Obligation or Affirmation?

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
WB Darin Lahners

When you joined Freemasonry, did you take an obligation or an affirmation?  

According to Mackey's entry in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and its Kindred Sciences for Obligation, it is: "The solemn promise made by a Freemason on his admission into any Degree is technically called his obligation. In a legal sense, obligation is synonymous with duty. Its derivation shows its true meaning, for the Latin word obligatio literally signifies a tying or binding. The obligation is that which binds a man to do some act, the doing of which thus becomes his duty. By his obligation, a Freemason is bound or tied to his Order. Hence the Romans called the military oath which was taken by the soldier his obligation, and, too, it is said that it is the obligation that makes the Freemason.

Before that ceremony, there is no tie that binds the candidate to the Order so as to make him a part of it; after the ceremony, the tie has been completed, and the candidate becomes at once a Freemason, entitled to all the rights and privileges and subject to all the duties and responsibilities that enure in that character. The jurists have divided obligations into imperfect and perfect, or natural and civil. In Freemasonry there is no such distinction.

The Masonic obligation is that moral one which, although it cannot be enforced by the courts of law, is binding on the party who makes it, in conscience and according to moral justice. It varies in each Degree, but in each is perfect. Its various clauses, in which different duties are prescribed, are called its points, which are either affirmative or negative, a division like that of the precepts of the Jewish law. The affirmative points are those which require certain acts to be performed; the negative points are those which forbid certain other acts to be done. The whole of them is preceded by a general point of secrecy, common to all the Degrees, and this point is called the tie.

Under his entry for Affirmation, Mackey writes: "The question has been mooted whether a Quaker, or other person having peculiar religious scruples in reference to taking oaths, can receive the degrees of Freemasonry by taking an affirmation. Now, as the obligations of Freemasonry are symbolic in their character, and the forms in which they are administered constitute the essence of the symbolism, there cannot be a doubt that the prescribed mode is the only one that ought to be used, and that affirmations are entirely inadmissible.

The London Freemason's Quarterly (1828, page 28G) says that "a Quaker's affirmation is binding." This is not denied. The only question is whether it is admissible. Can the obligations be assumed in any but one way, unless the ritual be entirely changed?

Can any "man or body of men" at this time make such a change without affecting the universality of Freemasonry? Brother Chase (Masonic Digest, page 448) says that "Conferring the degrees on affirmation is no violation of the spirit of Freemasonry, and neither overthrows nor affects a landmark." In this, he is sustained by the Grand Lodge of Maine (1823).

On the report of a Committee, concurred in by the Grand Lodge of Washington in 1883 and duly incorporated in the Masonic Code of that State (see the 1913 edition, page130), the following was adopted: "The solemn obligation required from all persons receiving the degrees may be made equally binding by either an oath or an affirmation without any change in the time-honored Landmarks. " A decision of the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island on November 13, 1867 (see also the1918 edition of the Constitution, General Regulations, etc., of that State, page 34) was to the effect that "An affirmation can be administered instead of an oath to any person who refuses, on conscientious grounds, to take the latter." But the other Grand Lodges which expressed an opinion on this subject-namely, those of Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Delaware, Virginia, and Pennsylvania made an opposite decision.

During the latest revision of this work the Masonic authorities in each of these States were invited to give the latest practice in their respective Jurisdictions. Their replies are given substantially as below, and in the main the early custom has been continued.

Missouri has not recognized the word affirmation in the work, and unless the candidate is willing to conform to the wording of the obligation the instructions have been to not accept him and this has been the rule of successive Grand Masters in that State.

Tennessee has not made any change in the law, and in 1919 the Grand Lodge held that the Grand Master had no right to allow the Ritual to be changed in order to suit the religious views of a profane.

There has been no change in the attitude of the Grand Lodge of Kentucky in the matter of affirmation. That State has required the candidate to take the obligation in the usual manner. Delaware reported that there had been no change in the approved decision adopted by the Grand Lodge in 1890 which is as follows: "An applicant who desires to affirm instead of swear to the obligation cannot be received." The Grand Lodge of Virginia allows the use of an affirmation, not by the written law, but by the decision of a Grand Master of that State.

