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by Bro. H. R. Partlow
The Builder - February 1921

THE MASONIC obligation has always been to the writer a subject of considerable interest, especially on account of the various positions assumed by the obliger at the time of taking the obligation, and the formalities incident to it which, in my opinion, bespeak for the obligation a greater antiquity than usually accorded it by historians and writers. 

Even a cursory view of the subject of entering into a contractual relation from ancient times shows that the obligations assumed to be binding were entered into in accordance to the ceremonial form of that age, and if entered into in that way were considered by the ancients inviolate. History abounds with many instances evidencing this, but for numerous cases we have only to go into the field of religious and legal literature. Biblical and judicial records are the deposits left by the receding waters of time and an examination of the laws and customs of these remote ages shows a general unfolding and development of civilization. True it is that the data found are not separately and clearly set forth, but may be compared to the residue of the seashore, scattered and wholly without order, some buried in sand and foreign matter, while others are entirely concealed except to the keen vision of the delving student who by patience and skill will exhume them, thereby revealing them to the superficial observer. 

The writer is fully aware that the average Mason has but little interest in such matters, but a close study of the customs of the ancients will shed much light upon certain customs now used in our ritual or floor work in conferring degrees. If by any means we can determine the inception of these early formalities, the basal ideas leading up to them, and the possible psychological functioning which produced them they will, in my opinion, be invaluable. These rudimentary ideas are to the Masonic student what the primary crusts of the earth are to the geologist. They contain all the forms which society has subsequently exhibited. 

In the matter of ascertaining the fountain head of the jural conception of an oath, obligation, or contract, one may become lost in the impenetrable night of antiquity. Mr. Holmes, in his admirable work on Common Law, says: "To explain how mankind first learned to promise, we must go to metaphysics and find out how it came to frame a future tense." Law, like religion, is co-eval with intelligence and so soon as man was capable of continuity of thought, so soon as he found intelligible speech, he questioned himself concerning his relationship to other sentient beings. Therefore, by way of a premise, it may be said that whenever and wherever we have found man we find exhibition of certain characteristics which are common to other peoples in the same stage of development. 

The force and effect of an oath or obligation in ancient days was much greater than it is today, for the reason that the Higher Power was presumed to be present and to participate in the transaction as a third party. This was especially so in making of covenants which were accompanied by a sacrifice and other solemn formalities in addition to the oath calling upon the ever present Deity to witness. 

In the procedure of entering into obligations or of taking oaths one is impressed first with the universal use of the light hand. It is a singular coincidence that so many people are right handed, and we shall now consider the use of the right hand in entering into various obligations and draw some conclusions regarding its almost universal use. 

The right hand has been held forever sacred. The origin of such belief is a profound mystery. Much importance was attached to it in worship as well as in entering into various contractual relations. 

A study of the formal contract in early English law rewards the student for the pains of his investigation; and for the purpose of giving to the reader the benefit of this we quote at some length from Pollock and Maitland's History of English Law: 

"In many countries of Western Europe and in this part of the world also, we find the mutual grasp of the hand as a form which binds a bargain. It is possible to regard this as a relic of a more elaborate ceremony by which some material was passed from hand to hand; but the mutuality of the hand grip seems to make against this explanation. We think it more likely that the promisor proffered his name of himself and for the purpose of devoting himself to the god or goddess, if he broke faith. Expanded in words, the underlying idea would be of this kind, 'As I here deliver myself to you by my right hand, so I deliver myself to the wrath of Fides, or Jupiter acting by the ministry of Fides, if I break faith in this thing.' 

"Whether the Germans have borrowed this symbolic act from the Roman provincials and have thus taken over a Roman practice along with Fides, or whether it has an independent root in their own heathen religion we will not dare to decide. However, the grasp of the hand appears among them at an early date as a mode of contracting solemn, if not legally binding, obligations." 

In the Code of Justinian the formality of raising the right hand was necessary in taking an oath. Then we find from the two great sources of law, Roman and English, that more importance is attached to the right hand than to the left. 

Among primitive races, such as the Dacotah, the Winebagoes and other Western tribes, the right hand as a symbol has been observed by more than one person. As a symbol of fidelity and virtue the right hand is repeatedly referred to in Hebrew lore. 

