The Bible and The Craft

by MasterMason

Development and Introduction of the Bible Into Freemasonry
During a recent conversation, on Masonic matters, the comment was made to me that “the Bible and the Volume of the Sacred Law was not the same thing”.  I confess that this comment surprised me as I had always considered them to be one and the same and indeed still do, in the same way that a Jew regards the Old Testament, a Mohammedan the Koran or a Hindu the Bhagvada Gita.
Indeed the “Aims and Relationships of the Craft” 1949, of English origin, stated:
The Bible, referred to by Freemasons as the volume of the Sacred Law, is always open in Lodges.
Every Candidate is required to take his Obligation on that book, or on the volume which is held by his particular creed to impart sanctity to an oath or promise taken upon it”
Consequently the term “Volume of the Sacred Law” is one of union and it is from our willingness to accept this union that the ideas expressed by the term “Volume of Sacred law” will remain “one of the three great emblematic lights’, while still remaining an object of reverence to Christian and Jewish brethren.

But it was not always so. Prior to the Revision of the Constitutions of the Grand Lodge of England in 1723 the Craft was decidedly Christian in form and outlook, but, this was a time of theological, social and economic change, all of which conspired to evolve Freemasonry into the wonderful system we have today.
That which is recognizable to us covers a period of six hundred yeas but the seeds of evolution were sown long before.  Through this whole period the Bible has been involved, and in this short address, I hope to give you some idea of its evolution, subsequent development in Britain, adoption by Freemasonry, and, later, the evolution of our use of certain passages in the New Zealand ritual as well as their purpose and meaning.

The Early British Church   
The exact date that the Bible came to Britain is unknown.  There are of course theories, concerning the introduction of Christianity, revolving around very early visits by Joseph of Armathea, followed by Simon Zealotes the Apostle, Aristobulus (one of the seventy) and finally Paul.  The evidence for such a foundation and the existence of a British Church, coeval within a few yeas of the founding of the Church in Jerusalem, is very strong, but circumstantial.  However, if the circumstantial evidence is correct then the church and teachings of the gospels were in Britain by about 50 A.D.
In spite of extensive trade between Britain and the Roman Empire and an intimate relationship between a number of British families and their Roman counterparts, we must wait for Tertullian, writing in 200 A.D., for the first report of Christianity in Britain.  But the first record is that of the Council of Arles in 314A.D. which was attended by three British Bishops; Eborius of York, Restitutus of London and Adelphius of Colchester.  This signifies that an organized Church, of sorts, did exist and probably had done for some time, although its extent and history can only be conjecture.

The First Bible
At the same time as the proto-church was developing, a number of devout Christians were attempting to practice works above and beyond those required of the laity and indeed of the Church elders.  Initially alone these “monistics”, best represented by St. Anthony of Egypt (329-379), gathered followers.  These, for support and survival in often inhospitable locations, organized themselves into what we now recognize as primitive ecclesiastic communities.  In spite of the severity of their existence monasticism was widely embraced and spread quickly and it was as a member of one such community, in Bethlehem, that Jerome undertook a revision of the Latin Scriptures.     He was at first content with correcting the old Latin version (now known as the “Italic”) from the Septuagint text in Origen’s Hexapla, as he had earlier corrected the Gospels while resident in Rome; but dissatisfaction led him to undertake a translation directly from the Hebrew.  He was rebuked
and reviled for even attempting the task of correcting that which was held to be perfect, but he persevered and completed the work which became the authoritative edition of the Scriptures in the Latin Church.  This is the
Vulgate or “Editio Vulgata” now in common use

The Vulgate was not immediately accepted, but by the sixth century a complete Bible with all the separate books bound in a single cover was in common use.  Being the first true Bible it became a benchmark against which all subsequent alternatives were measured, for a thousand years.

