The Great Light

J.P. Glennie


The dependence of the Craft on the V.S.L. and its teachings should be apparent to every Freemason from the moment he first “sees the light." Not once, but many times during the Degrees, is the attention of the candidate, and indeed of all the Brethren, drawn to the vital and sacred laws contained in that ageless Book. On it, the gaze of the Initiate first must rest. On it he seals his Ob., just as men have pledged themselves throughout history. Extracts from, and references to it, appear in every major section of the Ritual. In fact we can scarcely find an act in all our ceremonial which does not bring us back directly or indirectly to the Sacred Volume.

Yet I cannot escape the conviction that the innermost meaning of the Bible teachings, I am almost tempted to say the very significance of the Volume itself, largely escape too many Freemasons. Do we really know what it is, and what it stands for, how it came to be our Greatest Light and why it will stand as such while Freemasonry itself remains? If this Lodge of Research can fan the flame, however little, and encourage interest in this wonderful Book, we will not have laboured in vain.

Even with such a great subject as the V.S.L., it is, however, necessary to retain a proper perspective. This paper will deal with the historical side of the Bible, and with its position in Freemasonry, rather than with the divine laws it contains. But in writing thus I feel that there is a danger. It is only too easy to exalt the Book above its subject, to worship the Volume, rather than the Deity whose laws it proclaims. History will multiply for us examples of men who have done so. Thus, while studying the background of the Bible, we should, I believe, always bear in mind that it does no more than set the pattern in history, precept and prophecy. The Book itself is the way and not the end. Were it to be utterly destroyed, or even proved to be no more than a fairy tale, the fundamentals of the faith it preaches would still continue.


The method by which the Bible came to us is a study immense and engrossing. In the derivation of the word lies its definition. It comes from the Greek word " biblion," which in its plural "biblia," signifies "little books." The Bible .is actually a collection of little books of every sort and description, written over a long period of time, the very earliest dating in part at least, as far back as the time of Moses, about 1200 B.C., and perhaps even earlier. The latest was probably written about A.D. 150. In its rich and varied nature it might be termed a library of Hebrew literature, yet through its slow production over so many centuries, it might better be called a selection from, or a survey of that literature. An equivalent period in our own English literature would take us back, even beyond the time of the Venerable Bede who lived in the seventh and eighth centuries—in fact almost to the days of the Roman occupation.

It is a never ending source of wonder that the history and folk-lore of that small group of Hebrew people, numbered only in their thousands and living in that one little portion of the globe, should be of such immense significance to the civilised world. Authors whose names have long been lost, to-day wield an influence in our lives which can never be equaled by writers of our own day. Some of them wrote with a divine inspiration, which I believe could never have its genesis in the human mind unaided. With that influence they were able to set down in the curious writing of their day, the folk-tales and prophecies which had come to them by word of mouth and in all sorts of odd pieces of scrappy literature. Who were those writers of old, those story tellers who have never been surpassed, if equaled, in any later age or race, who time and again have been used as models in the art of narra¬tion? The names and histories of some are known, but others will probably} never be identified. Students of the Bible tell us that many of its books are the work of more than one author and that the writers were, in some cases, many centuries apart.


There have been identified four different sources for the historical sections, covering the development and establishment of the Hebrew race. Apparently, about 850 B.C., a scribe of the Kingdom of Southern Judah, wrote the history of his nation, and in it used the term “Yahweh" to refer to the Deity. This is now identified as the “J” narrative. A century later, Northern Israel produced a similar history, in which God was termed "Elohim." This is known to Bible students as the “E" narrative. Within two hundred years, these two were fused into an official history of Judah, probably with the intention of providing one religious and historical book for a united people. A new history was prepared by the priests in the sixth century B.C., and it is known as the “P” narrative, while an unknown author a little earlier prepared the main portion of the Book of Deuteronomy, known to us as the “D" narrative. Four centuries B.C. these various narratives were revised and combined into what became known of old as "The Law." They now constitute the first five books of our Old Testament, the Jewish Pentateuch. With several other Books, they form the historical section of the Old Testament.

Other narratives, some earlier and some later in date, are referred to as the Poetical Books, and are followed by the Prophetical Books from Isaiah to Malachi. This completes the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament.

The modern Bible, of course, includes also the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, which in their simplicity, directness and force of teaching, are a lesson for all of us in our speech and writing. They are a separate and completely different study from the Old Testament, being written, in the main, by many who actually witnessed the events. They have, in result, an exactness and a definition not unnaturally missing from the Books of the Old Testament.

