George Washington Bible
The George Washington Inaugural Bible
"I Do Solemnly Swear . . . "
It is with these words that each American President since George Washington has taken the Oath of Office. With his hand on the Bible and eyes fixed squarely on the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, every four years the President swears to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America." With those words, the President assumes an enormous responsibility. That responsibility is to "simply" guide the nation, indeed the hopes and dreams of the citizen every, for four years . . . through peace and prosperity as well as turmoil and war.
But how did Brother George Washington come to take his oath of office on a Masonic Bible?
Inauguration Day, Thursday 30th April 1789 was clear and cool when it finally arrived. Foreign ambassadors and statesmen alike jammed their way into Federal Hall New York. Townspeople mingled with their neighbours from other states to crowd the roads leading to Federal Hall and Wall Street itself.
Historians tell us that at precisely 11:00 a.m., the Senate door swung open and the House Speaker, escorted by John Adams, his Vice President, Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, the highest ranking judicial officer of New York, and Generals Frederick William von Steuben, “Light Horse Harry” Lee, Henry Knox and Arthur St. Clair (All Masons except for Adams) went downstairs to a waiting carriage. Suddenly, it is said that Washington himself appeared at the door, exchanged nervous greetings with fellow statesmen, paused only a moment to acknowledge the cheers from his countrymen, and entered the Hall for the swearing in.
Once inside Federal Hall, we are told that the President-elect, standing regally and tall, accepted the applause of the joint Congress. He glanced around for his Vice President, John Adams, sat down on a beautiful crimson chair and said simply, "I am ready to proceed." Tension wasn't in the air . . . it was the air!
However, there was an awkward pause and then there was utter confusion when it was realised that no one had brought a Bible! Perhaps many of those present felt that without a Bible the oath could not be administered nor Washington even proclaimed first President! Soon, however, New York State Chancellor, Robert R. Livingston, who was Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New York, remembered that Lodge, St. John's Lodge No. 1, housed a beautiful 1767 altar version of the King James Bible. The Lodge met in the “Old Coffee House” at the corner of Water and Wall Streets about 3 blocks away and the parade Marshal, Major Jacob Morton, who was also Grand Secretary and Master of St. John’s Lodge No. 1 was dispatched to get the Bible. After a quick trip down the street, the historic Bible was provided and, in fact, carefully placed upon a red velvet cushion. Everyone relaxed, calm prevailed, and the stage was set.
Chancellor Livingston administered the oath, and George Washington added the words “So help me God!” and kissed the Bible when he finished.
Jacob Morton, Master of St. John's Lodge, stepped forward and carefully folded down a corner of the open page, thus preserving a record of the random Bible opening where Washington had rested his left hand. Interestingly, fate sometimes does funny things, for the random selection fell open to Chapter 49 of the Book of Genesis, the book that Biblical scholars remind us that literally means "the book of new beginnings."
After the Inauguration the members of St. Johns Lodge, No. 1, inserted a special silk page into the Bible to earmark the very place where President Washington rested his hand.
Thus began the first term of the first President of the United States of America.
Although this Bible is on public show in Lodge St. John’s No. 1 you don’t have to go to New York to sense the importance of that national treasure. There is a replica on show in the Lodge premises in West Stewart Street, Greenock.
On Friday 18th September 1964 Past Master Brother John M. Heron of Lodge Greenock St. John’s No. 175 presented to RWM Brother Thomas A. Dorrance a ‘Miniature Bible’ and read a letter from a Brother Donald Frewn of New York.
“One of the great and satisfying undertakings is that concerning the “Miniature Bible” with which I was recently honoured by a presentation from St. John’s Lodge No. 1, the oldest Masonic Lodge in our jurisdiction (Grand Lodge of New York) which Bible is a replica on which George Washington took his oath of office as first President of the United States of America.
Knowing the love and affection in which our Brother Drysdale holds Lodge Greenock St. John’s No. 175 in which he is an esteemed member, I have decided to present my Bible to your Lodge through Brother Drysdale.
Brother John and I feel that your Lodge will treasure this “Good Book” as a bond of brotherhood and fellowship between the Masons of Scotland, your jurisdiction and those of us in the jurisdiction of America”.
This was indeed a very generous gesture by Brothers Frewn & Drysdale and the “Miniature Bible” is treasured by Lodge Greenock St. John’s No. 175.
The following year Brother John R. Drysdale also presented a another Bible and a Loving Cup to his Mother Lodge, Lodge Greenock St. John’s No. 175 when he was Master of Queen Lodge No. 156, New York.
St. John’s Lodge No. 1 carefully preserves the “Washington Bible” and uses it at its meetings. In the two centuries since the first inauguration, the “Washington Bible” has been used at a variety of national events, including other inaugurations, the dedication of the Washington Monument and the laying of the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol building,.
Lodge rules also allow it to be used for various Masonic ceremonies and the inaugurations of New York governors. There are some firm rules about the use and handling of the George Washington Bible. Only a president being sworn in is allowed to touch the pages of the Bible without gloves The Grand Master of New York takes his oath of office on the Bible as have presidents Warren G. Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower, James E. Carter and George H. W. Bush. The Bible was scheduled to be used for the inauguration of President George W. Bush, but rain kept the fragile book inside.
On Tuesday 20th January 2009 the Bible used when President, Barrack Obama took his oath of office was the same Bible upon which President Abraham Lincoln was sworn in at his first inauguration. President Obama was the first President sworn in using the Lincoln Bible since its initial use in 1861.
Pity the Washington Bible was overlooked at this time of “new beginnings’.
Alex Galbraith, PM., PPGM. PSGM