Early British Monasticism
At the same time that Jerome was engaged in his great work another monastic was breaking ground in Britain.  This was Ninian, who as early as 397 founded a small monastery at Whithorn, Galloway. A small community grew around him and before long this growing band became evangelizers to the Pictish tribes of the east coast of Scotland and Hadrian’s Wall.  Their successors continued this work well into the sixth century but while they may have copied the Bible for their own use they, and other groups, made it known to the people only through the spoken word, church ritual, the pictorial Celtic Cross, song, drama and picture books (biblia pauperum), for the poor.  Manuscripts were difficult to produce and very few people, outside the Church, could read.  The Church was also dubious of the lay use of the Scriptures in the “profane vernacular dialects” for those who could read.
In the fifth century ignorance and illiteracy were the lot of the majority.  But a few, who on being converted to Christianity, were recognized as having the potential to benefit the Church were given a rudimentary education, upon their entry into a monastic order. This ensured that the independent British Church was self perpetuating and maintained a steady if unspectacular rate of growth.  In 597 the arrival of Rome’s Augustine provided the seed for a major change to the meager benefits bestowed by the British Church on the populace.
The British Bishops resented his mission and its basic purpose to subjugate their Church to Rome.  But his mission was accepted by Bertha, the Christian wife of Ethelbert, king of Kent and her patronage paved the way to success.  However his achievements were restricted to Ethelbert’s own kingdom of Kent and it was left to Augustine’s successors to spread the Gospels to Nottinghamshire, Wessex, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Northumbria.
Seventy two years after Augustine’s mission arrived the Roman Church was so integrated into society and the “British” Church that Pope Vitalian was able to appoint Theodore of Tarsus as Archbishop of Canterbury (669).
Although advanced in years it was his brief to reorganize the Church in Britain.  He did this with a zeal that belied his age, resulting in its total integration into the fabric of daily life and the absorption of the remaining independent British cathedrals.  Theodore also appointed Benedict Bishop to found an abbey at Wearmouth (674) and later at Jarrow (685), thus germinating the seed sown by Augustine, which would flower as a structured system of education.  Initially within the Church, it would spread and contribute directly to the loss of Britain by the Church of Rome and so indirectly aid the transition of Freemasonry from an operative to a speculative system of unity.
Both Wearmouth and Jarrow soon became renowned for their learning and fine libraries.  The impetus they gave to an expansion of the field of learning were soon converted into he reality of schools.  John Beverley,
Bishop of Hexham (689) kept a school in Northumbria and there were great schools at Ripon and York.  Canterbury taught Latin Grammar, Roman Law and the liberal arts.

The Anglo-Saxon Bible.
The intellectual ability of men like Biscop and Beverley and the impetus they gave to scholarship led to a flowering of British learning which influenced the whole of Europe, and which was to bear fruit in the future.
The most noted of the new British scholars was Bede.  Bede entered monastic life at Wearmount (680) at age seven, but was transferred to Jarrow a year or two later.  In 685 the Jarrow monastery was devastated by the plague, which carried off all the monks except for Bede and his abbot, upon whose shoulders then fell the task of keeping the community alive until new recruits could be found.  Except for occasional visits to York or Lindisfarne, Bede never left Jarrow, where he died in 735. Yet thanks to the industry of Biscop, in assembling the library at Jarrow, Bede was able to read widely and achieve his numerous works he is credited with what may have been the first proof translation, in the vernacular, of a biblical book, a Gospel of John, completed traditionally on the day of his death in 735.  There seems no reason to doubt this as a number of biblical extracts from this translation are used today, in Anglo-Saxon text books such as “Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon primer.”
However, the earliest Anglo-Saxon copy of the Bible to survive is a beautiful 10th century Lindisfarne or Durham Gospel.  There may have been a great deal  more but with the exception of this and the Wessex Gospels (c.1000), attributed to Aelfric, very little else of interest has survived.  In fact during this important transition period the continued suppression of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastic literature, and the Norman conquest, were unfavorable to literary production in “English”.  As a result we possess very little from before 1320 when the continuing development of “English” made new translations of theological texts imperative. An influx of clergy, following the Norman invasion, had come with the blessing of the Pope and, after a long period of consolidation, expanded the still existing education system initiated by Beverley and Biscop.