In Pennsylvania a petitioner becomes a member of the Lodge by initiation and dues begin from that time. He may, if he desires, remain an Entered Apprentice Freemason, a member of the Lodge, or he may resign as such. There is only one way of making an Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, or Master Freemason, in this Jurisdiction, which is by use of the greater lights, without any equivocation, deviation, or substitution.

One decision of Grand Master Africa of Pennsylvania, on October 24, 1892, does not state precisely at what point the candidate for initiation refused to obey, and even the original letter written by Grand Master Africa does not show it.

Presumably the reference was in regard to the candidate's belief in a supreme Being, yet it covers other points as follows:

"After having been duly prepared to receive the First Degree in Freemasonry, a candidate refused to conform with and obey certain landmarks of the craft. This refusal disqualifies him from initiation in any Lodge in this jurisdiction, and you will direct your Secretary to make proper record thereof, and , to make report to the Grand Secretary accordingly.

Freemasonry does not proselyte. Those who desire its privileges must seek them of their own free will, and must accept and obey, without condition or reservation, all of its ancient usages, customs, and landmarks."

The general practice of Lodges in America is also against the use of an affirmation. But in England Quakers have been initiated after affirmation, the principle being that a form of obligation which the candidate accepts as binding will suffice."

I can safely state that I took an obligation, as in our degrees, when I was released from the cable-tow I was told that I was bound by "an obligation, a tie stronger than human hands can impose."  However, did I also take an affirmation?  According to Merriam Webster's Dictionary: the definition of an affirmation is:

1 a: the act of affirming, he nodded his head in affirmation
   b: something affirmed : a positive assertion. His memoir is a reflective affirmation of family love.

2 law : a solemn declaration made under the penalties of perjury by a person who conscientiously declines taking an oath.

I think after reading this, I can state that I personally did not take an affirmation. If I had refused to take the oath, without claiming a religious reason for not being able to take one prior to the degree, I would have been led from the lodge room by my cable-tow.  I actually know of one instance where this occurred.  The candidate refused to take the obligation, and he was removed from the lodge room.  

This being said, does the obligation change if we substitute the word "Swear" for that of "Affirm"?  There are some men that due to religious reasons (such as the Quakers mentioned above), that cannot swear an oath, but are allowed to affirm it.  Going back to Webster's Dictionary, we find the definition of swear to be:

1: to utter or take solemnly (an oath)

2a: to assert as true or promise under oath sworn, ie: affidavit swore to uphold the Constitution
  b: to assert or promise emphatically or earnestly, ie: swore he'd study harder next time

3a: to put to an oath: administer an oath to
  b: to bind by an oath swore them to secrecy

4 obsolete: to invoke the name of (a sacred being) in an oath

5: to bring into a specified state by swearing, he swore his life away

Intransitive Verb:

1: to take an oath

2: to use profane or obscene language : CURSE

Based upon the above definition, I don't think that affirming one's oath is the same as swearing.  I say this for one reason, and it's given in the obsolete definition of the word (#4 above), to invoke the name of (a sacred being) in an oath.  In Illinois, we finish the oath with "So Help me, God, and keep me steadfast in the due performance of the same."  Although a man can believe in God, if he is unable to swear upon his name, then he might as well be an atheist.  So we are in a dilemma, as one of the arguments against allowing Atheists into Freemasonry is often based upon them not being able to promise and swear on a book of holy scripture, because they have nothing binding them to their obligation short of their promise to God in the obligation.  I would argue that any man that cannot swear an oath should also be excluded from Freemasonry for the same reason.  


WB Darin A. Lahners is our co-managing Editor.  He is a Past Master of and Worshipful Master of St. Joseph Lodge No.970 in St. Joseph. He is also a plural member of Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL), where he is also a Past Master. He’s a member of the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, a charter member of Illinois Royal Arch Chapter, Admiration Chapter No. 282 and is the current Secretary of the Illini High Twelve Club No. 768 in Champaign – Urbana (IL). You can reach him by email at darin.lahners@gmail.com 

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