and the charge had to be worded to ensure that right was not disturbed.
When the Charges and Regulations were eventually published for the first time in the Book of Constitutions, they appeared as printed in the only known source, which for the past fifty years had been Preston's Illustrations of Masonry. So in fact the phrase 'without the consent first obtained of the Annual Grand Lodge' (or something like it) has never appeared in the Book of Constitutions is, in my view, more a sin of omission rather than a sin of comission.
It should be noted, however, that the phrase quoted has now been restored to Item II of the summary of the Antient Charges read to the Master Elect.
Still under the Constitutional heading, it has been argued that a Past President of the Board of General Purposes went on record in the penalties debate in Grand Lodge in 1964 by saying that the Board of General Purposes had never touched ritual in any shape or form and that it had no authority to do so.
It is worth noting a comment made recently by the Past Grand Secretary, R.W. Bro. Sir James Stubbs. It is taken from his Address to Supreme Grand Chapter in November 1983. '... although the Committee of General Purposes, like the Board of General Purposes, will have nothing to do with ritual arguments, nor will it enter into correspondence on the subject, it will not refuse to make suggestions to Grand Chapter in support of a uniform change equally applicable to all the ritual variants known to exist; it will make its recommendations and leave Grand Chapter to decide.' He cited four cases where this had happened, one of which was the penalties debate in 1964.
Turning now to the Articles of Union. Bro. Harry Carr said, apropos of the quotation I made earlier; 'At first glance it would appear that these Articles impose an absolute ban on any kind of change in the Obligations, but such a ban could not be upheld in certain circumstances'. He cited examples, including where there would be a conflict with the law of the land and where modifications were made to the Obligations after the promulgation of the Articles of Union. In fact, the Obligations were not finally approved until May 1816, three years after the Articles of Union were promulgated.
So far as Landmarks are concerned, I again quote Bro. Carr who suggested that an essential point for a Landmark would appear to be that it is an element of such importance that freemasonry would no longer be Freemasonry if it were removed. I suggest that this test cannot be successfully applied when considering the transfer of the physical penalties from the Obligations. Freemasonry does exist in Scotland and Ireland and elsewhere where the physical penalties have been transferred from the Obligations. Indeed, Ireland made the change over a century ago, in 1893.
I might add that a candidate initiated in the Pilgrim Lodge, No. 238 (English Constitution) is just as much a regular freemason as you and me — and that lodge does not include any penalties in the Obligations, relying entirely on a handshake! It might also be of interest to record that many Grand Lodges in America print a list of what they consider to be the landmarks of the Order. These have been collated and can be seen in a book held in the Library at Freemason's Hall, London. I have carefully examined this book; the physical penalties do not appear in any of the lists.
Turning now to the points I listed under the heading 'General'.
It is true to say that most brethren accept the physical penalties without any qualms. But that doesn't mean that they should be retained in the Obligations. There are many brethren who are affronted by the terms of the Obligations, either on religious grounds or, as already stated, because they consider them to be puerile, offensive or wholly out of keeping with the nature and principles of the Craft.
Regarding the fear of a continual demand for ritual changes, all that has been agreed by Grand Lodge is the transfer of the physical penalties from the Obligations taken whilst the candidate has his hand on the Volume of the Sacred Law, and placing them elsewhere as part of traditional history; nothing more. And those who have seen the demonstrations will tell you how slight these changes really are. There is no intention of makingg other ritual changes.
Regarding criticism from outsiders. This is NOT the main reason for the change. The demand for such a change stemmed from criticism within the Craft. In any case, surely there is nothing wrong in taking notice of outside criticism if we ourselves had been considering how to deal with the matter being criticized — and that is precisely the point with regard to the physical penalties. Let me tell you that the 1964 penalties debate was started not by outside criticism, but by a paper written by a member of Quatuor Coronati Lodge.
Brethren, in an early part of this paper, I said that I would give you the arguments both for and against their transfer from the Obligations. I hope the comments I have made will be considered a fair and reasonable presentation and now that Grand Lodge has accepted the recommendation of the Board of General Purposes, every brother will willingly and enthusiastically support the changes.
(Note: Supreme Grand Chapter has now taken similar action with regard to the physical penalties in the Royal Arch.]

Ars Quatuor Coronatorum. Vol 100 (1987) Transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge. 1988 ISBN : 0907655 13 0. . pp 1090112.

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