The Bible in English
Expansion took the form of an institution in which the “essences” or “universals” were studied.  A direct result of the migration of learning from Britain to Europe in the 7th century, established in Europe in the 11th century, the universities were corporations of students and masters, receiving their charters from Popes and Emperors.
The first in Britain was Oxford, founded in the 12th century and it was from this university, and later Cambridge, that the men, who wanted to take the Bible to the people, were to come.
The first translation of the Bible into English, with the intent of widening its availability was carried on under the aegis of John Wycliffe, although most of the actual work was done by Nicholas of Hereford.  The translation was uncritical and overly literal and a revision by John Purvey became the prevalent form.  Unfortunately Wycliffe, the Oxford scholar, was in the forefront of the Protestant reformation and was associated with John of Gaunt, who use his advocacy of the redistribution of church wealth to bolster his own political cause.  Consequently this translation was suppressed, though numerous manuscripts were in circulation and used by Lollards or “poor priests”, followers of Wycliffe, who carried on his work.
The Wycliffe Bible was not printed in full until 1850.     It was a vital link in the translation between the old and new theological orders in that:
(A) it helped pave the way for protestant reform.
(B) it exerted a strong influence on the language of the period, so much so that much of the phraseology was retained by subsequent translators.
Wycliffe was persecuted by the Church, Pope Gregory issued five Bulls against him, and his writings were banned in 1382.  He died in 1384 but such was the feeling his political and theological writings had aroused that in 1428 his bones were exhumed and burnt.  This act, more than any other gives us an indication of the feeling towards reform and innovation in the14th and 15th centuries.
Printing was introduced into England in 1477 by the merchant scholar William Caxton, or 1476 by one of Gutenberg’s dispossessed printers.  Caxton printed portions of Genesis and Exodus in his “Golden Legend”, 1483, to circumvent the ban of 1408 of the unauthorized printing of the Bible in English.  But aside from isolated tilts at the Church such as this, progress towards a Bible of the people was still far away.
William Tyndale, educated at both Oxford and Cambridge, was well equipped by education and conviction to advance the cause of an “English Bible”.  He concluded from his experience as a tutor and chaplain that the
Scriptures must be ‘plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue if the people were to apprehend religious truth.  Encountering strong opposition because of his protestant views, he carried out his work in Europe, financed by some sympathetic London merchants.
In 1526 he completed and published the first printed New Testament, but so diligent were his enemies that of 6000 copies printed only two are known today.  For his efforts he was betrayed by friends, condemned for heresy and put to death in 1536.
It was Miles Coverdale, scholar and churchman, who in the very year of Tyndale’s imprisonment, 1535, was instrumental in producing the first complete Bible in English.  Coverdale was not a controversialist or reformer like his predecessors but shared enough of their views to find it necessary to leave England for at time.  When the Church political situation changed under Cromwell, the king’s head of the Church in England and protestant reformer, the time seemed favourable for a Bible in English done by the proper persons and Coverdale returned.
He first secured the right to unimpeded circulation from king and Church then, in spite of his reliance upon Tyndale, disclaimed any sectarian intent and eliminated all controversial material.  Later printings omitted any reference to European sources to avoid implications of Lutheran or Catholic influence.
These productions were overshadowed later in 1539 by the “Great Bible” or “Crammers Bible.”  Known as the “Great Bible” because of its large folio size it was produced by Coverdale and was in the Tyndale, Matthew, Coverdale tradition, with influences also apparent form the Vulgate, the Complutensian Polyglot and the Latin Old Testament of Sebastian Munster.  Prologues and explanatory notes were omitted and the preface enjoined the reader, in difficult passages, to seek the counsel of “men of higher judgment.”  The title page of the 1540 edition showed it to be authorized by king and parliament i.e. “appoynted” to use of the churches.
Among protestant refugees in Geneva a significant edition of the English Bible was next prepared and involved in the undertaking were Calvin, Beeza, Knox and, it is thought Coverdale.  The complete Bible, 1560, made the most important contribution to the English text since Tyndale.  Just before publication Queen Elizabeth came to the throne of England, 1588, and cautiously re-established the Protestant Church.  The “Geneve” Bible was dedicated to her, in a strongly pro-protestant statement.  But of greater interest were the many “most profitable annotations upon all the hard places.”  They were often polemical in nature and always offensive to the authorities, but the people liked them, as well as the maps and other “helps.”  Octavo size, Roman type and verse divisions appeared for the first time and it was sold at an attractive price.  Ninety six editions were published and such was the appeal of this protestant production that the
authorities were led to seek a rehabilitation of the authorized Bible through a new revision.