Abraham said to the King of Salem: "I have lifted up my hand unto the Lord, the most High God, the possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take anything that is thine." The expression, "lifted up my hand unto the Lord," doubtless proves the custom of the ancient Hebrews in placing the right hand upon the object of veneration in entering into a contract or binding obligations, and if such object could not be touched, the right hand was extended toward the thing of reverence with hand open and fingers extended. The right hand of fellowship is spoken of by St. Paul in Gallatioans (Gallatian 2, chap. 9). In Psalms, 94th chapter, the right hand is spoken of as "the right hand of falsehood." 

The manner of using the right hand is a symbol of fidelity, imposed in primitive times the loss of that member in cases of breaches of faith. Pollack and Maitland, in their work on English Law, in speaking of the German people say, "Germanic law is fond of characteristic punishment. It likes to take the tongue of the false accuser and the perjurer's right hand." 

Fort in his Early History and Antiquities of Freemasonry, says: 

"Oaths were also attested by water, fountains and streams, by rocks, cliffs and stones - the latter sometimes white, but the most sacred and binding obligations were made upon a blue stone altar. Ancient Norsemen swore upon Thor's hammer. It was no unusual thing for a person to formerly attest an oath by the beard, hair, and eyes, or with the hand upon vestments. A judicial obligation was administered by touching the judge's staff of office, and by some reason warriors swore by the sword; also, other people, in less exciting spheres of domestic life, used household furniture. For examples travellers grasped the wagon wheel, and horsemen their stirrups; sailors rested the hand upon the ship's railing. Operative Masons, or stonecutters of the Middle Ages perpetuated the Scandinavian custom of swearing upon common utensils and used their tools in the solemn formality of an obligation - a usage adhered to by the modern craft. 

"The right hand was considered indispensable in medieval oaths, to seize or to touch the consecrated objects. Frequently the hand was upraised in order to bring it in contact with the material object sworn by, and at the same time kneeling, divested of hat and weapon, was an essential element in the ceremony of assuming an oath." 

Why was it necessary to touch or to be in contact with some sacred object? This is a pertinent question. The possible explanation may be found in the doctrine of deodands in ancient English Common Law. This doctrine generally recognized that in case of an injury inflicted by an inanimate object, such as a wagon wheel, tree or other object of similar kind, a portion of the punishment or damage was to award the injured with the object, the cause of the injury. Man from the remotest times has attributed life, spirit or being to inanimate objects, therefore, swearing upon these inanimate objects is doubtless for no other purpose than to call upon some object to be a witness to this obligation. From the fact that man has attributed life to inanimate objects, creating and vesting them with certain characteristics common to mankind, naturally thought about the necessity of giving them sex. Hence it is probable that this is the explanation why in most languages we find masculine and feminine gender indiscriminately applied to inanimate objects. The explanation is to be found in the doctrine of animism and not in poetic license as is often given by grammarians. 

The frequent use of the right hand - and one can cite instance after instance of its use of entering into obligations, such as in marriage contracts, uplifted right hand in the taking of an oath - naturally arouses one's enthusiasm to investigate the probable cause. Brother Mackey cites instance after instance of its use in worship, such as keeping the right side to the altar in going around the altar. Sir Walter Scott gives an instance in his novel, The Pirate, of the young people who assembled in far off Norseland and joined right hands through a circular aperture at the base of an upright rock and plighted their faiths to the god Odin. G. Stanley Hall makes some interesting remarks when he says: 

"There are many facts which seem to suggest that in adolescence the right hand precedes the left, and is not usually quite overtaken, so that the predominance is greater after puberty. If this be so the relation of the two hands in man is somewhat analogous to the relation between the male and female body in muscular development." 

Scientists say the grip of the right hand exceeds in strength by one-sixth to one-eighth that of the left hand. Smedley has observed that there is an analogy between unidexterity and the development of the voice. 

Here let us pause and ask two questions: First, Are we right-handed because of the long continued use of the right hand in worship and in assuming obligations thereby creating a physiological condition or anatomical condition as a result of constant exercise or precedence of the right hand? Second, Is the preference given to the right hand due to the disparity in development between the two hands as is pointed out by the scientist in the preceding paragraphs? 

The delivery of possession of a piece of land was performed, says Digby, in the following manner: 

"Speaking generally it must be the delivery of something, such as a clod, earth or twig on the land in the name of whole. Great importance was attached to the notoriety of the transaction. That all the neighbours might know that A was tenant to B from the fact that open livery of seisen had been made to him. This would enable him to assert his rights in case of disputes to the title of lands." 