Reference must also be made to those other ancient books which were early translated with the Books of the Old and New Testaments. These books, historical, prophetical and didactic, were excluded from the Old Testament by the first-century Jews and have not since won a place in our Authorised English Bible. These apocryphal books, though accepted to a degree by some, are by others considered merely as “useful and good to read" and not on the canonical level of the Scriptures proper. They are regarded as providing "example of life and instruction of manners," but not as establishing doctrine.


Such then, in brief terms, is the origin of our V.S.L. The centuries since the Hebrew books were put into final form have produced various translations, culminating in the Authorised Version in 1611.

The difficulties of translation have been infinite. The early Hebrew texts consisted wholly of consonants, and these were run together without space between words or sentences. Imagine then the difficulty of trying to understand a sentence which read—NTHBGNNNGGDCRTDTHHVNNDTHRTH. Yet this, the very first sentence in our V.S.L., is well known to every Freemason. In our own language, we can, from a given sequence of consonants, produce a wide variety of meanings from the way in which we add vowels, particularly when we are not restricted in the points at which the words and sentences must start and finish. This is precisely the difficulty which has faced the translators.

The earliest translation from the Hebrew text, the Septuagint, was made by the Greeks. Legend has it, that seventy pious men made the translation from the original Hebrew of the Old Testament. The New Testament was originally written in Greek, the accepted language of the early Christian era. The first Latin translation of both Old and New Testaments appeared in A.D. the sixth century, when the Vulgate was produced from the original texts, by St Jerome in Rome. These two, the Septuagint and the Vulgate, then formed the basis of the English translations which followed in due course.


The introduction of the Bible into the houses of the common people of England was fraught with the greatest difficulty. In the last years of the fourteenth century, John Wycliffe, assisted by certain of his followers, translated both the Old and New Testaments from the Latin Vulgate. Written almost a century before the introduction of the printing press into England, his translation was necessarily in MS. form, and in spite of numerous copies made, had relatively little influence. How could it be otherwise when the cost of a MS. copy of the Bible would no doubt exceed the price of both farm and stock of the small-holding farmer.

But events were on the march. The printing press made its appearance in England in 1476 and William Tyndale, martyr and reformer, was born in 1484. These two events profoundly affected the course of England's social history, and it is to Tyndale that we owe the first printed Bible, incomplete though it may have been. England had long been sunk in ignorance and superstition and the lot of the common people was deplorable. Although some of the clergy, particularly those of the more contemplative and devotional orders, made their monasteries centres of religion and of learning, yet the remainder, and in fact the majority had ceased to be a spiritual and intellectual class and were depraved and dissolute, their monasteries seats of corruption and vice.

The year 1453 had seen the capture of Constantinople by the Turks. The learned men of the Christian orders, finding life in Constantinople quite impossible under the Turks, fled westward to countries where they could escape persecution and some of them ultimately found their way to the shores of England. Their arrival ushered in the Renaissance in the early days of the sixteenth century, and the reign of Henry VIII who ascended the throne in 1509 saw the flood tide of learning which was arriving from the East. Faults he had in plenty, but we must admit the influence of Henry in raising the prestige of England at home and abroad.

Yet even so, through pressure from the Church, the translated Bible was banned. It was a crime to circulate, or even possess an English Bible, and for a breach of this law, men were burned at the stake.


The greatest name in the fight for the introduction of the Bible into the homes of the people was that of William Tyndale. A product of both Oxford and Cambridge, he came to realise that if the people of England could have in their homes an English Bible, and thus learn the divine laws of life and conduct, many of the papal abuses and errors of doctrine in the Church would die a natural death. So simple and obvious a creed and yet under Henry so difficult of attainment. Tyndale, fine student of languages as he was, set out to make his own translations from the original Hebrew and Greek. First he worked on the New Testament, written of course in Greek, and then in due time gave his attention to the Old Testament in its Hebrew text. But through the persecution of the Church, he soon found England was no place in which to work, and in 1524 he fled to the Continent. There he continued his work of translation for some ten years. The printing press was his greatest ally and his New Testaments began to appear in great numbers.

In England, however, a New Testament in the English language was still a banned book and the very greatest care had to be taken by Tyndale and his friends in shipping the books across the Channel. Hidden in bales of cloth, in sacks of flour, in barrels and in a myriad of secret ways, they arrived in England in their thousands. The clergy were vigilant but great numbers reached the people. Innumerable copies were seized and burned with solemn ceremony at the old Cross of St Paul's. Yet the people of England wanted the Bible and the printing press was their friend. Still the Bibles came across the Channel and an irresistible tide of public opinion was setting in favour of a people's Bible.

