The adversaries of Freemasonry have found, or rather invented, abundant reasons for denouncing the Institution; but on nothing have they more strenuously and fondly lingered than on the accusation that it makes, by horrid and impious ceremonies, all its members the willing or unwilling executioners of those who prove recreant to their cows and violate the laws which they are stringently hound to observe. Even a few timid and uninstructed freemasons have been found who were disposed to believe that there was some weight in this objection. the fate of Morgan, apocryphal as it undoubtedly was, has been quoted as an instance of Masonic punishment inflicted by the regulations of the Order; and, notwithstanding the solemn asseverations of what most intelligent Freemasons to the contrary, seen have been found, and still are to be found, who seriously entertain the opinion that every member of the Fraternity becomes, by the ceremonies of his initiation and by the nature of the vows which he has taken, an active Nemesis of the order, bound by some unholy promise to avenge the Institution upon any treacherous or unfaithful Brother.
All of this arises from a total misapprehension, in the minds of those who are thus led astray, of the true character and design of vows or oaths which are accompanied by an imprecation. It is well, therefore, .or the information both of our adversaries-who may thus be deprived of any further excuse for slander, and of our friends-who will be relieved of any continued burden on their consciences, that we should show that, however solemn may be the promises of secrecy, of obedience, and of charity which are required from our initiates, and however they may be guarded by the sanctions of punishment upon their offenders, they never were intended to impose upon any Brother the painful and-so far as the laws of the country are concerned-the illegal task of vindicating the outrage committed by the violator. The only Masonic penalty inflicted by the Order upon a traitor, is the scorn and detestation of the Craft whom he has sought to betray.
But that this subject may be thoroughly understood, it is necessary that some consideration should be given to oaths generally, and to the character of the imprecations by which they are accompanied. The observation, or imprecation, is that part of every oath which constitutes its sanction, and which consists in calling some superior power to witness the declaration or promise made, and invoking his protection for or anger against the person making it, according as the said declaration or promise is observed or violated. This observation has, from the earliest times, constituted a part of the oath-and an important part, too-among every people, varying, of course, according to the varieties of religious beliefs and modes of adoration. Thus, among the Jews, we find such observations as these: co yagnasheh li Elohim, meaning so may God do to me. A very common observation among the Greeks was isto Zeus or theon marturomai, meaning May Jove stand by me, or I call God to unfitness. And the Romans, among an abundance of other observations, often said, dii me perdant, meaning May the gods destroy me, or ne vivam, May I die.
These modes of observation were accompanied, to make them more solemn and sacred, by certain symbolic forms. Thus the Jews caused the person who swore to hold up his right hand toward heaven, by which action he was supposed to signify that he appealed to God to witness the truth of what he had averred or the sincerity of his intention to fulfill the promise that he had made. So Abraham said to the King of Sodom, "I have lift up my hand unto the Lord, . . . that I will not take anything that is thine." Sometimes, in taking an oath of fealty, the inferior placed his hand under the thigh of his lord, as in the case of Eliezer and Abraham, related in the twenty-fourth chapter of Genesis. Among the Greeks and Romans, the person swearing placed his hands, or sometimes only the right hand, upon the altar, or upon the victims when, as was not unusual, the oath was accompanied by a sacrifice, or upon some other sacred thing. In the military oath, for instance, the soldiers placed their hands upon the signa, or standards.
The observation, with an accompanying form of solemnity, vas indeed essential to the oath among the ancients, because the crime of perjury was not generally looked upon by them in the same light in which it is viewed by the moderns. It was, it is true, considered as a heinous crime, but a crime not so much against society as against the gods, and its punishment was supposed to be left to the deity whose sanctity had been violated by the adjuration of his name to a false oath or broken vow. Hence, Cicero says that "death was the divine punishment of perjury, but only dishonor was its human penalty." Therefore the crime of giving false testimony under oath was not punished in any higher degree than it would have been had it been given without the solemnity of an oath. Swearing was entirely a matter of conscience, and the person who was guilty of false swearing, where his testimony did not affect the rights or interests of others, was considered as responsible to the deity alone for his perjury.
The explicit invocation of God, as a witness to the truth of the thing said, or, in promissory oaths, to the faithful observance bf the act promised, the observation of Divine punishment upon the jurator if what he swore to be true should prove to be false, or if the vow made should be thereafter violated, and the solemn form of lifting up the hand to heaven or placing it upon the altar or the sacred victims, must necessarily have given confidence to the truth of the attestation, and must have been required by the hearers as some sort of safeguard or security for the confidence they were called upon to exercise. This seems to have been the true reason for the ancient practice of solemn observation in the administration of oaths.
