One of the points urged by all anti-Masons is that the members of the Craft are required to take an “oath”. Sometimes it is urged by certain Christian denominations that it is improper for a Christian to take any kind of oath. An examination of the entire subject by Masons has been in order for a long time.
At the outset we are presented with certain terms that require definition. The word “oath” is defined as a solemn appeal to God to attest the truth of one’s words and to indicate his sincerity; the word “obligation” means a promise, a contract, or agreement to be bound; it may also mean the duty imposed by moral or civil law to do a certain thing. While a solemn obligation or promise may take the aspects of an oath, it may, nevertheless, be really an “obligation.” There is, therefore, a vital distinction between the word “oath” and the word “obligation.”
The so-called Masonic “oath” is really an “obligation.” It is an obligation because the members’ promises to do certain things and to conduct himself in a proper manner. The ceremony not only binds the new member but also binds the lodge and other members to certain pledges. A Mason by his solemn pledge is bound to perform certain duties to his family, his lodge, his country, and his fellowmen. The taking of this pledge brings about certain duties which the lodge and other Masons owe to the new member. The fact that so many others are involved in the ceremony makes it an “obligation.” The fact that the sincerity of the new members is attested by the appeal to God, characterizes it as an “oath.”
When one is opposed to an “oath” merely because it is an “oath” he is taking a rather narrow position. The taking of oaths has existed for centuries. It is mentioned in the first book of the Holy Bible. In Genesis 24:8 there is mention of a release from an oath; in Genesis 26:3 it is said “I will fulfill the oath which I swore to Abraham”; and in Genesis 50:25 it states that Joseph took an oath. Throughout the book is mentioned of the taking of oaths.
The taking of oaths is well established. We find them being taken in legislative halls, in courts of law, in the ordination of clergymen, in the assumption of public offices, and in the taking of affidavits in business transactions.
The Christians who object to the taking of an oath usually base their argument on the words of Christ in His Sermon on the Mount, when he said: “But I say unto you, Swear not at all; . . . but let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (Matthew 3:34 and 3:37). In order to understand these words we must consider what evil Christ was trying to correct and what he was trying to accomplish by these words.
It will be noted that He does not say “The taking of an oath is evil and is forbidden” but rather that “it cometh from evil” if an oath is necessary.
At the time of Christ it was believed that the Jewish law did not require a mere promise to be kept unless supported by an oath. It was also believed that it was not necessary to speak the truth unless under oath. The matter was applied so technically that it was believed that an oath not taken in the prescribed legal form was not binding. So long as the Jews dealt with themselves and were familiar with these technical distinctions no great difficulty arose. But in their dealings with others it was the cause of much misunderstanding; some historians have even claimed that some of the antagonism toward the Jews was caused by this rule followed by the Jews even in dealing with foreigners. At any rate, Christ announced the doctrine that one should tell the truth always.
It will be noted that when Christ was being questioned by the High Priest he did not answer until he was placed under an oath (Matthew 26:63). Peter took an oath in denying that he was Jesus (Matthew 26:72). In other parts of the New Testament oaths are mentioned. Presumably the disciples knew of the attitude of Christ; they did not refuse to take an oath. In the early history of the Christian church this question was discussed at length and sides were taken. Some took a strict view in the matter, others a liberal view. Eventually the view was adopted that only trifling and profane swearing was prohibited by Christ. (This matter is discussed in James Hastings, ‘Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics’, Vol. 9, pp 430-437.)
The matter is summarized in ‘The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia’ (1949), Vol.4, p.2173, as follows:
“That oaths are permissible to Christians is shown by the example of Our Lord (Mat. 26:63) and of Paul; (11 Cor. 1:23; Gal. 1:20) and even God Himself (Heb. 6:13-18). Consequently when Christ said “Swear not at all” (Mat. 5:34), He was laying down the principle that the Christian must not have two standards of truth, but that his ordinary speech must be as sacredly true as his oath. In the kingdom of God, where the principles hold sway, oaths become unnecessary.”
Sometimes the opponents of the Craft state that the oath taken by Masons is blasphemous. Masons will readily recognize the fact that this point is not a serious one. It is hard to understand how a solemn pledge to do good can be an insult to the deity.
Sometimes the opponents of the Craft state that the oath taken by Masons is silly. Here again it is hard to understand how a pledge to do good can be silly.
It is occasionally stated by anti-Masons that one cannot take an oath promising to do something that has not been disclosed to him. The answer to this objection is that so long as the matter is good, not against morality, and is intended to accomplish a worthy end it is binding on the person making the promise.
Sometimes the position is taken by anti-Masons that the oath is one to do evil and is therefore not binding on him either legally or morally. A promise to do something harmful or evil is never binding on one who makes such a promise. The law will never enforce such a promise; the community would never condemn one who refuse to fulfill such a promise; and one’s conscience would not bother him for failure to observe such promise.
The point is sometimes made that Masons take an oath that is above the law. This is not so. In the case of Owens vs. Frank, 7 Wyo. 457 (1898) the Supreme Court of Wyoming had this specific point before it for decision. The Court in its opinion said:
“However binding an obligation may be, as between members of the same society, secret or otherwise, not to divulge to others that which may be confidentially communicated to them, such an obligation must be understood to be subject to the laws of the country, and doubtless the societies themselves recognize that such a limitation attaches to the obligation; and therefore it cannot be said that the obligation is violated when the disclosure is compelled in a court of justice, in the course of administration of the laws.”
Masons know that the obligation they have taken is a good one that it does not conflict with any moral or legal duty they owe to anyone, and that the obligation is a beneficial influence in the community.