The Degree Ceremonies of Oxford University – Part 2

Exterior, Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford University where most degree ceremonies take place - built 1664-1668

(Continued from Part 1)

Dr. Hugh Nibley’s opening remarks in his earthshaking address, “Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift,” given at the BYU commencement ceremony on August 19, 1983, would have fit even more perfectly in an Oxford setting. In refering to his statement in a commencement prayer he gave in 1960 in which he said, “We have met here today clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood,” he took this opportunity to explain:

Why a priesthood? Because these robes originally denoted those who had taken clerical orders; and a college was a “mystery,” with all the rites, secrets, oaths, degrees, tests, feasts, and solemnities that go with initiation into higher knowledge.

But why false? Because it is borrowed finery, coming down to us through a long line of unauthorized imitators. It was not until 1893 that “an intercollegiate commission was formed . . . to draft a uniform code for caps, gowns, and hoods” in the United States. Before that there were no rules. You could design your own; and that liberty goes as far back as these fixings can be traced. The late Roman emperors, as we learn from the infallible DuCange, marked each step in the decline of their power and glory by the addition of some new ornament to the resplendent vestments that proclaimed their sacred office and dominion. . . . 

But where did the Roman emperors get it? For one thing, the mortarboard was called a Justinianeion, because of its use by the Emperor Justinian, who introduced it from the East. He got his court trappings and his protocol from the monarchs of Asia. . . . The shamans of the North also had it. . . .

Another type of robe and headdress is described in Exodus and Leviticus and the third book of Josephus’s Antiquities, i.e., the white robe and linen cap of the Hebrew priesthood, which has close resemblance to some Egyptian vestments. . . . Both their basic white and their peculiar design, especially as shown in the latest studies from Israel, are much like our own temple garments. . . . The original idea behind both garments is the same—to provide a clothing more fitting to another ambience, action, and frame of mind than that of the warehouse, office, or farm. . . .

Both the black and the white robes proclaim a primary concern for things of the mind and the spirit, sobriety of life, and concentration of purpose removed from the largely mindless, mechanical routines of your everyday world. Cap and gown announced that the wearer had accepted certain rules of living and been tested in special kinds of knowledge.1

Nibley continues to explain how the robes’ purpose shifted from setting someone apart from the world, to making a public display of someone’s supposed wisdom and knowledge before the world, to “masquerade in affectation.” It was a system that the Sophists set up in order to sell their knowledge to the highest bidder, who would then be given the same trappings to parade before their inferiors.

And down through the centuries the robes have never failed to keep the public at a respectful distance, inspire a decend awe for the professions, and impart an air of solemnity and mystery that has been as good as money in the bank. . . . What took place in the Greco-Roman as in the Christian world was that fatal shift from leadership to management that marks the decline and fall of civilizations. . . .

In a forgotten time, before the Spirit was exchanged for the office and inspired leadership for ambitious management, these robes were designed to represent withdrawal from the things of this world—as the temple robes still do. That we may become more fully aware of the real significance of both is my prayer.2

We will see just how fully the university orders sought to imitate the order of the Ancient of Days, just as the Egyptians did thousands of years before them (Abraham 1:26). But, as always, we will follow Nibley’s example and precedence in that we will “describe and discuss only one of them [Oxford's degrees], preserving complete silence on the other [the Mormon temple],” and that “what is glaringly obvious to [the author] hardly needs to be called to the attention of any adult practicing Latter-day Saint . . .”3.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Joseph Wells, former tutor and Warden of Wadham College at Oxford, who wrote a book in 1906 entitled The Oxford Degree Ceremonies, will be our guide. I did find a more recent study by L. H. Dudley Buxton that was published in 2007 under the title Oxford University Ceremonies, but I did not have as much access to this book. Wells’ analysis, on the other hand, is in the public domain.