Tyndale, alas, was not to see the day of its adoption. His enemies, led by Cuthbert Tonstal, Bishop of London, had him arrested and imprisoned at Antwerp, where after a year of the greatest suffering and privation he was, in 1536, finally strangled and burned at the stake. The last words of this famous martyr and scholar are known to all Bible students—" Lord, open the King of England's eyes."

Thus, William Tyndale died, but not in vain. His Bibles continued to reach England and found a place in many churches throughout the country. So keenly were they sought after by the people that they had to be chained to their places in the churches, or the people would secretly take them away.

Three short years after Tyndale's death the Great Bible, the first real Bible of the people, was published in England by the authority of Henry VIII and it was from the work of Tyndale that the Great Bible (the Coverdale version) was produced. Indeed it seems clear that most subsequent productions, even our own Authorised Version of 1611 are based very largely on the work of William Tyndale.


Now that the Royal Assent had been given to the publication of a Bible in the English language, the way was clear and several translations appeared in the ensuing centuries. Most notable, of course, is the King James or AUTHORISED VERSION, begun in 1604, and finally published in 1611. For this task, the King appointed “fifty-four learned men, having especial skill in the Hebrew and Greek tongues," to make a new and original translation. These scholars, chosen for their deep learning, intelligently included both Churchmen and Puritans. They worked as six teams, two at Cambridge, two at Oxford, two at Westminster, each group being responsible for certain portions of the Bible. How these fifty-four translators managed to infuse into their work a unity and a regularity of style must remain a mystery. But succeed they did and the beautiful phraseology and simple clarity of the James Bible will ever bear testimony to their devotion and their scholarship.

Other versions of course there were, but I will mention only one or two that are interesting and perhaps amusing. The WICKED BIBLE of 1632, apparently for the malicious amusement of the typesetters, omitted the word “not" in the seventh commandment. We can well imagine the distress of the clergy when they found that adultery was apparently ordained by the Mosaic Law. The VINEGAR BIBLE was a 1717 edition which headed the twentieth chapter of St Luke's Gospel as “the Parable of the Vinegar" instead of the “Vineyard." The BREECHES BIBLE is the 1560 edition of the Geneva Bible, and is so called because of the unusual wording of Genesis iii, verse 7, which read, “they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves breeches."

Such examples as these could be multiplied, but they are only of passing interest and the errors and unusual terms were not perpetuated in subsequent versions.

To-day the Authorised Version remains in the main the Bible of the English-speaking people. The Revised Version of 1885 has never approached it in popularity and the phrases and forms of the James Bible of 1611 are still cherished by the great majority of Bible readers. Modern translations have, of course, appeared, some of them bringing the language into present day form. These translations are interesting and simple to understand, but they have never supplanted the Authorised Version and this is still the open volume in our Masonic Lodges.


The relationship of the Bible and the Craft appears to date from early operative times. There is clear proof of this in the Old Charges where we can read of the interesting customs of our early Brethren in regard to God and the Bible. In those pre-Grand Lodge days, when the Craft was Christian in character, the Charges almost invariably opened with an invocation to the Deity. Very Worshipful Brother Dr Ross Hepburn points out that the use of the Bible upon which to administer the Ob. is very evident when reading the closing sections of those venerable documents. The candidate, he says, was required to swear on the Book, held by one of the Elders, to keep the Charges which had been rehearsed to him.

The Regius Poem of approximately 1390, oldest of these Old Charges, and the Cooke MS. of about 1450, or perhaps earlier, both contain many references to Bible History although the description of the Oath in the Regius Poem contains no reference to its being sworn on the Bible. Whether or not the Bible had an actual place in the assemblies of the early Operatives, we cannot tell, but it is clear from the Colne MS., No. 1 (about 1685), the Watson MS. (1687) and the Grand Lodge MS., No. 2 (about 1650), that the custom of swearing Obs. on the Bible was well established by the middle of the seventeenth century.

From the turn of the century, the position of the Bible in the Speculative Lodges was apparently secure. Pritchard's “Masonry Dissected," states that by 1730 the Bible had reached the eminence of being part of the "furniture" of the Lodges, and in this it was grouped with the Square and the Compasses, the Bible belonging to God, the Compasses to the Master, and the Square to the F.C. The "Lights of the Lodge" represented the Sun, the Moon and the Master Mason or Worshipful Master as we know him and were in fact three large candles placed on high candlesticks. The "fixed lights" were three windows situated in the E., S., and W., to light the men to and from their work. There was no fixed light in the N., "because the sun darts no rays from thence," and here of course we must remember that we live in the Southern Hemisphere while Pritchard's Masons lived in the North.

