The Surprising Story Behind George Washington's Inaugural Bible

Daveblog, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Daveblog, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Daveblog, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When we witness the inauguration of the next President of the United States in about a year, the incoming POTUS will likely be sworn in using a special Bible. Some, like Lyndon B. Johnson, have chosen family Bibles. Others have selected a Bible used by a former president, which is what Barack Obama did in 2009 when he was sworn in with Abraham Lincoln's sacred tome.

A few have even chosen to use the Holy Grail of presidential Bibles—the one George Washington placed his hand on when he was sworn in on April 30, 1789. But that Bible, which is now a cherished relic of the United States, was originally nothing more than an afterthought.

Washington’s inauguration took place not in D.C., but at Federal Hall in New York, where Congress met at the time. Everything else had been prepared for the ceremony when someone realized that no one had brought a Holy Bible for Washington to swear on. Jacob Morton, a Mason and the Master of nearby St. John’s Lodge, offered to run and grab the Bible from the altar at St. John’s. With no other options readily available, Chancellor of New York Robert Livingston gladly took him up on it. During the ceremony, Washington placed his right hand on the text, which was open to Genesis 49:13. (Don’t search too hard for any meaning—the Library of Congress says it was “opened at random due to haste.”)

Once the inauguration was over, the Bible was returned to St. John’s Lodge No. 1, and it still belongs to the Lodge today. When the Masons are not using it, they often display the George Washington Inaugural Bible at Federal Hall. They’ve also allowed it to be used in inaugurations for Warren G. Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. George W. Bush hoped to use it at his inauguration in 2001, but it was raining and no one wanted to risk damaging such a precious artifact.

Appropriately, the Bible was also used in Washington’s funeral procession and the dedication of the Washington Monument.