In recent times, the degree ceremonies have taken place at the Sheldonian theatre at the university (see the picture at the beginning of the post). The officials of the ceremony include the Vice Chancellor, the Proctors, and the Registrar, who make their dramatic entrance in procession, being preceded by three staves or maces as symbols of authority4. The proceedings follow like this:

  • The Vice-Chacellor begins the assembly, called “the Ancient House of Congregation,” by declaring “the ’cause of this Congregation’5. This is done in English (the rest of the following ceremony proceeds in Latin), and usually includes a description of the ceremony and why they preserve the ancient tradition whereas other universities are more informal, the reason being respect for the graduates and tradition.6
  • The ceremony begins by a declaration from the Registrar that all prerequisites of the participants to participate in this ceremony have been taken care of previously – “the candidates for the degrees have duly received permissions (gratiae) from their Colleges to present themselves, and that their names have been approved by him; he has already certified himself from the University Register that all necessary examinations have been passed, and has been informed officially that all fees have been paid”7.Such graces (gratiae) given from each of the Colleges read:

    “I, A.B., Dean of the College C.D., bear witness that E.F. of the College C.D., whom I know to have kept bed and board continuously within the University for the whole period required by the statues for the degree of B.A., according as the statues require, since he has undergone a public examination and performed all the other requirements of the statues, except so far as he has been dispensed, has received from his college the grace for the degree of B.A. Under my pledged word to this University.
    -A.B., Dean of the College C.D.”8

  • The degrees are taken in the order of Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Civil Law or of Medicine, Bachelor of Divinity, Master of Surgery, Bachelor of Civil Law or of Medicine, Doctor of Letters or of Science, Master of Arts, Bachelor of Letters or of Science, Bachelor of Arts, and finally Musical degrees. The same forms for bestowing the degrees described below are followed for each of these separate degrees, and are thus repeated for each. Wells notes the importance of the repetition: “but it is important to remember that the essentials recur in each admission . . . This repetition was once a much more prominent feature; within living memory it was necessary for each ‘grace’ to be taken separately, and the Proctors ‘walked’ for each candidate. Degree ceremonies in those days went on to an interminable length, although the number graduating was only half what it is now”9. The degree is granted in a fourfold process:
    1. Supplication – A supplication (supplicat) is made by one of the Proctors, a petition or appeal of the House to allow the candidate(s) to be allowed to receive their degree. A sample from an M.A. degree is given:

      E.F. of C. College, Bachelor of Arts, who has completed all of the requirements of the statues (except so far as he has been excused), asks of the venerable Congregation of Doctors and Regent Masters that these things may suffice for his admission to incept in the same faculty.10

      The Proctor next reads each of the names of the candidates to receive the degree. After supplication, both Proctors walk down the House of Congregation, turn, and walk back. This is, in theory, the way the Proctors take votes of the M.A.s present for the ceremony – “it is the clear and visible assertion of the democratic character of the University; it implies that every qualified M.A. has a right to be consulted as to the admission of others to the position which he himself has attained”11. Today, such a procession is mostly symbolic and traditional. After returning to their seats, one of the Proctors declares “‘the graces (or grace) to have been granted’…”12

    2. Presentation – Following supplication, the candidates are presented before the Vice-Chancellor and Proctors by the Dean or professor at the head of the respective colleges, placing the candidate(s) on his/her right hand side, and grasping their right hand to one of the candidates’ right hands. The Dean and candidate(s) give a “proper bow” (debita reverentia) towards the Vice-Chancellor and each of the Proctors as the Dean, in the case of the M.A., says,

      Most eminent Vice-Chancellor, and excellent Proctors, I present this B.A. to you for admission to incept in the faculty of Arts.13

      Wells notes the peculiarity of the grasp of the right hands:

      The old custom was that the presenter should grasp the hand of each candidate and present him separately; some senior members of the University still hold the hand of one of their candidates, though the custom of separate presentation has been abolished; there was an intermediate stage fifty years ago, when the number of those who could be presented at once was limited to five; each of them held a finger or a thumb of the presenter’s right hand.14

