Over a month ago, the Grand Master of Nevada, Most Worshipful Steven A. Robinson, Jr., issued an Order that declares the use of any other Volume of Sacred Law (VSL) or book of faith besides the Bible during lodge ceremonies, meetings or degrees is a violation of Nevada's Masonic code.
While the Old Testament of the Holy Bible is central to the origins and allegories of Masonic ritual, in recent decades most U.S. grand lodges have taken a broad approach (or turned a blind eye) to the use of alternative VSLs - especially when obligating new candidates who are not specifically Christian in their beliefs. According to GM Robison's Order, that is not permitted in the Grand Lodge F&AM of Nevada's Masonic Code.
Order No. 1, issued September 26, 2019, states, in part:
"It has been brought to my attention that several lodges are using, or are planning to use, books other than the Holy Bible on the Altar during Degrees or at other times during Masonic meetings.
"I've consulted with the Grand Lecturer concerning this practice. We are in agreement that this practice is not part of our approved and adopted Standard Work as found in our Nevada Masonic Code 4.350 (1). As our Grand Lecturer stated in his Ritual and Work Committee Report at the Annual Communication of 2017: 'Allowing the use of any other than the Holy Bible would be in violation of our Masonic Code, ritual and Work. Deviating from this could be considered a Masonic offense'..."
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I. Concerning GOD and RELIGION.
A Mason is oblig’d 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 charg’d 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 Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguish’d; whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must have remain’d at a perpetual Distance.That very first Ancient Charge gave Freemasonry in England a unique cachet, coming on the heels of the English Civil War in the 1640s. The Catholic Inquisitors were still at work in Spain and Portugal. The Protestant movements across Europe were all too frequently bloody ones. But Masonry was a torchbearer for the Enlightenment. It was the first organized, voluntary, associative society that specified faith as a membership requirement, but not the members' religious creed. Less than a century after Englishmen were executed for arguing about how many holy sacraments there were, or whose prayer book was hidden under their pillows, Masonry didn't care what religion you practiced, as long as you DID. That has not changed.
The Charges make no mention of the Holy Bible itself. Because of the way the Ancient Charges are phrased, Jews were permitted to join London lodges just ten years after the Constitutions were published - something that was unheard of at the time. As the British Empire sailed its way around the globe and spread its colonial power and influence to the corners of the Earth, Freemasonry was along for the ride, and the lodges became a way of bridging relationships between important native, local leaders and English colonial officials. Frequently, those local men were not Christian, but were welcomed into the lodge regardless, based on the Ancient Charges.
As a result, while the Bible was always present on the lodge altars, it was also often accompanied by the Jewish Tanakh, the Islamic Quran, or other volume deemed to be sacred law by local members. (All three are on the altars of the Grand Lodge of Israel today because their members are Jews, Muslims and Christians.) Different VSLs were used at the very least when a non-Christian took the obligations of the three degrees, and for good reason. A man making an oath before God by placing his hand on a book that has nothing to do with his own faith is arguably a hollow gesture and is liable to cause the man to feel the ceremony itself violates his beliefs - or is at best, unbinding upon his heart and word. Making accommodations for such members today should not even be remotely controversial.
But I do understand and sympathize with Nevada's rule on the subject of multiple VSLs. Arguments have flared over the last century and longer about what constitutes an appropriate book or symbol to be obligated upon if the new Mason has no specific book in his religion. Feathers, bones and other objects have even been used. Some lodges in the world stack every holy book they can find on their altars like Congress does at their swearing in ceremonies as a symbol of their universality (or occasionally as a virtue signaling stunt).
Some modern day Masons feel compelled to go through all sorts of ethical and legalistic gymnastics to sufficiently compel their lodges to comply with what is obviously someone being a smart ass tweaking at the fringes of our level of tolerance. In recent years, there's a certain strange development of men who show up with an almost defiant sense of pranksterism and demand their belief be specifically catered to, just as a test to see if Masons really do welcome all faiths. ("I'm a follower of Robespierre's French Revolution-era Cult of the Supreme Being. Neo-pagan-pan-theistic guys like me would join your lodge if I can be obligated on Rousseau, except I don't like organized religiousy sounding things.")
It's possible to be too open minded to even take your own side in an argument.
Part of what blew things up between the Grand Orient de France and the rest of the Masonic world over a century ago was their elimination of the Holy Bible on the altar or even a faith requirement at all, with a substitution of a blank, white book as a stand-in for ALL sacred books. So my guess is that Nevada's rule is a very old one, and was designed to draw a line in the sand before these fights got out of hand at a time when the men knocking at the door of their lodges were 98% Protestant Christian in beliefs. Like it or not, the makeup of the American population who espouses any religious or spiritual faith at all in 2019 is much smaller, very, very different and far more nuanced and diverse than even just 40 years ago. Masonry's very construct demands that we draw our membership from only the pool of such men, leaving the 'stupid' atheists, the 'irreligious libertines,' and even any 'smart atheists' out there to look elsewhere.
Before indignant internet Masons erupt in some explosive insulting of Nevada, the Grand Master, Christians, or American Freemasonry in general, I would urge some major restraint. The wording of GM Robinson's Order No. 1 appears to simply be a clarification of the way Nevada's Masonic Code is written and the basic fact that the Holy Bible is the sole book permitted by it. That does not necessarily mean that he or the Grand Lecturer agree with it (even though they may). It simply means that this practice has to stop unless or until Nevada's Freemasons properly amend their Code to explicitly permit different or multiple VSLs. Depending upon how strongly some of their lodge members feel on the subject, it's entirely possible that someone in Nevada right now is drafting a resolution for their next annual communication to attempt to change it.