Sunday, December 10, 2006

Oath-taking: Does it matter what Volume of Sacred Law you use?

In Masonic lodges, an opened "Volume of Sacred Law" always rests upon the Holy Altar when a lodge is at labor. In the United States, most often this book is the Holy Bible, but it is not a requirement. Some lodges may use other holy books from the Jewish or Muslim or other religion. Candidates for admission to Freemasonry may choose the Volume of Sacred Law they wish to take their oaths upon.

Sometimes we hear of lodges refusing to allow a non-Christian to use the book of his choice, and sometimes, a non-Christian candidate will for the sake of "peace and harmony" take his oath on a book that doesn't genuinely reflect his religious faith.

Congressman-elect Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, recently announced that he intends to take his Congressional oath of office on the Koran, the Volume of Sacred Law of the Muslim faith.

Conservatives are aghast. Right-wing columnist and radio talkshow host Dennis Prager has posted a rambling, anti-Muslim diatribe about Ellison's decision, making a mountain out of what should be a molehill. Allowing Ellison to take his oath on the book of his choice, Prager says, will undermine "American civilization."

He bemoans: "[W]hy are we allowing Keith Ellison to do what no other member of Congress has ever done — choose his own most revered book for his oath?" The title of Prager's essay is "America, Not Keith Ellison, decides what book a congressman takes his oath on," which would lead one to believe their are oath-taking rules or something in the Constitution that requires Congressmen to take an oath upon the Bible, when in fact there is no such rule.

There is no such rule or Constitutional mandate. In fact, Article VI of the Constitution of the United States says that members of Congress, state legislatures and all executive and judicial officers "shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

According to an editorial in the Hartford (Conn.) Courant, "John Quincy Adams held a law book and a copy of the Constitution at his oath-taking. Theodore Roosevelt didn't use any book. In Congress, at least one lawmaker carried the Book of Mormon, while others have brought along their Hebrew Bible."

The taking of any oath is a personal matter, and is not only a binding obligation to whatever organization one is taking a leadership role with (Masonic or Congressional), but is an obligation taken before one's own God, however the oath-taker defines his God. The book — if any — one takes an oath upon is matter of personal choice, not organizational mandate.

Prager is way off base in his anti-Muslim, America-love-it-or-leave-it rant.

Bro. Carl Claudy, who authored hundreds of short "Old Tiler's Talks" during the 1920s-1940s, wrote this interesting tale called "Book on the Altar."

"I heard the most curious tale," began the New Brother seating himself beside the Old Tiler during refreshment.

"Shoot!" commanded the Old Tiler.

"Friend of mine belongs to a midwest lodge. Seems they elected a chap to become a member but when he took the degree he stopped the work to ask for the Koran in place of the Bible on the Altar. Said he wanted the holy book of his faith, and the Bible wasn't it!"

"Yes, go on," prompted the Old Tiler. "What did they do?"

"The officers held a pow-wow and the Master finally decided that as the ritual demanded the 'Holy Bible, Square and Compasses' as furniture for the lodge, the applicant was wrong and that he'd have to use the Bible or not take his degree. And the funny part was that the initiate was satisfied and took his degree with the Bible on the Altar.

"I'm glad they have him, and not this lodge."


"Why, a chap who backs down that way can't have very much courage; I'd have had more respect for him if he'd insisted and if he couldn't have his way, refused to go on with the degree."

"All wrong, brother, all wrong!" commented the Old Tiler. "The Mohammedan initiate wasn't concerned about himself but about the lodge. He showed a high degree of Masonic principle in asking for his own holy book, and a great consideration for the lodge. This man isn't a Christian. He doesn't believe in Christ. He believes in Allah, and Mohammed his prophet. The Bible, to you a holy book, is to him no more than the Koran is to you. You wouldn't regard an obligation taken on a dictionary or a cookbook or a Koran as binding, in the same degree that you would one taken on the Bible.

"That's the way this chap felt. He wanted to take his obligation so that it would bind his conscience. The Master would not let him, because he slavishly followed the words of the ritual instead of the spirit of Masonry.

