Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

George Washington starts a tradition

George Washington started so many presidential traditions that you may not be surprised to learn he began the custom of using a Bible (and often, a King James Bible) to take the oath of office, too, on this date, April 30, in 1789. With the capital city of Washington, DC, not even established, Washington’s first inauguration took place at Federal Hall in New York City.

Library of Congress

Just before the ceremony, there was a brief crisis when it was discovered that nobody had brought a Bible. A local Masonic lodge came to the rescue by lending its own King James Bible, a handsome 1767 edition with 300 steel engravings. The same Bible, still owned by the lodge, has since been used at numerous ceremonies, including the inaugurations of Presidents Harding, Eisenhower, Carter, and George H.W. Bush.

Although there are older images of the Washington Bible, we were very pleased to work with the lodge as we produced the Manifold Greatness website to obtain new, never-before-published photographs, one of which appears in the Historic American Bibles image gallery. The gallery includes images of other inaugural Bibles, too, as well as a King James Bible that came over on the Mayflower, one owned by the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, and more.

As recounted in Paul Gutjahr’s book An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 (1999), a fifteen-year-old girl at Washington’s inauguration recorded the event in her diary: “Chancellor Livingston read the form of oath prescribed by the Constitution; Washington repeated it, resting his hand upon the Bible. Mr. Otis, secretary of the Senate, then took the Bible to raise it to the lips of Washington who stooped to kiss the book.” Someone else, Gutjahr notes, marked which passage the new president had kissed.

For more about the Washington Bible, see our Links list, which includes links to the Masonic lodge and to the National Park site where the Bible is sometimes displayed. For other books related to the King James Bible, consult our Suggested Reading list.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: Contrary to Opinion, the KJV WAS NOT published in 33ad | Unsettled Christianity

  2. Pingback: Of Presidents and King James Bibles: Ronald Reagan « Manifold Greatness blog

  3. Lexia Demiraz

    I thought you said he started so many presidential traditions, but you only talk about him and the Bible?!?!?!?!

    September 11, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    • Thank you for your comment, Lexia. George Washington started many traditions that American Presidents continue to this day, including taking the oath of office on the Bible. He also set precedents for the President choosing his or her own cabinet, and for limiting the number of terms in office. However, since our blog and its related website and exhibition are focused on the history and cultural impact of the King James Bible, the blog post on George Washington mainly deals with his relationship with the Bible. For more information on Washington’s life and presidency, you might try the White House website, which has biographies on each of the Presidents and First Ladies, or visit http://www.mountvernon.org/.

      September 12, 2012 at 3:37 pm

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