    3. Proctorial Charge or Oath – A charge is delivered by one of the Proctors to the candidate(s) for each degree. At one time, a copy of the New Testament was given by the Bedel, on which the candidate(s) took their oath. The charge given to the doctorates and M.A.s is as follows:

      You will swear to observe the statues, privileges, customs and liberties of your University. Also when you have been admitted to Congregation and to Convocation you will behave in them loyally and faithfully to the honour and profit of the University And especially in matters concerning graces and degrees you will not oppose those who are fit or support the unfit. Also in elections you will write down and nominate one only and no more at each vote; and you will nominate no one but a man whom you know for certain or surely believe to be fit and proper.15

      The candidate(s) then bow their head and say, “Do fidem,” which is Latin for “I swear.” During this portion the candidate is sometimes facilitated by a helper, particularly in modern times when many of the candidate(s) do not understand the ceremony which is mostly done in Latin.

      The oath given to the B.A.s or other degrees is shorter:

      You will swear to observe the statutes, privileges, customs and liberties of your University, as far as they concern you.16

      Here Wells notes that the first part of the charge dates back to the beginning, while the rest is a modern composition. Apparently, earlier oaths were much more elaborate, including a charge for the candidate(s) to quickly obtain the dress appropriate for his/her degree17.

      Degrees given to doctorates or bachelors in Divinity are given a different oath, by the senior of the candidate(s) first saying:

      I, A.B., do solemnly make the following declaration. I assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion and to the Book of Common Prayer and of the ordering of biahops, priests, and deacons, and I believe the doctrine of the United Church of England and Ireland, as therein set forth, to be aggreable to the Word of God.18

      The Proctor then charges the other candidate(s) that they will vicariously take upon themselves the same charge:

      The declaration which A.B. has made on his part, you will make on your part, together and severally.19

      The candidate(s) always state their agreement by bowing and saying, “I swear.”

    4. Admission – The candidate(s) kneel before the Vice-Chancellor, who touches each on the head with the New Testament and repeats the formula:

      For the honour of our Lord Jesus Christ, and for the profit of our holy mother, the Church, and of learning, I, in virtue of my own authority and that of the whole University, give you permission to incept in the Faculty of Arts (or of Surgery, &c.), of reading, disputing, and performing all the other duties which belong to the position of a Doctor (or Master) in that same faculty, when the requirements of the statues have been complied with, in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.20

  • Before the ceremony continues to other degrees, the candidates exit the building and completely change their gowns to the appropriate academic gown and hood according to their specific degree or authority they’ve been granted. They receive their new gown by giving a gratuity or “tip” of gold, the money prescribed by custom, to the college servants who await them outside.21 (As if the students haven’t already deposited fortunes of filthy lucre into the coffers of the university treasury; you can buy anything in this world for money). This gown is described as “much heavier and nicer, and had embroidery on the sleeves”22.Then the new Doctors or Masters come back into the building, come before the Vice-Chancellor, bow again, and sometimes shake hands with the Vice-Chancellor. The new Doctors, the highest degree bestowed, are then admitted to take their place among the authorities on the raised stand behind and around the Vice-Chancellor. They are now initiated into and among the top brass of the university and secular world. The M.A.s and B.A.s are permitted to leave, or sit elsewhere among the congregation. They haven’t graduated as far as the Doctors degrees.23
  • The preceding is repeated for each of the degrees. Once this is finished, the Vice-Chancellor rises and announces, “Dissolvimus hanc Congregationem,” ending the service. The Vice-Chancellor, Proctors, and other officials leave the building in the same processional style as in the beginning.24

We will continue to examine this ceremony in the next installment.