These were apparently the Titles used in the "Modern" Lodges and would no doubt have been so used at the time of the formation of the Premier Grand Lodge in 1717. The ancients adopted a different system, in their opinion a purer and an older one, and when their Grand Lodge was formed in 1751, their three Great Lights were officially continued as the V.S.L., the Square and the Compasses. The Lesser Lights too were as we know them now. The practice of the ancients apparently appealed and it is likely that by the end of the century many of the Modern Lodges had adopted the same procedure. The position was finally confirmed when the Lodge of Reconciliation set up by the Union of 1813 officially copied the practice of the "Ancients" and in that year the V.S.L. became officially the first of the Great Lights of Freemasonry.

Every Master Mason well knows the use that is made of the Scriptures throughout the Degrees. This appears to have led to the establishment of certain customs governing the point at which the V.S.L. is opened in the various Degrees. Under our Revised Ritual it is of course clearly laid down that the Volume shall in the First Degree be opened either at Ruth ii or at Psalm cxxxiii. It then remains open at the same position throughout the ceremony.

Various rituals and workings in England appear still to retain other and earlier practices. In many old Lodges it was the custom for verses from the Scriptures to be read at the opening of each Degree, and no doubt the V.S.L. would then be left opened at that point. It is perhaps, of interest to record some of the practices that still persist in England. The Transactions of the Masters and Past Masters Lodge, No. 130, Vol. VI1, No. 28 states, "In the First Degree, the V.S.L. is usually unfolded - Ruth iv, 7; in the Second, Judges xii, 6; and in the Third at I Kings vii, 13. At different periods during the eighteenth century there were used either Genesis xxii or xxviii for the First, I Kings vi, 7, or II Chronicles iii, 17 for the Second and Amos v. 25-6 or II Chronicles vi for the Third."

The practice differs in Scotland and in U.S.A. it appears to be—First Degree, Psalm cxxxiii; Second Degree, Amos vii and Third Degree, Ecclesiastes xii.


It is interesting to note Cartwright's statement in his “Commentary on the Freemasonic Ritual," that one 1762 Ritual required the V.S.L. to be opened in the First Degree at II Peter, while another used the Gospel of St John. These New Testament references obviously could no longer be adopted and it is in fact somewhat strange to find them still persisting as late as 1762. Anderson's Constitutions of 1723 in the First Charge "Concerning God and Religion" set the pattern of the relation of Freemasonry to religion. No longer was he answerable to "God and the Holy Church." Instead a Mason was obliged— "to obey the moral Law, and if he rightly understand the Art he will never be a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious libertine. But though in ancient times, Masons were charged in every country to be of the religion of that country or nation, whatever it was, yet '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 honour 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 among persons that must have remained at a perpetual distance."

I have quoted the Constitutions at this length to make clear the views of the "Moderns" on religious questions at the beginning of the eighteenth century and it is probable that Anderson did no more than confirm in writing what had already grown to be the accepted view. It is quite unlikely that he was dictating a new rule to change existing circumstances and to direct Freemasonry to Deism instead of Christianity. Such a fundamental change must surely have grown over a considerable period.

The references to Christianity I have quoted from the 1762 Ritual may well have reflected the influence of the Ancients who had formed their own Grand Lodge in 1751, and continued to flourish as a separate institution until the Union of 1813. There is, according to Bernard Jones evidence of a Christian symbolism in the Lodges of the Ancients, as late as 1800. In 1913 it was, however, finally accepted that the minimum fundamental in Freemasonry was a belief in one God, as revealed by the V.S.L. Thus, while our V.S.L. is the Bible, which must always be exposed when a Lodge is open, the Craft now recognises the right of the Mohammedans to use the Koran, the Hebrews to use the Old Testament or the Pentateuch and the Hindus to use the Vedas. To each his Book is the sacred Canon, as the Bible is to us. To each it is his Volume of Sacred Law, the Great Light of his Masonic Lodge. While this Book is open in his Lodge, the greatest of all the Ancient Landmarks is safe from violation.

To-day the V.S.L. is more than an aid to Freemasonry. It is Freemasonry. Through the centuries men have fought and died for the right to read it and to live by its precepts. They have not died in vain, for now it stands exalted in our Lodges as our Greatest Light, shining strong and clear to guide the feet of the true Freemason as he passes through the Valley to the glory and the joy of final resurrection.

Let me conclude with the words of Dr G. W. Gilmore, Chaplain of the Anglo Saxon Lodge, No. 137, New York City. These are the closing words of his address in presenting the V.S.L. to a newly made Brother:— "Receive it, read it with painstaking care, study it sympathetically, appropriate its most exalted teachings, exemplify them in your life. Therein is found the way to life eternal."

Sourced by WBro. Iain Taylor MPS PGStdB (United Grand Lodge of Victoria, Australia.)

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