The King James Version
James of Scotland, who succeeded Queen Elizabeth, 1603, had shown considerable interest in biblical studies.  This interest and Puritan dissatisfaction with the previous versions became the occasion, (1604, Hampton Court Conference) for his support of a new revision.  By July of that year he had appointed a committee of about fifty men to do the work.
After an initial delay in starting the work was carried through between 1608 and 1611.
The first edition was published in 1611.  Controversial notes were omitted but in the extended preface, excluded from most modern editions, Miles Smith explained that this edition was a revision greatly indebted to its predecessors.  He also found it necessary to still defend the production of a bible in English.
In qualities of literary style and accuracy the new version was the acme of the early attempts to translate the Bible into English.  It was of course still based upon uncritical texts as the study of Greek and Hebrew was in its infancy.  A desire for variety and enrichment often led to inconsistencies, especially apparent in parallel passages and proper names, and printing errors were numerous.  Consequently several later editions were taken up with mundane revisions.  The chief of these revisions was by Benjamin Blaney, which became the standard (1769) and virtually fixed form, by which it had supplanted by “Geneva Bible.”  Its long climb to ascendancy, involving as it did private and liturgical usage, literary associations and general cultural penetration made a definitive revision next to impossible. Indeed its impact was such, through the English speaking world, that it was 1870 before such a revision was sanctioned.

The Bible in Freemasonry
Dating the beginning, changes and evolution of Freemasonry is very difficult.  There is a natural desire in all of us to keep secret that which may bestow some advantage over our fellow creatures and our early brethren appear to have been quite successful in this respect.  All of the early organizations, guilds and societies appear to have done their utmost to ensure that their internal workings remained private.  Early operative lodges attached to ecclesiastical building sites probably found the need for secrecy regarding their internal workings vital.  We have already discussed the paranoia of the Church to an envisaged threat in the form of an English
Bible and I would guess that even the unsophisticated, ritualistic operative lodge workings would have been open to question by a church struggling to retain control in the face or reform.
Consequently a great deal of our early information is gleaned from literary oversights, building and borough records, wage awards and of course “exposures.”  The latter, often produced for profit or spite, are regarded with some suspicion but are invaluable where the slightest corroboration is gained from a reputable source, even uncorroborated, they still assist us to postulate sequences of events, cause and effect, and provide direction for research.  Dating the earliest use of the Bible is made more difficult because we also need to know when operative masonry ends and speculative Freemasonry begins, as well as the extent of any transition period.
The very early records, such as those of the lodge at York Minster, whose ordinances (of 1352, 1370, and 1408) have survived, give no indication of any use of the Bible.  Nor do those of “lathami de la loygge” (the masons of the lodge) at Canterbury Cathedral in 1429.  Neither does a much later contract of 1537, in which the municipal authorities appoint George Boiss as mason for life into the Church of our Lady, Dundee.  There is a reference to “the old use and consuetyde of Our Lady Luge of Dundee”, but in the absence of further evidence we must assume that these are but written statements of old established customs governing masons at that church.  The “Regius Poem” of all records and manuscripts from this period, stands alone in indicating the first possible use of the Bible by our early brethren and an analysis of it indicates that it may well be part of the transition to the use of the Bible by operative masons and the earliest known replacement of the “Old Charges.”
The poem, which should really be known as the “Regius Ms.”, was written between 1390 and 1420 and has been placed as originating at the south of Worcestershire or Herefordshire or even the north of Gloucestershire.  At that time of writing there was great activity in building the cathedrals of these countries to say nothing of the various abbeys in the neighborhood. It was also apparently a region less restricted by the Church attitude to the vernacular, at least in the area influenced by Abbot Froucester of Gloucester cathedral between 1381 and 1412.  It was in this area and during this period that Nicholas of Hereford did most of Wycliffe’s work.
The “Regius Poem” states:
That holy church is God’s house, that is made for nothing else, but for to pray in, as the book tells us”.