"Masonry does not limit an applicant to his choice of a name for a Supreme Being. I can believe in Allah, or Buddha, or Confucius, or Mithra, or Christ, or Siva, or Brahma, or Jehovah, and be a good Mason. If I believe in a Great Architect that is all Masonry demands; my brethren do not care what I name Him."

"Then think you this chap isn't really obligated? I must write my friend and warn him-"

"Softly, softly! Any man with enough reverence for Masonry, in advance of knowledge of it, to want his own holy book on which to take an obligation would feel himself morally obligated to keep his word, whether there was his, another's or no holy book at all, on the Altar. An oath is not really binding because of the book beneath your
hand. It is the spirit with which you assume an obligation which makes it binding. The book is but a symbol that you make your promise in the presence of the God you revere. The cement of brotherly love which we spread is not material-the working tools of a Master Mason are not used upon stone but upon human hearts. Your brother did his best to conform to the spirit of our usages in asking for the book he had been taught to revere. Failing in that through no fault of his own, doubtless he took his obligation with a sincere belief in its sacredness. Legally he would not be considered to commit perjury if he asked for his own book and was forced to use another."

"What's the law got to do with it?"

"Just nothing at all, which is the point I make. In England and America, Canada and South America, Australia, and part of the Continent, the Bible is universally used. In Scottish Rite bodies you will find many holy books; but let me ask you this; when our ancient brethren met on hills and in valleys, long before Christ, did they use the New Testament on their altars? Of course not; there was none. You can say that they used the Old Testament and I can say they used a Talmud and someone else can say they used none at all, and all of us are as right as the other. But they used a reverence for sacred things.

"If you write your friend, you might tell him that the ritual which permits a man to name his God as he pleases, but demands that a book which reveres one particular God be used, is faulty. The ritual of Masonry is faulty; it was made by man. But the spirit of Masonry is divine; it comes from men's hearts. If obligation and books and names of the Deity are matters of the spirit, every condition is satisfied. If I were Master and an applicant demanded any one or any six books on which to lay his hand while he pledged himself to us, I'd get them if they were to be had, and I'd tell my lodge what a reverent Masonic spirit was in the man who asked."

"Seems to me you believe in a lot of funny things; how many gods do you believe in?"

"There is but one," was the Old Tiler's answer. "Call Him what you will. Let me repeat a little bit of verse for you:

"'At the Meuzzin's call for prayer
The kneeling faithful thronged the square;
Amid a monastery's weeds,
An old Franciscan told his beads,
While on Pushkara's lofty height
A dark priest chanted Brahma's might,
While to the synagogue there came
A Jew, to praise Jehovah's Name.
The One Great God looked down and smiled
And counted each His loving child;
For Turk and Brahmin, monk and Jew
Had reached Him through the gods they knew.

"If we reach Him in Masonry, it makes little difference by what sacred name we arrive," finished the Old Tiler, reverently.

"You've reached me, anyhow," said the New Brother, shaking hands as if he meant it.

Thanks to The Blue Herald for the heads-up on this controversy.

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  3. I agree with you about Prager even though I like to listen to him. I posted on this very subject of sacred test today....

  4. I've always been impressed with that particular Claudy essay. While much of his stuff is, um, perhaps a bit on the maudlin side, he always makes a very good point in his stories.

    As someone who was obligated with the Tao Teh Ching on the altar - the only one ever in my lodge - I've always been on the lookout for those who give conscious thought to the VSL that they use.

    In a certain part of the MM degree, candidates typically pray silently to themselves; but one man I saw chanted an appropriate Hebrew prayer aloud. It's all good, you know?

    Tom Accuosti
    The Tao of Masonry

  5. I do know Tom. This gets to the very essence of what the brotherhood of Freemasonry is supposed to be about. That's how I see it anyway.

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  14. Never ceases to amaze me how the political extremists conveniently ignores the U.S. Constitution and our other bodies of Basic Laws, while engaging in historical revisionism to justify their proposals.

    But you have to also consider the people who voted these extremists into office too, and what they had in mind.


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