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Holy Bible Questions
by Ed Halpaus
Dear Masonic Student,
After the latest issue of the Old Leo Letters and Talks was posted (issue # 5) two questions regarding the Holy Bible was posted on a Masonic list server, these are the questions: When was the Holy Bible first used in a Masonic Lodge? And when did the Holy Bible come to be known as The Great Light of Masonry?
Definitive answers to questions like that are hard to come up with, because of the lack of exact records on these subjects not being found for most of the Lodges operating prior to the formation of the Premiere Grand Lodge in 1717: But such questions are interesting to explore, and thankfully others have done the hard work of research to come as close as possible to having exact dates to answer such questions. For me, and other Masonic Students, we simply need to know where to look to find the information supplied by these earlier Brothers, who did the research, and then report on it to you.
The first answer comes from the March 1924 Short Talk Bulletin of the Masonic Service Association; in my copy of that issue of that bulletin there is no author given: “The Bible is mentioned in some of the old manuscripts of the Craft long before the revival of Masonry in 1717, as the book upon which the covenant, or oath, of a Mason was taken; but it is not referred to as a Great Light. For example, in the Harleian Manuscript, dated about 1600, the obligation of an initiate closes with the words: “So Help Me God, and the Holy Contents of this Book.” In the old ritual, of which a copy from the Royal Library in Berlin is given by Krause, there is no mention of the Bible as one of the Lights. It was in England, due largely to the influence of Preston and his fellow workmen, that the Bible came to its place of honor in the Lodge. At any rate, in the rituals of about 1760 it is described as one of three Great Lights.”
The second Answer comes from a great book for the Masonic Student to have for research; “The Freemason at Work” by Harry Carr, and revised by Frederick Smyth. In it there is a question similar to the one mentioned above, and the answer contains some very good information that is good to know for future use.
Q. When did the word ‘Bible’ first appear in Masonic literature? When did the Bible first appear in a Masonic lodge; the name and location of the said lodge?
A. If you insist on the word `Bible’, its first appearance in a Masonic context seems to be in the later 1600s.
No part of the Bible was printed in English until 1525, and the first complete Bible in English was not printed until 1535. At this date, therefore, one would hardly expect to find the Bible in general use any-where outside a Church or Monastery, or in a really wealthy household, and this may well explain the absence of early references to the Bible in our oldest Masonic documents.
Many versions of the MS. Constitutions or Old Charges contain instructions, usually in Latin, prescribing the form of administering the oath. The earliest of these instructions appears in the Grand Lodge No. 1 MS., dated 1583. It begins:
Tune unus ex Seniorbus tenerit librurn …, and the passage may be translated: Then one of the elders holds out a book and he or they (that are to be sworn) shall place their hands upon it and the following precepts shall be read.
Here the book might mean the ‘Book of Charges’ (i.e., the copy of the Constitutions), but the word ‘book’ is ambiguous, and a doubt remains.
In many of the later cases the reference to the book may safely be assumed to refer to the V.S.L., e.g., the Harleian MS. No. 1942, which is another version of the Old Charges belonging to the second half of the seventeenth century. It contains a form of the masons’ oath of secrecy, in which the final words show clearly that the Holy Book was used for this purpose: ‘… soe helpe me god and the holy contents of this booke’.
Possibly the first clear reference to the Bible in this connection appears in the Colne No. 1 MS., dated c. 1685:
Heare followeth the worthy and godly Oath of Masons. One of the eldest taking the Bible shall hould it forth that he or the(y) which are to bee maid Masones, may Impoase and lay thear Right hand upon it and then the Charge shall bee read.
(Hughan, Old Charges, 1895, p. 72.)
The oldest Lodge Minutes in Scotland begin in 1598; they belonged to the now-dormant Lodge of Aitchison’s Haven. Those of the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary’s Chapel), No. 1, begin in 1599; Lodge Mother Kilwinning, No. 0, in 1642, etc. All these ancient Lodge records, and many others, have been published, but a careful check of the earlier minutes reveals no hint of a Bible as part of the Lodge equipment. The same applies to the oldest English Lodge records (Alnwick, 1701, and Swalwell, 1725).
Yet, having regard to the deeply religious character of those days, it is probable that from the time when printed copies became readily available, the Bible was amongst the most constant items of Lodge equipment. At Lodge Mother Kilwinning, the minutes in 1646 record that Fellows were ‘sworne to ye standart of ye said lodge ad vitam’, and the Deacon swore his oath ‘de fidelij administratione’.
It is almost certain that a Bible would have been used, yet the earliest record of the purchase of a Bible was in 1766, when the Lodge ordered `two song books’ as well! (Carr, Lodge Mother Kilwinning No. 0, pp. 35, 257.)
An inventory of equipment of the Lodge of Peebles in 1726 shows: `One Bible, the Constitutions of the Laws of the Haill Lodges in London’, etc. (Lyon, Hist. L. of Edinburgh, p. 83.)
A schedule of property of the Old Dundee Lodge, Wapping, London, in December, 1744, records: ‘A Bible … [valued at] 15.0’. Another was presented to the Lodge in 1749. (Heiron, The Old Dundee Lodge, p. 23.)
The Minutes of the Lodge of Antiquity, No. 2, for November, 1759, report that one of the members `could not provide a proper Bible for ye Use of this Lodge . . . for less than 40/-, and ye Lodge ordered him to provide one and not to exceed that sum’. (W. H. Rylands, Records of the Lodge of Antiquity, vol. i, p. 203.)
But, of course, these random notes only appear in those cases where the lodge Clerks or Secretaries thought fit to record them, and very little early evidence has survived.
For the most interesting descriptions of the use of the Bible amongst Masons we have to go outside the normal lodge records, examining instead the earlyaides-memoire and exposures which claim to describe the admission-procedures of their times, and in these sources there is ample material:
Edinburgh Register House MS., 1696.
The Forme of Giveing the Mason Word
Imprimis you are to take the person to take the word upon his knees, and
The Chetwode Crawley MS., c. 1700.
Impr. you are to put the person, who is to get the word, upon his knees; And, after a great many Ceremonies, to frighten him, yow make him take up the Bible; and, laying his right hand upon it . . . (Ibid., p. 35.)
A Mason’s Confession, 1755-6, describing Scots procedure in c. 1727.
[From the candidate’s preparation for the Obligation.]
… and his bare elbow on the Bible with his hand lifted up . . . (Ibid., p. 94.)
The Mystery of Freemasonry, 1730.
Q. What was you doing while the Oath was tendering?
A. I was kneeling bare-knee’d betwixt the Bible and the Square, taking the solemn Oath of a Mason. (Ibid., p. 106.)
Masonry Dissected, 1730, by Samuel Prichard.
[From the preparation for the Obligation.]
… my naked Right Hand on the Holy Bible; there I took the Obligation (or Oath) of a Mason. (Ibid., p. 111.)
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Last modified: March 22, 2014