Among modern nations, the practice has been continued, and from the ancient usage of invoking the names of the gods and of placing the hands of the person swearing upon their altars, we derive the present method of sanctifying every oath by the attestation contained in the phrase "So help me, God," and the concluding form of kissing the Holy Scriptures (see Oath and Oath, Corporal).
Now the question naturally occurs as to what is the true intent of this observation, and what practical operation is expected to result from it. In other words, what is the nature of a penalty attached to an oath, and how is it to be enforced7 When the ancient Roman, in attesting with the solemnity of an oath to the truth of what he had just said or was about to say, concluded with the formula, "May the gods destroy me," it is evident that he simply meant to say that he was so convinced of the truth of what he had said that he was entirely willing that his destruction by the gods whom he had invoked should be the condition consequent upon his falsehood. He had no notion that he was to become outlawed among his fellow-creatures, and that it should be not only the right, but the duty, of any man to destroy him. His crime would have been one against the Divine law, and subject only to a Divine punishment.
In modern times, perjury is made a penal offense against human laws, and its punishment is inflicted by human tribunals. But here the punishment of the crime is entirely different from that inferred by the observation which terminates the oath. The words "So help me, God," refer exclusively to the withdrawal of Divine aid and assistance from the jurator in the case of his proving false, and not to the human punishment which society would inflict.
In like manner, we may say of what are called Masonic penalties that they refer in no case to any kind of human punishment; that is to say, to any kind of punishment which is to be inflicted by human hand or instrumentality. The true punishments of Freemasonry affect neither life nor limb. They are expulsion and suspension only. But those persons are wrong, be they mistaken friends or malignant enemies, who suppose or assert that there is any other sort of penalty which a Freemason recreant to his vows is subjected to by the laws of the Order, or that it is either the right or duty of any Freemason to inflict such penalty on an offending Brother. The observation of a Freemason simply means that if he violates his vows or betrays his trust he is worthy of such penalty, and that if such penalty were inflicted on him it would be but just and proper. "May I die," said the ancient, "if this be not true, or if I keep not this vow." Not may any man put me to death, nor is any man required to put me to death, but only, if I so act, then would I be worthy of death. The ritualistic penalties of Freemasonry, supposing such to be, are in the hands not of man, but of God, and are to be inflicted by God, and not by man.
Brother Fort says, in the twenty-ninth chapter of his Early History and Antiquities of Freemasonry, that:
Penalties inflicted upon convicts of certain grades during the Middle Ages, were terrible and inhuman.
The most cruel punishment awaited him who broke into and robbed a Pagan Temple. According to a law of the Frisians, such desecration was redressed by dragging the criminal to the seashore and burring the body at a point in the sands where the tide daily ebbed and flowed (Lex Frisionum, title xiu).
A creditor was privileged to subject his delinquent debtor to the awful penalty of having the flesh torn from his breast and fed to birds of prey. Convicts were frequently adjudged by the ancient Norse code to have their hearts torn out (Grimm, Demtsche Rechts-Alter thumer, page 690).
The oldest death penalties of the Scandinavians prescribed that the body should be exposed to fowls of the air to feed upon. Sometimes it was decreed that the victim be disemboweled, his body burnt to ashes and scattered as dust to the winds. Judges of the secret Vehmgericht passed sentences of death as follows: "Your body and flesh to the beasts of the field, to the birds of the air, and to the fishes of the stream." The judicial executioner, in carrying into effect this decree, severed the body in twain, so that, to use the literal text, "the air might strike together between the two parts." The tongue was oftentimes torn out as a punishment. A law of the early Roman Umpires known as Ex Jure Orientis Calsareo, enacted that any person, suitor at law or witness, having sworn upon the evangelists, and proving to be a perjurer, should have the tongue cut from its roots. A cord about the neck was used symbolically, in criminal courts, to denote that the accused was worthy of the extreme penalty of law by hanging or decapitation. When used upon the person of a freeman, it signified a slight degree of subjection or servitude (pages 318-20, 693 and 708).
Some eminent Brethren of the Fraternity insist that the penalty had its origin in the manner in which the lamb was sacrificed under the charge of the Captain of the Temple, who directed the Priests: and said, "Come and cast lots." "Who is to slaughter?" "Who is to sprinkle?" "Go and see if the time for slaughter approaches?" "Is it light in the whole East, even to Hebron?" and when the Priest said "Yes," he was directed to "go and bring the lamb from the lamb-chamber"; this was in the northwest corner of the court. The lamb was brought to the north of the altar, its head southward and its face northward The lamb was then slaughtered; a hole was made in its side, and thus it was hung up. The Priest skinned it downward until he came to the breast, then he cut off the head, and finished the skinning; he tore out the heart, subsequently he cleft the body, and if became all open before him; he took out the intestines etc.; and the various portions were divided as they had cast lots (see the Talmud, Joseph Barclays LL.D.) .