Harry Carr’s The Freemason at Work

London: Burgess & Sons, 1976. 425p.


www.PreciousHeart.net/freemasonry  ~  Michael G. Maness


Question 22. When did the word Bible first appear in Masonic Literature? Pages 51-54


Harry Carr’s The Freemason at Work was given to me shortly after the publication of Character Counts, and several quotes would been used from this distinguished historian, especially on the Bible use in the lodge. As one of the all-time great scholars of Freemasonry in the 20th century, this book contains 200 questions and answers on Freemasonry from him at his post as Editor of the Transactions of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge 1961-1973, with this volume being a collections of the best questions and answers. Carr was a Past Master of five English lodges, an honorary member of 12 in Paris, New York, Ohio, Connecticut, Illinois, and Massachusetts. The Coronati lodge is often considered the premier lodge of research. He has been given many awards.




When Did The Lodges Take On A Formal Setting?


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?

When did Masonic lodges first take on a formal setting, as distinct from informal gatherings or assemblies of masons?

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 early aides-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
after a great many ceremonies to frighten him you make him take up the
bible and laying his right hand on it you are to conjure him to sec(r)ecie .. .
(Knoop, Jones & Hamer,
The Early Masonic Catechisms, p. 33.)

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.)

Most difficult of all the questions is that relating to the Lodges adopt­ing a `formal setting’, because, in the early days especially, so much of our knowledge is based upon inference. For example, among the earliest lodge minutes still in existence is a brief note, dated 27 November 1599, in the minutes of the Lodge of Edinburgh, ordaining that all Wardens (equivalent to the Masters of Lodges) were to be chosen on St. John’s Day. This implies a high degree of formality, because it not merely prescribed the chief meeting-day for the Scottish Lodges, but also the principal item of business that was to be transacted.

The records of admission of members of the `London Masons Company’, and others, into the Acception (which was a Mason Lodge that had evolved as a kind of off-shoot or branch of a masonic trade or organization) may be cited here. The early notes relating to the Acception in 1621, 1631, 1650, etc., are void of any evidence of `formal setting. Yet, when we consider the parentage of the Acception, i.e., an ancient Lively Company that had existed since 1375, it is fairly cer­tain that some real degree of formality was already embodied in their procedure.

The early Clerks, or Lodge Secretaries, in writing up their minutes, tended to give only the bare facts of the work done, without descriptive detail or elaboration, and that is our main difficulty. Yet, even in the bare records that survive, we can discern the beginnings of `formality’. Perhaps the best early example, for our purpose, is in the Minutes of Lodge Mother Kilwinning, which reveal the pattern of the meetings :

(1) ‘Court lawfully affirmed’ (i.e., the Lodge constituted and opened).

(2) Roll-call. Absentees fined.

(3) Admission of Entered Apprentices or Fellows of Craft.

(4) Election of Officers (at the Annual Meetings).

(5) Collection of fees, fines.

(6) The Lodge in judgment (as a Court) against offenders.

(7) Money-lending to members (upon security).

This pattern of procedure repeats itself fairly regularly from the 1640s onwards. The routine, furnishings and equipment may have been very rough-and-ready, but it was from ancient Lodges like this one that the old traditions stemmed, and when they began to acquire their special character, with richer symbolism and furnishings, these were the Lodges that laid the pattern of `work’ which later spread all over the world.

[For descriptions of Lodge furnishings and equipment, and for details of the actual procedure of the ceremonies, all of which may well be regarded as evidence of formality, useful information can be drawn from two essays in AQC Vol. 75, ‘Pillars & Globes, etc. and ‘Initiation Two Hundred Years Ago’. The former is based largely upon Lodge records and inventories; the latter is based on the eighteenth century exposures.]



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Michael G. Maness