The Principles of Masonic Law/Chapter XIX

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The division of wrongs, by the writers on municipal law, into private and public, or civil injuries and crimes and misdemeanors, does not apply to the jurisprudence of Freemasonry. Here all wrongs are crimes, because they are a violation of the precepts of the institution; and an offense against an individual is punished, not so much because it is a breach of his private rights, as because it affects the well-being of the whole masonic community.

In replying to the question, "what are masonic crimes?" by which is meant what crimes are punishable by the constituted authorities, our safest guide will be that fundamental law which is contained in the Old Charges. These give a concise, but succinct summary of the duties of a Mason, and, of course, whatever is a violation of any one of these duties will constitute a masonic crime, and the perpetrator will be amenable to masonic punishment.

But before entering on the consideration of these penal offenses, it will be well that we should relieve the labor of the task, by inquiring what crimes or offenses are not supposed to come within the purview of masonic jurisprudence.

Religion and politics are subjects which it is well known are stringently forbidden to be introduced into Masonry. And hence arises the doctrine, that Masonry will not take congnizance of religious or political offenses.

Heresy, for instance, is not a masonic crime. Masons are obliged to use the words of the Old Charges, "to that religion in which all men agree, leaving their particular opinions to themselves;" and, therefore, as long as a Mason acknowledges his belief in the existence of one God, a lodge can take no action on his peculiar opinions, however heterodox they may be.

In like manner, although all the most ancient and universally-received precepts of the institution inculcate obedience to the civil powers, and strictly forbid any mingling in plots or conspiracies against the peace and welfare of the nation, yet no offense against the state, which is simply political in its character, can be noticed by a lodge. On this important subject, the Old Charges are remarkably explicit. They say, putting perhaps the strongest case by way of exemplifying the principle, "that if a Brother should be a rebel against the State, he is not to be countenanced in his rebellion, however he may be pitied as an unhappy man; and, if convicted of no other crime, though the loyal Brotherhood must and ought to disown his rebellion, and give no umbrage or ground of political jealousy to the government for the time being, they cannot expel him from the lodge, and his relation to it remains indefeasible."

The lodge can, therefore, take no cognizance of religious or political offenses.

The first charge says: "a Mason is obliged by his tenure to obey the moral law." Now, although, in a theological sense, the ten commandments are said to embrace and constitute the moral law, because they are its best exponent, yet jurists have given to the term a more general latitude, in defining the moral laws to be "the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the Creator himself, in all dispensations, conforms, and which he has enabled human reason to discover, so far as they are necessary for the conduct of human actions."[1] Perhaps the well known summary of Justinian will give the best idea of what this law is, namely, that we "should live honestly, (that is to say, without reproach,)[2] should injure nobody, and render to every one his just due."

If such, then, be the meaning of the moral law, and if every Mason is by his tenure obliged to obey it, it follows, that all such crimes as profane swearing or great impiety in any form, neglect of social and domestic duties, murder and its concomitant vices of cruelty and hatred, adultery, dishonesty in any shape, perjury or malevolence, and habitual falsehood, inordinate covetousness, and in short, all those ramifications of these leading vices which injuriously affect the relations of man to God, his neighbor, and himself, are proper subjects of lodge jurisdiction. Whatever moral defects constitute the bad man, make also the bad Mason, and consequently come under the category of masonic offenses. The principle is so plain and comprehensible as to need no further exemplification. It is sufficient to say that, whenever an act done by a Mason is contrary to or subsersive of the three great duties which he owes to God, his neighbor, and himself, it becomes at once a subject of masonic investigation, and of masonic punishment.

But besides these offenses against the universal moral law, there are many others arising from the peculiar nature of our institution. Among these we may mention, and in their order, those that are enumerated in the several sections of the Sixth Chapter of the Old Charges. These are, unseemly and irreverent conduct in the lodge, all excesses of every kind, private piques or quarrels brought into the lodge; imprudent conversation in relation to Masonry in the presence of uninitiated strangers; refusal to relieve a worthy distressed Brother, if in your power; and all "wrangling, quarreling, back-biting, and slander."

The lectures in the various degrees, and the Ancient Charges read on the installation of the Master of a lodge, furnish us with other criteria for deciding what are peculiarly masonic offenses. All of them need not be detailed; but among them may be particularly mentioned the following: All improper revelations, undue solicitations for candidates, angry and over-zealous arguments in favor of Masonry with its enemies, every act which tends to impair the unsullied purity of the Order, want of reverence for and obedience to masonic superiors, the expression of a contemptuous opinion of the original rulers and patrons of Masonry, or of the institution itself; all countenance of impostors; and lastly, holding masonic communion with clandestine Masons, or visiting irregular lodges.

From this list, which, extended as it is, might easily have been enlarged, it will be readily seen, that the sphere of masonic penal jurisdiction is by no means limited. It should, therefore, be the object of every Mason, to avoid the censure or reproach of his Brethren, by strictly confining himself as a point within that circle of duty which, at his first initiation, was presented to him as an object worthy of his consideration.


  1. Blackstone, Introd., Sec. i.
  2. For so we should interpret the word "honeste."