Vol. XXX No. 8 — August 1952

The English Great Light

Slowly the Bible of the race is writ,
And not on paper leaves nor leaves of stone;
Each age, each kindred, adds a verse to it,
Texts of despair or hope, of joy or moan.
While swings the sea, while mists the mountains shroud,
While thunder’s surges burst on cliffs of cloud,
Still at the prophet’s feet the nations sit.

— James Russell Lowell

That the Holy Bible, “the rule and guide of our faith and practice,” lies open upon the altar of every regular grand lodge and lodge the world over is known to all.

That it is a landmark is often stated. But if Mackey is right and landmarks can never be altered, and landmarks come from “time immemorial,” then the Bible on the altar is not a landmark.

Early operative lodges did not have the Bible on the altar for a good reason - they had no Bibles which could be put upon an altar.

Masonry’s earliest manuscript is dated 1390; it tells of a Craft obviously both Speculative and Operative. It says nothing of a Bible on the altar because there was none to have.

Yet the Masonry we know, and which came to us from the early operative lodges, had much of the Bible in its work. Whence came these references?

A paragraph from the deep student, H. L. Haywood is fully explanatory. He says:

By the middle of the Fourteenth Century the great majority of men and women continued to be illiterate . . . but the number of men able to read, at least a little, had much increased; among these the most popular works of information were books of a kind no longer published, called polychronicons, or universal histories. Into such a work the original author poured any scrap of information he could find, legends of unicorns, hymns to the Trinity, stories of battles, on down to recent local events and recipes for whooping-cough; as the decades passed succeeding scribes cast more scraps upon this literary dolmen until the whole omnium gatherum might grow to ten or twelve volumes. It was from such a polychronicon, and from a few other books of a similar sort, that the author of the original version of the Old Charges (Masonic Constitutions) drew the Biblical references and religious stories which he incorporated in his “legend of the Craft,” tales about Adam, Noah, Tubalcain, Abel, Babylon, Solomon, etc.

This means that at about 1350 the Biblical elements in Freemasonry had come not directly from the Bible but from, first, the floating and oral stories of the Twelfth Century; second, from the sculptures and pictures of religious buildings; third, from those same traditions and legends as they were written down by the authors of the polychronicons, etc.

The earliest book upon which obligations were taken was the Book of the Law. Prior to 1723 this was either an original or a copy of one or more of the Old Manuscripts. After 1723 and to some unknown date Anderson’s Constitutions, containing the Old Charges, was the Book of the Law. Somewhere in the early years of the eighteenth century the “Volume of the Sacred Law” appeared upon Masonic altars.

The first New Testament printed in English was by William Tyndale, who in 1525 laid the foundations of the whole English Bible by his translation. Convinced that the English Scriptures should speak in the words that the humblest could understand he contributed powerfully to the influence of the Bible upon all the life of the English-speaking peoples.

As late as the early 16th century, few people had access to the Bible. Manuscript translations of the Wycliffe Bible had slight circulation; no printed English Scriptures existed, although the Bible had already been issued in several languages on the Continent. Having vainly sought aid of the Bishop of London and aware of opposition among state authorities, Tyndale left England in 1524 to seek a friendly printer. At Cologne discovery by hostile officials caused him to flee to Worms with the partly printed sheets of a quarto New Testament. Here in 1525 he brought out 3,000 copies of an octavo edition which were speedily smuggled into England. Whether the quartos were completed is uncertain; of them only one fragment has survived; of the octavos only two copies are known to exist, one much damaged.

The Bishop of London bought a quantity from the merchants and burned them; this only provided Tyndale with funds to bring out a better one. Pirated editions soon appeared. Other editions revised by Tyndale himself were issued; at least forty between 1525 and 1566. From 1531 on, in the security of Antwerp, he pressed his studies. Love of England and of the Bible was his steadfast passion. An offer of safe return conditioned on ceasing his work brought a firm refusal unless royal authority permitted the publication of the Bible in England. In May 1535 he was enticed from Antwerp to a suburb, betrayed, and imprisoned in Vilvoorde Castle. Seventeen months later he was strangled and burned at the stake praying, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!”

