Museum of Freemasonry - Masonic Library
The Final Charge in the First Degree encapsulates so much of what we believe about Freemasonry that it could be used as a summary of the craft. It can be one of the most impressive parts of the initiation ceremony, so it was with some surprise that I found that some consider it not a charge at all, but rather a lecture ( like the tracing Board ) and so not a part of the ritual proper.

There have been attempts to relate this charge back to the ‘Old Charges and so lend it some kind of legitimacy. While a few phrases have a familiar ring, the Old Charges arose from operative circumstances.  Our First Degree Final Charge arose from and refers to speculative Freemasonry alone.

The Old Charges (and their summarised versions ) are to be found at the beginning of the Book of Constitutions, but the Final Charge, as we know it today, first appeared in William Preston’s ‘Illustrations of Freemasonry’ in 1772. Many editions of this work, with editorial changes, were published over the next hundred years.  Yet, while Preston’s is the form with we are familiar, Preston in fact elaborated it from a similar charge that had appeared 40 years earlier.

Let us now consider the text of the Final Charge . . . . . . .

In the introductory paragraph we find reference to our  “ancient an honourable institution”.  The ‘ancient’ part is surely an exaggeration.  Freemasonry, as we know it today, has existed for only about three hundred years, and while some of the customs of the operatives have been adopted, it could hardly be said to be the same institution.

The sentence concerning  the ‘honourable institution’ has always seemed to me a clumsy statement. It means that if you obey the teachings of freemasonry you will be a good person, therefore freemasonry must be a good organisation. A bad tree cannot bring forth good fruit.  This is an important line of reasoning, as our detractors claim that despite our charitable works and the undoubted integrity of some well known freemasons, the organisation is still evil.  This line of thought  is the answer : if you follow our masonic guidelines, you will unquestionably be a good citizen, hence the organisation doing the teaching must be good.

Next, “Monarchs themselves have been promoters of the art.”  At the time this was written (the early 1700’s ), the monarchs being claimed were those of our traditional history : Solomon, Hiram, Athelstan, Edwin, etc..    From about 1800 to 1950 virtually every Protestant King in Europe was a freemason.  This is no longer true and this change is reflected in New Zealand ( and Australia ?). Sir Keith Holyoake was the last practising Prime Minister of N.Z., and Sir Arthur Porrit the last practising  Governor-General.  In our democratic age, we should concentrate on our “rank and file” rather than look for reflected glory in which to bask. Celebrities will come to us if we demonstrate the worth of our institution.

An interesting relic in this paragraph is “ the exchange of the Sceptre for the Trowel”. We no longer have the Trowel as a working tool in craft freemasonry, but this reference was not modified when it was removed from the ritual.  Perhaps the gavel would be a more readily understood substitution.

Now we have the reference to the Volume of the Sacred Law and the three duties “ to God,  to our neighbour, and to ourselves”.  The duty to God is clear enough; that to our neighbour is our version of the Golden Rule ( the word ‘office’ is used as a synonym for ‘service’) ; but the language of duty to ourselves is rather obscure.  It is saying that a good freemason looks after his physical and mental health and that no matter what our skills in life are, we are always to do a job to the best of our ability - and That is how we contribute to the good of society.

There now follows the important paragraph concerning our citizenship : “being peaceable and promoting an orderly society”. Note that we are to pay ‘Due obedience’ not ‘Blind obedience’ , suggesting that we should think about our laws.  This obedience to the laws of the land must cause much anguish to many of our brethren in oppressed communities in other parts of the world. The charge also takes note that freemasonry has always been attractive to travellers and settlers, by enjoining us never to forget our native country; no matter what the reason for leaving, it still provided the circumstances for our “birth and infant nurture”.

It may not be immediately obvious that the next paragraph concerning ‘the practice of every domestic as well as public virtue’ is in fact talking about our home life.  It says that we are not to present a different face to our family from that which we display to the outside world. It is in family life that we must practice the four cardinal virtues: Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude and Justice.  Finally it says that we must ‘ be especially careful to preserve in their fullest splendour those truly masonic ornaments, Benevolence and Charity’.             The description of Charity as an ornament’ has caused some comment. The masonic ornaments are the physical ones referred to in the First Degree Tracing Board lecture.

The remainder of the charge concerns our duty as a freemason.  Note that it is “Excellences” of character, not “Excellencies”. Although originally meaning the same, the latter is now an honorific  when addressing a Governor-General and his/her spouse : “Your Excellencies”.