(Continued in Part 3)

  1. Hugh Nibley, “Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift,” Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, 491-94. []
  2. ibid., 495, 507. []
  3. Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed., xxix-xxx. []
  4. Joseph Wells, The Oxford Degree Ceremonies, 2. []
  5. ibid., 4. []
  6. []
  7. Joseph Wells, The Oxford Degree Ceremonies, 5. []
  8. ibid., 6. []
  9. ibid., 7-8. []
  10. ibid., 8-9. []
  11. ibid., 9. []
  12. ibid., 9. []
  13. ibid., 11. []
  14. ibid., 11-12. []
  15. ibid., 12-13. []
  16. ibid., 13. []
  17. ibid., 13-14. []
  18. ibid., 14. []
  19. ibid., 15. []
  20. ibid., 15-16. []
  21. This might not be done anymore in the current ceremony.  The money might have been exchanged earlier to buy or rent the gown and hood. []
  22. []
  23. Joseph Wells, The Oxford Degree Ceremonies, 16-17. []
  24. ibid., 18. []


  1. Posted June 30, 2008 at 3:00 am | Permalink


    I very much appreciate your in-depth analyses of the relevance of modern temples, which has inspired me in part to write a few of my own.

    For years, as I attend the Commencement ceremony of my own school, I cannot help but think of the analogues to the temple. I am not convinced there is a historical/evolutionary link, but the similarities make me wonder.

  2. Posted June 30, 2008 at 6:32 am | Permalink


    Thanks for reading here. I’m glad to know that people appreciate following my studies.

    Most critics would probably say that Joseph pilfered the ceremonies from the Masons, and would probably say that Oxford got them from the same source. But I believe there are elements of both that are analogous to each other that don’t have any counterpart in Masonry. So the question becomes, when did Joseph visit Oxford? Br. Dan Peterson says he is tongue-in-cheek awaiting the publication of a book from our critics entitled Joseph Smith – The Cambridge Years, since Joseph must have visited the libraries there to come up with everything he did if he didn’t get it from God. Perhaps we could add a second volume, Joseph Smith – The Oxford Years. Of course, Joseph never set foot in Europe.

    I believe the Oxford ceremonies are an imitation, but even so, like the Egyptians, a very good one. It continues to beg the question of how and where Joseph came up with the temple ceremony; the clearest answer to my mind and heart is that it came from God.

  3. Posted June 30, 2008 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Here is an article from the Telegraph newspaper in the UK that reports that the “universities of Oxford and Cambridge have masonic links dating back to the 19th century…” and that “there has been a lodge at Oxford since 1819.” If this is true, then any purported masonic link could not explain the origins of the Oxford ceremonies which date back to the 12th century, many centuries earlier, in which case we must look elsewhere for their source. Nibley’s explanation is the most sound I’ve found.

  4. Posted June 30, 2008 at 10:07 am | Permalink


    Correct me if you think I am off…

    If one could place temple ceremonies into a larger cross-cultural and comparative perspective, one would find links across the “religious” world, not just Oxford or Cambridge or the Masons, etc. If true, then explanation by historical lineage clearly becomes inadequate.

    A Sunday School explanation might might that God inspires all peoples. This may be true, but it explains everything and therefore nothing. I do wonder, however, whether there are common environmental contingencies that shape religious ritual, producing a kind of convergent evolution. In other words, one does not need historical linkages to account for commonality, as long as there are widely common environmental contingencies guiding human behavior.

    I guess I am saying that my cross-cultural study of religious ritual sees many common themes, such as anointings, extraordinary settings, covenants, progressions, movements, challenges, etc. These themes are evident in more arenas than just Egyptian temples, the tabernacle, the Jerusalem temple, the Masonic temple, graduation ceremonies, etc. As such, Jonathan Z. Smith was correct in that there is a significant need for a broad theory of ritual behavior. Whatever such a theory is, it needs to be better than a “collective unconscious.”

  5. Posted June 30, 2008 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Yes, these patterns do appear in many many different cultural, geographic, religious, secular, political, social, familial, tribal, and other contexts. This is one of the things I’m attempting to show on These things couldn’t have been invented by Joseph Smith, the Masons, or the Egyptians. They show up in too many places. There are commonalities in many areas of human history. I don’t personally believe that there is a “collective unconscious” or “common environmental contingencies” that lead mankind to perform almost identical ritual practices across time and space. Scholars have been trying to figure this out for years. Why do the same mythic parallels keep showing up in disparate times and places? (i.e. The Myth of the Eternal Return – by Mircea Eliade). I do believe that man has a natural instinct and need for ritual, but that doesn’t necessarily dictate the type or form.

