Freemason Information

The Moral Law

With the recent decision by the Grand Master of Florida on the exclusion of Pagan, Wiccan, or men of other “non traditional faiths” based on the Charges of a Free-Mason, I thought it a good time to look at these mysterious Masonic charges and try to put them into a historical context.

I explored this subject in 2012 in an article Whence Came the Moral Law in Freemasonry, and so picking up on that work, considered another exploration relative to the Florida decision.

Anderson’s Charges, originally written and published in 1722 (with a revision in 1738), have their origins in a series of General Regulations, drafted in 1720 as a method of conduct in lodge.   Interestingly, nowhere in the General Regulations is there mention of God, Moral Laws, or any other pre-qualification of divinely inspired per-requisite to membership.

The original Charges of a Free-Mason from The Constitutions of the Free-Masons (1734), was originally published by James Anderson A.M., and became the first Masonic text published in America by Benjamin Franklin in 1734.  As text, the Charges have a long history of precedence in Masonic policy, being an unspoken yet de facto baseline of how Freemasons operate. No two U.S. Grand Lodges have officially adopted the same set of Masonic Landmarks as part of their rule and guide, yet all use them, in part, as source in their historical constitutions.  So too is this true of the original Anderson Charges.  The Charges themselves have a contentious history in American Masonry being argued and redrawn several times since their original publication by Albert Mackey and Roscoe Pound, to name a few.

At the center of this debate is the Grand Master of Florida‘s use of Old Charge No. 1 which reads:

Concerning GOD and RELIGION.
A Mason is obliged by his Tenure, to obey the moral Law; and if he rightly understands the Art, he will never be a stupid Atheist, nor an irreligious Libertine. But though in ancient Times Masons were charged in every Country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet ’tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves ; that is, to be good Men and true, or Men of Honor and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguished ; whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must else have remained at a perpetual Distance.

Our interest here is in the phrase “…obey the moral law” which suggests that, if followed, the individual will “rightly understand the art” being neither an Atheist nor irreligious Libertine.  But, one has to question how one rightly understands it, given that the notion of a moral law is vague as it changes with the social changes of the times within which it is interpreted.

To look at it from a modern perspective the Free Legal Dictionary defines a moral law as

The rules of behavior an individual or a group may follow out of personal conscience and that are not necessarily part of legislated law in the United States.

Moral law is a system of guidelines for behavior. These guidelines may or may not be part of a religion, codified in written form, or legally enforceable. For some people moral law is synonymous with the commands of a divine being. For others, moral law is a set of universal rules that should apply to everyone.

But the idea of a moral law has an older source, namely in the philosophical works of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.  Certainly there are others whose contributions of thought led to these two, but Hobbes and Locke’s philosophy were the most influential at the times of Anderson’s writing and likely the source of the Ancient idea of a Moral Law.

Thomas Hobbes notion of a Moral Law evolved out of his idea of a Natural Law.  He suggested that a law of nature is natural and inherently known by everyone as it can easily be deduced by innate mental faculties such as reason and philosophy.  His moral philosophy was based upon an iteration of the Golden Rule, in Hobbes terms, “Do not that to another, which thou wouldst not have done to thy selfe.” 

What makes this statement different from the Golden Rule is that Hobbes version suggests an action (or inaction) so as to avoid being on the receiving end of someone else’s retribution.

But, it seems doubtful that this was the singular philosophical driving force to Anderson’s writing.  Originally published in 1651, Hobbes’ philosophy appeared in his work Leviathan which went on to become a part of the foundation of Western Political Philosophy, especially on the formation of social contracts.  This is interesting given that belonging to a membership based organization is based precisely on this kind of social contract.  It should be said that Hobbes, in considering his social contract, was a proponent of absolutism for the sovereign, or in more modern parlance, in favor of an absolute ruler over society such as a king.  Seeing individuals outside of said society, Hobbes believe those poor unfortunates were in, what he called, a state of nature which made them “…solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”  In this state of Nature, Hobbes believed that man was in a continual struggle, living in fear, ignorance, and in intense discomfort and it was this social contract that man could overcome the effects of the natural law and live in a higher state.

In Leviathan, Hobbes writes:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

So with Hobbes the idea of overcoming the natural law though social contracts would lead to better society building and community building.  But English social philosophy didn’t stop with Hobbes, especially as we grow closer to the time of Anderson’s Charges.

Following Hobbes, John Locke laid out his ideas in his work Two Treatises of Government, published in 1689.  In these Two Treates, Locke lays out the idea of a civil society based upon Hobbes suggestion that every man begins in a state of nature and in need of a social contract.  Where Locke differs is in saying that all men created equal in that state of nature by God.  In the second Treatus, Locke makes the case for the only form of legitimate government as one with the consent of the people.  Locke felt that any government not governed this way was worthy of being overthrown.

