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"I suspect that religion is a necessary evil in the childhood of our particular species. And that's one of the interesting things about contact with other intelligences: we could see what role, if any, religion plays in their development."
- Arthur C. Clarke

Rod of Wrath  
  A sword made of light.  

This three-part serial was originally published in 1943. In the story, the device is presented as being a small rod, like a flashlight, which projects an energy beam.

Like two ancient swordsmen, then, the warlock and the deacon duelled together. Their weapons were two endless blades of violet incandescence, but their tactics were those of sabreurs - feint, cut, parry, swift riposte.
From Gather Darkness, by Fritz Leiber.
Published by Astounding Science Fiction in 1943
Additional resources -

Sure, go ahead and compare it to the lightsaber from Star Wars. See also the entry for flashlight laser, which is essentially an indefinitely long light saber, from Ringworld, by Larry Niven. Niven mentions "light swords" in the book. See also the entry for Force-Field Penknife, from Foundation by Isaac Asimov.

Thanks to Stephen Jones for pointing this out in Dr. Hermes Retro-Scans.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Gather Darkness
  More Ideas and Technology by Fritz Leiber
  Tech news articles related to Gather Darkness
  Tech news articles related to works by Fritz Leiber

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