Joseph Fort Newton
BROTHER Toastmaster: Time is a river and books are boats. Many volumes start down that stream, only to be wrecked and lost beyond recall in its sands. Only a few, a very few, endure the testings of time and live to bless the ages following. Tonight we are met to pay homage to the greatest of all books–the one enduring Book which has traveled down to us from the far past, freighted with the richest treasure that ever any book has brought to humanity. What a sight it is to see five hundred men gathered about an open Bible- -how typical of the spirit and genius of Masonry, its great and simple faith and its benign ministry to mankind.
No Mason needs to be told what a place of honor the Bible has in Masonry. One of the great Lights of the Order, it lies open upon the altar at the center of the lodge. Upon it every Mason takes solemn vows of love, of loyalty, of chastity, of charity, pledging himself to our tenets of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. Think what it means for a young man to make such a covenant of consecration in the morning of life, taking that wise old Book as his guide, teacher and friend! Then as he moves forward from one degree to another, the imagery of the Bible becomes familiar and eloquent, and its mellow, haunting music sings its way into his heart.
And yet, like everything else in Masonry, the Bible, so rich in symbolism, is itself a symbol—that is, a part taken for the whole. It is a sovereign symbol of the Book of Faith, the Will of God as man has learned it in the midst of the years–that perpetual revelation of Himself which God is making mankind in every land and every age. Thus, by the very honor which Masonry pays to the Bible, it teaches us to revere every book of faith in which men find help for today and hope for the morrow, joining hands with the man of Islam as he takes oath on the Koran, and with the Hindu as he makes covenant with God upon the book that he loves best.
For Masonry knows, what so many forget, that religions are many, but Religion is one–perhaps we may say one thing, but that one thing includes everything–the life of God in the soul of man, and the duty and hope of man which proceed from His essential character. Therefore it invites to its altar men of all faiths, knowing that, if they use different names for “the Nameless One of a hundred names,” they are yet praying to the one God and Father of all; knowing, also, that while they read different volumes, they ale in fact reading the same vast Book of the Faith of Man as revealed in the struggle and sorrow of the race in its quest of God. So that, great and noble as the Bible is, Masonry sees it as a symbol of that eternal Book of the Will of God which Lowell described when he wrote his memorable lines:
“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 mountain shroud, While thunder’s surges burst on cliffs of cloud, Still at the prophets’ feet the nations sit.”
None the less, much as we honor every book of faith in which any man has found courage to lift his hand above the night that covers him and lay hold of the mighty Hand of God, with us the Bible is supreme What Homer was to the Greeks, what the Koran is to the Arabs, that, and much more, the grand old Bible is to us. It is the mother in our literary family, and if some of its children have grown up and become wise in their own conceit, they yet rejoice to gather about its knee and pay tribute. Not only was the Bible the loom on which our language was woven, but it is a pervasive, refining, redeeming force bequeathed to us, with whatsoever else that is good and true, in the very fiber of our being. Not for a day do we regard the Bible simply as a literary classic, apart from what it means to the faiths and hopes and prayers of men, and its in weaving into the intellectual and spiritual life of our race.
There was a time when the Bible formed almost the only literature of England; and today, if it were taken away, that literature would be torn to tatters and shreds. Truly did Macaulay say that, if everything else in our language should perish, the Bible would alone suffice to show the whole range and power and beauty of our speech. From it Milton learned his majesty of song, and Ruskin his magic of prose. Carlyle had in his very blood, almost without knowing it, the rhapsody and passion of the prophets–their sense of the Infinite, of the littleness of man, of the sarcasm of providence; as Burns, before him, had learned from the same fireside Book the indestructibleness of honor and the humane pity of God which throbbed in his lyrics of love and liberty. Thus, from Shakespeare to Tennyson, the Bible sings in our poetry, chants in our music, echoes in our eloquence, and in our tragedy flashes forever its truth of the terribleness of sin, the tenderness of God, and the inextinguishable hope of man.
My brethren, here is a Book whose scene is the sky and the dirt and all that lies between–a Book that has in it the arch of the heavens, the curve of the earth, the ebb and flow of the sea, sunrise and sunset, the peaks of mountains and the glint of sunlight on flowing waters, the shadow of forests on the hills, the song of birds and the color of flowers. But its two great characters are God and the Soul, and the story of their eternal life together is its one everlasting romance. It is the most human of books, telling the old forgotten secrets of the heart, its bitter pessimism and its death defying hope, its pain, its passion, its sin, its sob of grief and its shout of joy–telling all, without malice, in its Grand Style which can do no wrong, while echoing the sweet-toned pathos of the pity and mercy of God. No other book is so honest with us, so mercilessly merciful, so austere yet so tender, piercing the heart, yet healing the deep wounds of sin and sorrow.
Take this great and simple Book, white with age yet new with the dew of each new morning, tested by the sorrowful and victorious experience of centuries, rich in memories and wet with the tears of multitudes who walked this way before us–lay it to heart, love it, read it, and learn what life is, what it means to be a man; aye, learn that God hath made us for Himself, and unquiet are our hearts till they rest in Him. Make it your friend and teacher, and you will know what Sir Walter Scott meant when, as he lay dying, he asked Lockhart to read to him. “From what book?” asked Lockhart, and Scott replied, “There is but one Book!”