In this episode of Masonic Symbols and Symbolism, we explore the symbolism behind the Volume of Sacred Law as used in Freemasonry. Few elements are as contentious as this “indispensable book” in the lodge. Perhaps because of the diversity of faiths who claim ownership of the “one true religion…” Whatever the case, Freemasonry being the religion upon which all men agree. So which Volume of the Sacred Law is the right one?
What holy book does your lodge place on the altar? Let us know in the comments below.
Taken from The Builder magazine from 1920, it says “As the Trestle Board is for the Master to lay lines and draw designs on to enable the brethren to carry on the intended structure with regularity and propriety, so the Volume of the Sacred Law may justly be deemed the spiritual trestle board of the Great Architect of the Universe in which are laid down such divine laws and mortal precepts that were we conversant therewith and adherent thereto they would bring us to an ethereal mansion not built with hands but one eternal in the heavens.”
The Volume of the Sacred Law is considered one of the landmarks of Freemasonry and Albert Mackey, in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, defines it as “an indispensable part of the furniture of every Lodge.” “Advisedly,” he says, “a Book of the Law, because it is not absolutely required that everywhere the Old and New Testaments.”
Mackey goes on to say, “The Book of the Law is that volume which, by the religion of the country, is believed to contain the revealed will of the Grand Architect of the Universe. Hence, in all Lodges in Christian countries, the Book of the Law is composed of the Old and New Testaments; in a country where Judaism was the prevailing faith, the Old Testament alone would be sufficient; and in Islamic countries, the Koran might be substituted.
Masonry does not attempt to interfere with the particular religious faith of its disciples, except so far as relates to the belief in the existence of God, and what necessarily results from that belief. The Book of the Law is, to the speculative Mason, his spiritual Trestle board; without this he cannot labor; whatever he believes to be the revealed will of the Grand Architect constitutes for him this spiritual Trestleboard, and must ever be before him in his hours of speculative labor, to be the rule and guide of his conduct. The Landmark, therefore, requires that a Book of the Law, a religious code of some kind, purporting to be an exemplar of the revealed will of God, shall form in essential part of the furniture of every Lodge.”
In its most distilled essence, one could interpret the idea of the Book of Law, as an amalgam of all sacred texts (in so far as all faiths are represented) or, as in some iterations of Freemasonry, as a blank book that is emblematic of all faiths including non-traditional acknowledgements of agnostics, hermetic, pagan or even perhaps atheism.
The kings james version! The bible is the book of laws. The first five books are the Pentateuch which are specifically laws of God! God is the Supreme Architect of the Universe!
“…Freemasonry being the religion upon which all men agree..”
It’s a play on something Mackey wrote in Textbook of Masonic Jurisprudence, from 1865:
“The truth is, that Masonry is undoubtedly a religious institution — its religion being of that universal kind in which all men agree, and which, handed down through a long succession of ages, from that ancient priesthood who first taught it, embraces the great tenets of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul — tenets which, by its peculiar symbolic language, it has preserved from its foundation, and still continues,in the same beautiful way, to teach.”
Freemasonry being an institution heavily supported by symbols and “deeper meanings,” the only time when “Which book?” would an entirely appropriate question would be before a candidate is obligated as an Entered Apprentice…and at that time only as it might be addressed to the candidate himself!
With an explanation that “You will be called upon to make certain promises of fidelity and obligation to our institution,” the candidate could simply be asked (with the caveat that we will choose for you, if you wish), “In order to make these promises most meaningful to you, upon which book of faith or inspiration would you prefer to make your declaration?” NOT “What is the book of your religion?” or “In what holy book is found the expression of your faith?” Such questions as those would pry deeper into a candidate’s spiritual life than the Craft has any right to inquire.
Essentially, the former question would be asking, “What would make your promises to us, on this occasion, binding upon you for all time?”…and that, as our own ceremonies make clear, is the entire point of a candidate’s declaration of faith.
It is a thing of no small consequence (especially in light of today’s deep divisions in religious opinion) that Lodges of Freemason’s, in some jurisdictions, openly display multiple “holy books” upon their altars: not as mere symbols of theoretical differences in belief,” but as an expression of the actual differences in religious affiliation among actual Brethren in that Lodge and, thereby, as a symbol of an important aspect of their “meeting upon the level!”