While it is interesting to imagine how Locke’s work on establishing a democratic civil society may be at the heart of the original general Regulations and Anderson’s Constitution (both, remember, call for the election of leadership within a democratic framework) to find a link to his philosophical ideas on a Moral Law comes from a lesser known work by Locke, written in 1689, titled An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  In it, we can read on a multitude of aspects concerning moral rectitude, moral actions, the law of nature, and the foundation of being a Moral Being.  Of note, Locke was writing as a Christian and saw the basis of a Moral Laws in the fashion of a carrot and stick means of motivation.   What that means is that, as Locke saw it, God punishes those who fail to follow a religiously motivated moral law while rewarding those who do.

Locke’s view of the Moral Law stands out in the greatest relief when we look at his work The Reasonableness of Christianity, written in 1695,where Locke finally defines the basis of his idea of the Moral Law saying,

Thus then, as to the law, in short: the civil and ritual part of the law, delivered by Moses, obliges not christians, though, to the jews, it were a part of the law of works; it being a part of the law of nature, that man ought to obey every positive law of God, whenever he shall please to make any such addition to the law of his nature. But the moral part of Moses’s law, or the moral law, (which is every-where the same, the eternal rule of right,) obliges christians, and all men, every-where, and is to all men the standing law of works. But christian believers have the privilege to be under the law of faith too; which is that law, whereby God justifies a man for believing, though by his works he be not just or righteous, i. e. though he come short of perfect obedience to the law of works. God alone does or can justify, or make just, those who by their works are not so: which he doth, by counting their faith for righteousness…

This passage both defines the Moral Law, at the time of Locke’s writing, and sets a framework by which men of all faiths could be recognized as capable (obliged) to reflect the moral law through works.

This brings back Anderson’s Charge when he writes

But though in ancient Times Masons were charged in every Country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet ’tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves

This seems to parallel part of Locke’s idea of a Moral Law as a biblical foundation for this general degree of worship.  In Reasonableness, Locke points to the Gospel of John, in verse 4:21-23, as Jesus speaks to the woman from Samaria, the passage reads,

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

It seems that a reader could take this idea of common worship in one of two ways.  First, in the overt Judeo Christian context as Locke proposed citing the woman of Samaria parable.  Or, as Anderson saw fit to broaden the context of the parable so as to be inclusive of a more general Moral Law creating what he describes as a “Center of Union, and the the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must else have remained at a perpetual Distance.”

It would be doubtful that Anderson’s view of the moral law deviated significantly from Locke’s philosophy given the degree to which Locke’s other ideas of a civil society have permeated into Freemasonry, at least in principals, but Locke’s ideals were limited to social societies within which there may not be men otherwise “…at perpetual distance,” especially in a landscape of various religious denominations and potentially divergent faith traditions.  In a broad sense, these various denominations and faith groups would be a part of the composite of his civil society and outside of the test of adherence to his idea of a Moral Law.  Rather, Locke’s writing on the Moral Law seems to suggest that anyone who adheres to its ideal of works is following the prescribed practice and that it is his opinion as a Christian that those who do so under a Christian pretense will receive additional rewards.

This may create some present day discomfort at between moralizing memberships for any faith other than Christian. But it certainly does not preclude differing faiths, at least not upon any philosophical argument, from the Fraternity accepting members from faiths other than Christianity.  Perhaps that was the basis for the Florida decision, to finally take a stance and push out those not of common faith, and put specific definition to the meaning behind the Moral Law, a decision that would insist an all or nothing stance for other like bodies to step in line or dissolve relationships.  Either way, it creates a situation of absolutism that seems fundamentally contrary to Anderson’s Constitutions.

Perhaps Pike got it right when he writes in his first degree observation in Morals and Dogma when he says,

The Wisdom and Power of the Deity are in equilibrium. The laws of nature and the moral laws are not the mere despotic mandates of His Omnipotent will; for, then they might be changed by Him, and order become disorder, and good and right become evil and wrong; honesty and loyalty, vices; and fraud, ingratitude, and vice, virtues. Omnipotent power, infinite, and existing alone, would necessarily not be constrained to consistency. Its decrees and laws could not be immutable. The laws of God are not obligatory on us because they are the enactments of His POWER, or the expression of His WILL; but because they express His infinite WISDOM. They are not right because they are His laws, but His laws because they are right. From the equilibrium of infinite wisdom and infinite force, results perfect harmony, in physics and in the moral universe. Wisdom, Power, and Harmony constitute one Masonic triad. They have other and profounder meanings, that may at some time be unveiled to you…

To reconcile the moral law, human responsibility, freewill, with the absolute power of God; and the existence of evil with His absolute wisdom, and goodness, and mercy, – these are the great enigmas of the Sphinx.

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