The Renaissance led to a revolution in Bible publishing; by the mid-1400s, Gutenberg’s movable type press and the aims of the 16th century Protestant Reformation made the Bible accessible to ordinary people in their own language. The 1560 Geneva Bible, which had been put together by a small group of Scottish and English Calvinists in Geneva, became treasured by English speaking Protestants, and surviving copies display well-used pages. The notes in the margins of the Geneva Bible displayed anti-Royal sentiments and it was loved by the Puritans, the Geneva Bible being preferred over the King James version and remaining popular throughout the 17th century. One reason for this, as we shall see, was the many serious errors that appeared in editions of the King James version.
Lodge of Lights 1599 Bible
The Geneva Bible dating from 1599, used by the Lodge of Lights No. 148, is reputed to be the very Bible that Elias Ashmole took his Masonic oath on when he was made a Freemason in Warrington in October 1646, though there is no supporting evidence for this. The Lodge of Lights was founded in 1765 and there was an Antient’s lodge based in Warrington for a short period in 1756, and a lodge Bible must have been used. We do know that the ‘Ashmole’ Bible was rebound in the later nineteenth century and has had a number of pages repaired professionally, probably at the same time it had been rebound. Later repairs to the pages were made with Sellotape, pointing to the Bible’s use in up until the mid twentieth century. However, the Bible has not been used in the lodge within living memory, and does not have the Lodge of Lights written on the front of the leather binding, but that of ‘Warrington Lodge’, which was the original name of the lodge before it took on its present name in 1806. The Bible has recently been repaired and its historical importance has been revaluated.
The Washington Bible
Certain older lodges use Bibles that have an important historical value, such as the King James Bible that the first President of the United States George Washington, took his oath of office on in 1789, which is from a lodge based in Manhattan, New York called St John’s Lodge. The Bible was supplied from the lodge as there was no other Bible to hand. Other Presidents that have took their oath of office on the Bible include President George H. W. Bush in 1989, and his son George W. Bush, who had hoped to take his oath of office on the same Bible in 2001, but due to the heavy rain, a decision was made not to use it outside.
The Bible was originally bound in London in 1767 and was brought over to the American colonies and was presented by Jonathan Hampton to the St. John’s Lodge in Lower Manhattan three years later. Washington took his oath of office on the steps of Federal Hall in New York on the 30th April 1789, and with no Bible to hand, the New York Governor, Robert Livingston, who was also a Mason, borrowed it from the lodge which met a short distance away. The Bible, bound in leather with silver clasps, would have been rare and expensive in those days, probably being close to a year’s wages for the average working man. The Bible is kept by St. John’s Lodge.
The Breeches Bible of the Lodge of Edinburgh
Another historical Bible is used in the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary’s Chapel) No. 1, called the Breeches Bible – which was printed in 1587. The minutes of the lodge date back to 1599 and the Bible has witnessed the oath and obligation of many famous members of that lodge, such as King Edward VII and King Edward VIII. Printed in Geneva, it is called the Breeches Bible due to a misprint. In Genesis iii, 7, in which it reads ‘And they sewed fig tre leaves together, and made them selves breeches’, the word ‘breeches’ used instead of ‘aprons’. Other Bibles that have become famous and are now much sought after by collectors due to misprints include the ‘Wicked’ Bible, published in 1631, which omitted the word ‘not’ in the rendering of the Seventh Commandment. For this mistake the printer was fined £300 by Archbishop Laud.
Other such Bibles include the ‘Pagan’ Bible, which printed in 1572, contains illustrations of pagan God’s such as Apollo at Mount Olympus, and the ‘Vinegar’ Bible printed by John Baskett in 1717, which has the page heading of Luke 20:9 as ‘The Parable of the Vinegar’ instead of ‘The Parable of the Vineyard’. This Bible had so many mistakes in it that it was also referred to as the ‘Baskett-ful or errors’ after its hapless printer. Another such Bible is the ‘Servant’ Bible, published in 1640, which used the word ‘servant’ instead of ‘serpent’ in the first verse of the third chapter of Genesis. As Paul Tronson comments in his article in Masonic magazine MQ, many of these Bibles came to be used in various lodges and he referred to how Mother Kilwinning Lodge No. 0 in Scotland has two 16th century Geneva Bibles that had been stuck together with duct tape.
Paul Tronson, ‘Masonic Bibles: Lodges and their Bibles’, MQ Magazine, Issue 17, April, 2006, pp.44-45.