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Many Masons believe that the penalties of our obligations are land-marks handed down from antiquity. This is not so. The Old Charges or Manuscripts, the first being the Regius Poem written in 1390 A.D., all contain Charges or "land-marks" that we use today, but not until the Edinburgh Register House Manuscript of 1696 was there any mention of a penalty.

Most of the books written about Masonry between 1696 and 1750 were exposures. Of the thirteen written before 1726, none mention a penalty; the seven written after that  do.

 In 1727, ten years after the formation of the Grand Lodge of England, "A Masons Confession" was published in Scotland and contained the first penalty to be found within an obligation.

The Wilkinson Manuscript was written in 1727, and included all three penalties and an early version of the Entered Apprentice Lecture. The unique thing about that is that  there still may have been only one degree at that time.

The most famous Masonic exposure, "Masonry Dissected," was written in 1730 by Samuel
Prichard, and in it, for the first time ever, three degrees are mentioned. A ritual is given for each degree, but all three penalties were again listed with the Entered Apprentice Degree.

Then, in "Three Distinct Knocks", published in 1760, a separate penalty was given with each degree, each quite similar to those we use today. And, interestingly enough, when the two main Grand Lodges of England merged in 1813, a non-physical penalty was added to the Entered Apprentice obligation and went like this:

    " . . . or that being branded as a willfully perjured individual, void of all moral worth, and totally unfit to be received into this or any other worthy and warranted Lodge, or the society of men who prize honor and virtue above the external advantages of rank and fortune . . ."

It is obvious that the penalties have never been etched in stone. They have gone from an obligation without a penalty, to one with one penalty, to three obligations with a  separate penalty for each, to a non-physical penalty in 1813, and to many changes in the wording through  the years. Some Grand Lodges have changed them in recent years. In 1986, the Grand Lodge of England removed them from the obligations and put them in the lectures. The same has happened in the majority of the Grand Lodges in Europe, two in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and several Grand Lodges thus far in the United States. Most Grand Lodges have moved them to the lectures; none so  far have completely removed them. It is known that quite a few American Grand Lodges are considering such a move.

The questions are these: Should we retain a form of punishment that, Masonically, has never been inflicted as far as anyone knows and would be against the law if we did? In the obligation, should we simply bind a candidate symbolically to "the ancient penalty as stated in the lecture to follow?" Should we continue to threaten a candidate with bodily harm for revealing secrets that long ago ceased to be secrets? These are questions for thought, Brethren.

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Last modified: March 22, 2014