Yes, George Washington's Inaugural Bible Is Still Intact. Here's Where You'll Find It

Though the Founding Fathers of the United States were united on the issue of prohibiting a state church, they were believers in God, and many saw religion as a force for good in society. They also appreciated the pull of objects associated with momentous events. Per Jon Meacham's "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power," Thomas Jefferson expected the desk on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence would be revered. "Politics as well as religion has its superstitions," he wrote, claiming that people would one day give "imaginary value" to the "relic." One wonders, however, if Jefferson would be as comfortable with the convergence of the two in the form of the Bible used in the first presidential inauguration.

That Bible, a 9-pound illustrated edition, is currently held by the St John's Lodge No. 1 Foundation in New York, which has made it available for museum exhibits, private viewings, and other inaugurations. But if a popular story is true, the Bible George Washington used to take his oath in 1789 is only part of American history due to poor planning. According to CBS News, the story goes that, while every other detail of the first presidential inauguration was attended to, no one thought to bring a Bible. The copy on hand at St. John's — a Masonic lodge — was hastily fetched and opened to a random page.

The lodge maintains that the use of its Bible wasn't an accident. It points out that the Masonic Bible would be neutral in tensions between denominations and avoid associating any one church with the government. The organization also maintains that the page Washington swore on — Jacob's blessing of his 12 sons — was symbolically appropriate and carefully chosen.

Four more presidents have used the same Bible

The St. John's Lodge No. 1 Foundation traces George Washington's inaugural Bible to a 1770 donation by lodge member Jonathan Hampton, who likely ordered the illustrated copy from the Baskett printers in England. Made with vegetable-based inks, the Bible can easily be damaged by bright lights and oils from human skin, and it requires ginger handling. But it has made it to the 21st century in remarkably good condition. It's been kept in such good shape, in fact, that it's been used for several successive inaugurations and other solemn occasions connected with the presidency.

The Bible remained closely associated with Washington for the remainder of his lifetime. An extra page featuring his likeness was added, Washington himself brought it back out of the lodge when laying the cornerstone of the Capitol, and the Bible was used in his funeral procession. Over 100 years later, Warren G. Harding was the first president after Washington who asked to use his Bible for his own inauguration. The request was granted, and presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush followed suit. George W. Bush hoped to use the Washington Bible for his first inauguration, but it was decided against due to poor weather that could have damaged the book.

Washington's Bible has ties to other presidents outside of inaugural events. It was used in the funeral procession of Zachary Taylor and was present when Abraham Lincoln laid in state in New York. Richard Nixon didn't use it for his second inauguration, but he did have it put on display at the White House for the occasion.

The Masonic lodge that holds the Bible lends it out for exhibition

The George Washington inaugural Bible is one of the few documents from the Revolutionary era that remains in private ownership. As of 2023, St John's Lodge No. 1 is an active Masonic lodge and has made use of the Bible for its own rituals. In 1874, it was employed when a visiting King Kalākaua of Hawai'i — a committed freemason — took his Third Degree Obligation. But according to the National Park Service, when the lodge isn't using Washington's Bible, the organization allows it to be put on display on the first floor of Federal Hall in New York, where Washington took his oath of office.

The Bible has also been lent out for notable events in America's history. It was present when the cornerstone of the Statue of Liberty's pedestal was laid in 1884, and when the cornerstone of the Washington Monument was laid the following year. It was exhibited during the 1964 World's Fair in New York. And just as Washington used it when laying the cornerstone of the Capitol building, the Bible was used in re-dedicating the Capitol in 1993.