As a Mason, it matters very little to me which book is open upon the altar, during the course of a meeting in open Lodge. Whatever book is acceptable to the Lodge as a whole is certainly acceptable to me as a symbol of what our ceremonies say is its purpose there. On the other hand, it matters to me a great deal upon which book I personally took my obligation!
In re. your concluding statement in the essay, Greg, I would question (as does the Fraternity, traditionally…at least in the English system) the validity of any statement of faith by an agnostic. How might one rationally claim to “place one’s trust” in an entity one doubts even exists? And an atheist? How can we accept the sincerity of a candidate’s obligation to us and our ideals, when his own opinions essentially declare that only whatever meaning he himself pours into the promises (rather than those imposed by an authority higher than himself…or us) are the sole assurance we have of his fidelity? I certainly am NOT saying that he hasn’t the right to his opinions. He has, into the bargain, my respect and my willing defense of his point of view! He has the right to be, or to try to be, whatever else he likes, but he hasn’t, in my opinion, the right to be a Mason!
William, while I agree with what you say in principle, I think the notion comes down to faith, and not a particular faith, especially as what exactly that means has evolved over the centuries. Is how we see faith today different than, say, 300 years ago when the church governed the masses? Or, in light of how faith today in general society where church attendance in many sectors (not just in America) is less than 20% and (like the lodge) dropping precipitously. It begs the question of what defines faith? Is it the holy book of your forefathers, or the creed by which one lives? Perhaps it’s best to weigh one’s faith on their moral character, regardless of which book they pledge themselves on, when MOST have read less than a 10th of the words within. Rather, I fear we assign one’s faith to their faith based associations — to their brand of faith practice — which ignores the strength of their character. So then, it begs the question, which brands of faith are compatible with Freemasonry, and which are not?
I certainly, heartily agree with the sentiment you express: “…the notion comes down to faith, and not a particular faith.” But, although “…how we see faith today [is] different than, say, 300 years ago…”, I do believe that, Masonically, there are certain principles we would do well to heed.
Faith, ultimately, is no better (stronger…more rational…more justified…) than the object of that faith. It does not seem to me that it was the faith of the believer, per se, that was flawed “300 years ago, when the church governed the masses.” What was flawed was the notion that “faith in the church” was equivalent to “faith in God”–i.e. it was not the faith but it’s object that was defective. Fundamentally, faith in a person as some sort of “constant” is a flawed notion, and that placed in the product of human reason or understanding is but little more reliable. Even today’s “science” (if one seeks to place trust in something more likely to be “objective”) will likely not be tomorrow’s “science,” and even the objectivity of the scientific method is ultimately no more trustworthy than the motives of those doing the latest research.
At a certain critical juncture, we do not ask he who knocks, “Do you believe in God.” Neither do we ask him, “In ‘what’ do you put your trust?” I believe that there is a reason for both. I heard a Christian evangelist comment, on one occasion, “Even the demons believe in God…and tremble!” “Belief” is little more than an intellectual exercise: a assent to demonstrated fact. But to have faith? An entirely different notion! I “believe” that parachutes work. Whether or not I have faith, demonstrably, in their ability to safely arrest my fall from an aircraft shall await either an extremely unlikely voluntary decision…or an absolute necessity!
We also do not ask our question in terms of “what,” and that, it seems to me, is because any “what” is ultimately something of human origin: whether some person directly, or concept or system of human thought, or some human institution…even one that purports (as was the case 300 years ago) to “speak for God.”
So, I am more of a traditionalist, in this regard. I have heard Freemasonry’s religious connection to be “that religion on which all men can agree,” and I think, for us as Masons, that this is indeed enough. How we pursue our spiritual lives, beyond the walls of the Lodge, is of no consequence to us in our Masonic relationships, but I believe that the institution is correct in demanding that the origin of that moral sense be rooted in a belief in God.
Mr. Stewart and Mr. Achbach… this is a wonderful converstaion to read. Honest Masonic discourse is what we are lacking in this day and age. I must add but a little. I concur with Bro. Achbach. One must beleve in the Supreme-“ness” of God to be a Mason. I think it simply boils down to this…. In a system where trust is given to you from men of divese backgrounds, I must be able to BELIEVE in you. Therefore a man of no belief in the Supreme”ness” of God cannot take an obligation and be believed to “So help me God, and make me staeadfast to keep and perform the same:…
History shows that a belief in God doesn’t make a man any more able to be ‘believed in’.