The Excellences are Secrecy, Fidelity, and Obedience.  The secrecy causes reaction and discussion today and all our secrets have been printed and shown on television.  Our secrets are irrelevant to the rest of the world, but to us they are very important as a test of a mans reliability.

The most part of the “obedience” paragraph is the dictate to abstain, while in lodge, ‘from every topic of political or religious discussion’.  Although not always observed as well as it ought to be , this injunction is a crucial part of freemasonry.  The irregular constitutions of Europe and South America freely discus politics, lobby on political issues, and openly attack organised religion and religious beliefs.  This was one of the reasons for the one hundred year long opposition to our craft by the Church of Rome.

This crucial part of our philosophy arose from the very beginnings of speculative freemasonry.  The late seventeenth century was a time of deep divisions in British society, with the lingering resentments of the Civil War, dissension on the place of the Roman Catholic religion, and the stirrings of an educated middle class  versus the landed gentry.  The adoption of this dictate by freemasonry allowed men of goodwill to meet together across political, religious, and class boundaries and was one of the attractions of the early lodges.

It is important that we keep this dictate before the public today. We are accused, amongst other things, of meddling in politics - even of being a conspiracy to rule the world. We must continually refute these accusations by showing that as we do not discuss these matters in lodge, a political or religious policy is impossible.

The phrase “perfect submission to the Master and his Wardens” has caused disquiet and unease, while some think it unnecessarily obsequious. However, the implication is that as we had the choice of electing them or not, we can at least grant them the courtesy of deferring to them during their term of office.

In the penultimate paragraph we have the choice of ‘respectable’ or ‘respected’ in life. Both words meant the same when the charge was written; since then the meaning of the former has shifted  and it now tends to have overtones of middle-aged, middle-class people, living in the        ‘right’ area and having the ‘right’ lifestyle, whether they are respected by the rest  of the community or not. Respected is therefore the preferred word today.

 

“Cultivate such of the liberal arts and sciences as may lie within the compass of your attainments”. This phrase is the only reference, within the first degree, to the seven liberal arts and sciences which formed such  an important part of the  Old Charges.

In the final paragraph we come to the crux of the charge: we expect Truth, Honour, and Virtue of our candidate; indeed , we will him that they are the “sacred dictates”.  But what does a candidate understand of these words ?

By Truth he will understand not telling lies, but he will be somewhat vague about the other two. Yet Truth has a much wider meaning than that of his initial mental response, such as a knowledge of his own strengths and limitations, a desire for facts rather than gossip or a juicy distorted story, and the expected “square dealing “ in business, social, and family life: all encompassed by the word ‘Integrity’.

By Honour I would suggest that the concepts conveyed today by the words “reliability” and “loyalty” give a more readily understood interpretation.

Virtue is a distinctly old-fashioned notion. It has to do with morals rather than legality or honesty. Today the words “decency” and” fidelity” ( in the  marital sense) would be more immediately comprehended.

In Conclusion . . . . . .

I said at the beginning  that the Final Charge of the First Degree is not necessarily an immutable part of our ritual. Words in it have been changed over the last two centuries and other words still used now have a different meaning. Should it be rewritten and put into a “New English” version ? My answer is NO ! !

Whether we like it or not, or whether our candidate fully understands it or not, the rolling phrases of this charge have become an integral part of our tradition.  This charge is usually delivered by a respected  and eloquent Past Master and we must ensure that the candidate feels he is being personally addressed so that it will remain in his memory as one of the most impressive parts of the ceremony.  But we should also make sure that during his initial curiosity about freemasonry, he is suitably informed so as to be prepared to gain the full meaning of the charge.

Early in the ceremony , we advised the candidate that freemasonry stands for Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. We have just said that that we expect Truth, Honour and Virtue of him.  We must ensure that the candidate has some modern language grasp of all these considerations.

Courtesy, Charity, Decency, Fidelity, Honesty, Integrity, Loyalty, Reliability, Tolerance. These are the concepts we must leave with the candidate.  These are also the perceptions  of ourselves that we would wish to promulgate in the wider community.

Transcribed from the March 1991 Notice paper of

The Research Lodge of OTAGO No. 161, New Zealand, and editorily adjusted for presentation in Lodge Gosford No.742

By Wor. Bro. R. H. Montgomery
(Research Lodge of Otago, No. 161 , N.Z.)