    I believe, and I think this was Nibley’s view also, that these things have been passed down and altered slightly from the very beginnings of human life on earth, evolving, changing, and being passed around. If this is the case, there must have been one perfect source at the start before the dispersion for them to all appear in such similar forms. I believe they were first given to Adam and Eve by God, and their posterity has handled them from that time forth, whether for good or bad (Satan loves to counterfeit). Of course, there was probably several restorations (dispensations) of the perfect form since our first parents, one being during the ministry of our Savior Jesus Christ, and again with Joseph Smith the prophet. God keeps us on course.

    On one occasion Hugh Nibley was asked about the similarities between the temple ordinances and the Masons, and he replied that the Hopi Indian rites “come closest of all as far as I have been able to discover—and where did they get theirs?” (Boyd Jay Petersen. Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, 282)

  6. Posted June 30, 2008 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I am not yet convinced by the historical lineage argument, but I agree that there are too many commonalities to be coincidence. I am open-minded, however. If linguistics can legitimately search for the “Proto-Indo-European” language through the study of cognates, then I think you are justified in the search for ritual “cognates.” It will just take a lot of data to convince me of a “multi-generational” ritual genealogy.

    Regardless, you are doing important work, and I hope you can keep up the pace. I have discovered as an “older” person that regular blogging demands more energy than I can usually devote to projects. It is easy to be lazy. Too much blogging out there in the LDS world is blather. Your site, however, is a true oasis. I learn something from each visit. I appreciate your scholarly approach. (And, I am a big fan of Nibley as well).

  7. Posted June 30, 2008 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Ritual cognates. That’s a good term for it.

    Thanks S.Faux! I hope some of my comments might be insightful. Waking at 4:30am in the morning helps me not get too lazy.

  8. Posted July 1, 2008 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    Cool, I just saw this. I was aware of these some of these aspects of the Oxford degree ceremony long before I attended my own so I embarked on the day with a lot of anticipation which was fully rewarded. It was a great event and I felt that my Mormon temple-perspective perhaps helped me look at things a different way than some of the other graduates who might not have had much exposure to such things. It enriched the ceremony for me far beyond the satisfaction of receiving my degree.

    Two aspects in particular were meaningful for me as a “temple Mormon” participant: presentation to the Vice-Chancellor and changing of the robes.

    With regard to the presentation, you noted that

    Following supplication, the candidates are presented before the Vice-Chancellor and Proctors by the Dean or professor at the head of the respective colleges, placing the candidate(s) on his/her right hand side, and grasping their right hand to the candidate’s right hand.

    The Dean no longer takes each candidate by the right hand and to present them individually but does it in batches. All those from my college taking the same master’s degree as I was receiving were presented together with the Dean only taking the right hand of one of the candidates as a proxy for the rest. Before the ceremony, back in our college, we discussed the process and I was selected to be the one to grip the Dean’s right hand in mine on behalf of our group. That had a familiar feeling. The bowing and nodding at the presentation also had a familiar feel to it if only by category and not by direct parallel.

    As to the changing of the robes, that was cool. After the presentation, all those who were taking the same degree exited the Sheldonian to the right and proceeded to the Divinity Schools (I didn’t know about giving a tip — just learned of that here for the first time but from my observation no one gave the porters a tip) where we indeed removed our student robes and donned the hooded graduate gowns. Then, when called for, we all proceeded back into the Sheldonian from the Bodleian/Divinity School entrance where we were greeted back to thunderous applaus and were seated behind the Vice-Chancellor and the Proctors.

    My wife video-taped most of the ceremony (at least the parts in which I was involved) to preserve the memory.

  9. Posted July 1, 2008 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    Thanks John for sharing your personal experience going through the Oxford ceremony. It’s always interesting to get an inside commentary.

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