On its own this extract is tenuous but the whole timbre of the poem is “speculative Freemasonry” and in many respects it rewards study with greater insights into ourselves than does much of more recent date.
However it is to the Harleian MS. No. 1942, which is a version of the Old Charges that we must look.  It belongs to the second half of the 17th century and is unequivocal in giving us the first clear indication of the use of a Bible in a
lodge.  It contains a form of the mason’s oath of secrecy of which the final words are:
“soe help me god and the holy contents of this book.
This is generally recognized as the first indication of the introduction of the Bible into Speculative
Freemasonry, but is no more specific than the “Regius Poem.”

The Colne No.1 MS. of 1685 provides specific proof:
“Here followeth the worthy and godly Oath of Masons. One of the eldest taking the Bible should hold it forth that he or the(y) which are to be maid masons, may impoase and lay thear right hand upon it and then         the Charges shall bee read.”
Note that the “Old Charges” were still used to reinforce the “Old Regulations.”

The Edinburgh Register House MS,., 1696, with its specific reference to existing, practiced ritual further confirms that the use of the Bible was not an isolated occurrence:
“The form of giving the Masons Word, Impris you are to take the person to take the word upon his knees, and after a great many ceremonies, to frighten him you make im take up the bible and laying his right hand onit you ae to conjure him to sec(r)ecie “
Yet in this instance no mention is made of the “Old Charges.”

The Volume of the Sacred Law.
Before the introduction of the Bible into speculative lodges the candidate probably took his Ob… on the Old Charges and some portions of these were read or recited to him.  The Old Charges were “The Book of the
Law” because they contained the Old Regulations.  After initially being used to reinforce the acceptance of the Old Regulations, the Bible eventually superseded the Old Charges.  As these were “The Book of the Law” the Bible came to be called the “Volume of the Sacred Law.”  There is no evidence that it was ever adopted for religious purposes; the lodge did not become churches; they evinced no creed and made to theological tests.  The Bible as a book of religion was left to the organised churches.  In the lodge it was used only to give sanction to the Ob…, the most binding sanction known to our early Christian brothers.
But its contents were used as the source of the legends and ritual structure of modern Freemasonry and as a result speculative Freemasonry remained a Christian organization.
This may not have been the case in every lodge.  Differences of a religious nature may have actually precluded its use in many lodges; .Alnwick, 1701 and Swalwell, 1725 do not record the Bible as part of the lodge inventory and it is possible that such a division was the reason for Dr. James Anderson to produce his book of Constitutions”.  That they eventually proved to be a springboard for the growth of Freemasonry among non-Christians was an undoubted bonus on top of their intended purpose of coalescing the lodges into a unified, non-sectarian organization for all men.
In any event the “Constitutions” had their desired effect and expunged the Old Charges as the “Book of the Law” and confirmed the Bible as the “Volume of the Sacred Law”.  What the “Constitutions” did not do was entirely “de-Christianize” the Craft.  It remained very much a Christian society until the late 18th century when widespread discussion surfaced as to whether or not it should continue as such.  It was probably a reflection on the influence of “Ancients” who had formed their own Grand Lodge in 1751 and who continued to flourish until the union of 1813.  There is ample evidence of Christian symbolism in their lodges up to this time. But times were against the “Ancients” and the spirit of union prevailed.
The Grand Lodge of England could find no “Landmark” to restrict membership and a number of edicts and decisions officially approved the acceptance of Jews and non-professing members.  It forbade theological tests and the Far East permitted the Lodges to use as the V.S.L. a copy of the Old Testament, or the Koran, or the Veda, the Zen Avesta or the Confucian Analects, etc., placing all “on the level.”
The union of 1813, after a delay of eighty years, put into effect the first charge of Anderson’s “Constitutions” of 1723, that no longer was a Mason answerable to “God and Holy Church”, but instead:

‘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 honor and honesty, by whatever Denominations or persuasions they may be distinguished; whereby masonry becomes the centre of union, and the means of conciliating true friendship.” 

The Lodge of Reconciliation, 1813-16 and the Especial Grand Lodge of 20th May, 1816 by their action finally confirmed that although the present world wide union of Freemasonry owed much to the Bible, its place in
Freemasonry was no more or less than the other holy books to which individual members bear allegiance and which all subscribe to, namely T.G.A.O.T.U.

By: Bro. G. Duddin, Assistant Librarian, (Associate)
Published in UNITED MASTERS LODGE No. 167;
Lodge of Masonic Research; May, 1991

Have a wonderful day & God Bless


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