Another instance may be cited from Littleton Coke's translation: 

"When a freeholder does fealty to his lord he shall hold his right hand on a book and shall say this: 'Know ye this, my lord, that I shall be faithful and true unto you and faith to you shall bear for the lands which I claim to hold of you and that I shall lawfully do to you the custom and service while I ought to do, at the terms assigned, so help me God and his Saints. And he shall kiss the book." 

In further substantiation of formalities in assuming obligations we wish here to refer to some peculiar marriage customs. One of the most peculiar of these customs was known as "Smock-marriages" or "Marriage in Shift." Under the common law the husband became at marriage liable for the antenuptial debts of his wife as well as the successor to her property rights. One counteracted the other. Now the theory that the husband could escape the liability of the antenuptial debts of his wife possibly created or brought about smock-marriages. 

A smock-marriage was one where the debtor bride came to the wedding dressed in a smock or shift, which was a public declaration to her creditors that she took no property to her husband as a basis of charging him with her debts. A number of instances are reported in the New England States where the bride was secluded in a closet and joined right hands, through an aperture of the door with the bridegroom until the ceremony was said, and later appeared well dressed. Alice Morse Earle, in her Customs of Old New England, refers frequently to this unique custom. 

In ancient days trial by battle was attended by the usual formality of joining right hands before the trial of strength, a custom still preserved in the prize fight.  

Numerous examples might be cited from the Bible but this is not deemed necessary here as it would simply expand this article and add nothing to its value or proof. 

The Prince of Wales in taking his coronation oath lays his right hand upon the Bible, for it is the object of veneration or sacredness. 

The formality of removing the shoes is one of the oldest customs and doubtless had its origin among the people of the Far East, especially the Hebrews. We find Moses upon his approach to the burning bush removed his shoes for the reason that the ground on which he stood was sacred. It is a custom of the people of the East upon approaching a sacred place to remove the shoes or to uncover the feet, but among the Western people the head is uncovered. The fact of discalceation proves beyond doubt that the person taking the oath regards the Deity as present and participating as a third party to the ceremony. Among the Jewish people it was considered a sign of renunciation of dominion or authority to remove the shoes. 

Under the Mosaic law the brother of a childless man was bound to marry his widow and until he renounced his right, she could not marry another. If refused the woman was obliged to loose his shoes from off his feet and spit before his face as an assertion of complete her complete independence. 

Edward J. White in his Legal Antiquities says: 

"That this custom was later used by the early Christians would seem to be confirmed by the story connected with the proposal of the Emperor Vladimir to the daughter of Raguald, for when asked if she would not marry the Emperor she replied: 'I will not take off my shoes to the son of a slave."' 

In the early Saxon days when marriage was completed the father of the bride took off her shoes and handed them to the bridegroom. Wood's Wedding Day in All Ages says that Martin Luther, the great reformer, used the shoe in his ceremony. 

Bending the knee has in all ages of the world's history been considered as an act of humility and reverence. Pliny, the Roman naturalist, observes that a certain degree of religious reverence is attributed to the knee of man. Solomon prayed upon bended knee at the consecration of the temple. 

These customs show beyond doubt that in taking the obligation the candidate is assumed to be in the presence of the Deity and that his obligation is entered into with that ever present Being. 

The last point we desire to make is that an obligation once assumed was by ancient peoples considered inviolable, and could not be set aside or held for naught. One reason for this was because every act of the promisor contemplated the presence of the Deity and according to the customs of that age due preparations had been made looking to the entering into of the obligations. 

It would be a great blessing in this modern age if more of the initiates in entering into the obligation could or would consider it more as the ancients did, a solemn and binding obligation, - one taken in the presence of Him who can search the inner recesses of the heart and knows our purposes and designs. If that were true we would have better Masons. 

It is a matter of regret to every man practising law how easily men extend their right hand toward their Creator and perjure themselves. This is done because many of them regard an oath as an empty string of words with no binding effect whatsoever. Let us as Masons make more of our obligations and try to impress upon the initiate the fact that a broken pledge with the brethren is attended with serious consequences and is looked upon with displeasure by Him who takes notice of the falling of the sparrow.

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Last modified: March 22, 2014