Myles Coverdale published the first whole Bible printed in English. Possibly he was encouraged by Thomas Cromwell, then Henry VIII’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. No royal permission for publication was secured, although the Convocation of the Church had petitioned the King in 1534. The place of printing was probably in Marburg, Germany. Brought into England in sheets, the Bible appeared in 1535, dedicated to the King by his “humbel subjecte and dayle oratour, Myles Coverdale.” Two years later, on publication of the second edition, a license for the printing issued.

Coverdale translated chiefly from German and Latin versions. He was much influenced by the earlier work of William Tyndale. To Coverdale we owe “the pride of life,” “the world passeth away,” “loving-kindness,” and “tender mercy.” Later versions have brought us Coverdale’s apt phrases and melodious expressions, especially in the Psalms. Editions printed in 1537 were the first English Bibles printed in England.

Matthew’s Bible of 1537 is of importance in the history of the English Bible, as the union of the earlier translations of Tyndale and of Coverdale, upon which the later revisions, the Bishops’ Bible, the Great Bible and the King James Version, were chiefly based.

Here were brought together four primary parts: (1) Tyndale’s Pentateuch; (2) Tyndale’s New Testament as revised by Tyndale in his 1535 edition; (3) a hitherto unpublished translation of Joshua to 11 Chronicles, probably Tyndale’s last work; and (4) Coverdale’s translation of the remainder of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. Tyndale’s work is almost unchanged and forms nearly two thirds of the Old and New Testaments. The remainder is essentially Coverdale.

By 1537 two English versions of the whole Bible had been issued - Coverdale’s and Matthew’s. Neither was wholly satisfactory because of the controversial character of many of the notes. At the direction of Thomas Cromwell, then vicar-general and vice-regent of Henry VIII, and by royal authority, a new edition was planned. Its printing was begun in Paris with the permission of the King of France, but diplomatic tension and ecclesiastical opposition forced a sudden stop. Some of the confiscated sheets, sold to a haberdasher for packing paper, were carried to England. The book was finished there in 1539. Throughout its preparation Coverdale was the editor, setting aside his own edition of 1535 and using Matthew’s Bible as the basis. He improved the text by the aid of newer Hebrew and Greek editions.

From the Great Bible, Coverdale’s translation of the Psalms passed into the English Book of Common Prayer. The name of this Bible is due to its size; an edition of 1540 containing a preface by Archbishop Cranmer caused it also to be known as Cranmer’s Bible. It sold unbound for 10 to 13 shillings, about three weeks’ wages of a skilled laborer.

Although Coverdale’s and Matthew’s Bibles had been “licensed” in 1537, the Great Bible of 1540 was the first Bible to bear the imprint “Appointed to be read in Churches.” Each parish was ordered to purchase a copy for the use of all. To hear the reading of the Bible, crowds gathered about the reading desks, to which the Bibles were often chained for safe keeping. For a time a wave of persecution at the end of Henry VIII’s reign put a stop to the public reading and forbade reading to certain classes, but under Edward VI the privilege was promptly restored.

For nearly three generations the Geneva Bible held sway in thousands of homes of the English people. While the Great Bible and the Bishops’ Bible were read in the churches, the Geneva Bible was read by the firesides, even for two or three decades after the King James Version was issued. This was the Bible of William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Bunyan, and Oliver Cromwell. The Pilgrims and the Puritans brought it with them to America.

English scholars and Bible lovers of the Puritan party sought refuge in Geneva from the persecutions of Queen Mary’s reign. In 1557 William Whittingham prepared a revision of the New Testament, with copious notes. For the first time in English Scriptures, roman type was used instead of black-letter, and numbered verse divisions were introduced, following earlier Latin, Greek and Hebrew editions.

With this off the press, Whittingham, aided by Anthony Gilby and Thomas Sampson, all three trained at Cambridge or Oxford, plunged into producing a similar text of the whole Bible. The Great Bible was the basis, continuing the Tyndale-Coverdale tradition.

Financed by the English congregation in Geneva, the Bible was issued from the press of Rouland Hall in 1560. Its small size, half that of many of the preceding Bibles, its simple roman type and its generous notes quickly brought it great popularity. In the eighty-four years of its publication it is estimated that one hundred forty editions of the Bible and the New Testament were issued. To it in real degree is due the extent to which the knowledge of the Bible spread among the rank and file of English people and entered into the early history of America.

While the Geneva version was winning popular favor, the leaders of the Church were disturbed by the strong Calvinist character of its notes and yet aware of its superiority to the Great Bible of 1539. Archbishop Parker revived a project of his predecessor, Cranmer, for a revision by the Bishops. The work, which consisted of a revision of the Great Bible, was parceled out among eight Bishops and several other scholars. Owing to the lack of consultation, the result was uneven. The changes in the text were chiefly influenced by the Geneva Bible; in the New Testament some more independent changes were made.

With royal and ecclesiastical authority behind it, upon its publication in 1568, it rapidly displaced the Great Bible in the churches. In the homes of the people, however, the Geneva Bible remained the favorite, its publication continuing forty-two years after the last edition of the Bishops’ Bible in 1602.

King James I inherited an atmosphere of religious confusion and turmoil. In an effort to reconcile the divergent groups he summoned a conference at Hampton Court in January 1604, the fruit of which was a new version of the Bible. Dr. John Reynolds of Oxford proposed a new translation to be approved by the whole church. The King suggested that “this bee done by the best learned in both Universities, after them to be reviewed by the Bishops, and the chiefe learned of the church; from them to be presented to the Privie-Counsell; and lastly to bee ratified by his Royall authoritie, and so this whole Church to be bound unto it, and none other.”

A remarkably competent group undertook the work in separate “companies,” two at Westminster and Oxford on separate sections of the New Testament, and the second Cambridge Company on the Apocrypha.

The scholars worked separately and then conferred until they agreed. As each Book was finished it was sent to other companies for consideration. The Bishops’ Bible was the basis. Other translations were used when they agreed better with the text. Marginal notes were used only for translational helps. The companies’ work occupied nearly three years; nine months more was spent in harmonizing the whole by two representatives from each company, meeting in Stationers’ Hall, London. The final touches were the work of Bishop Bilson of Winchester, and Miles Smith, later Dean of Gloucester. The support of the revisers came from ecclesiastical endowments from the Company of Stationers and from the printer.

The changes made by the revisers were based partly upon improved Greek, Hebrew, and Latin texts and upon other translations. The Geneva Bible and the Rheims New Testament accounted for a number of the alterations. Many as the improvements were, there remained still the simplicity and strength of Tyndale, the great pioneer, and the sympathetic cadences of Coverdale. With wise insight the revisers continued and fortified Tyndale’s determination that the Bible should speak the language of the people.

The revision was published in 1611 in London by Robert Barker; fourteen editions appeared within three years. By the middle of the century it had practically displaced the Geneva Bible, becoming then the Bible of the English-speaking people.

In every lodge in English-speaking countries the V.S.L. is almost invariably the King James Version. Its presence in a lodge at work is as indispensable as a Charter; its use has all the authority of a landmark behind it; it is as much a part of Freemasonry as a grand lodge, a master, a ritual.

But it was not always so; hence the importance of printing the Bible in English and giving it to all, Mason and non-Mason alike.

NOTE: The information here given of the printing of the Bible in English, and its first popularization, is taken from the M.S.A. illustrated History of the English Bible which in turn came from The American Bible Society.

The Masonic Service Association of North America