As America awaits the upcoming presidential inauguration on January 20th, we are taking a look back at the nation’s very first inauguration which took place right here in New York City. On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath of office in Lower Manhattan in front of what was then City Hall, now the site of Federal Hall National Memorial. Standing on a platform with his hand on the Bible, Washington became the first president of the United States of America. In our upcoming virtual tour of Washington’s inaugural parade route, we will retrace his steps through Manhattan from the nation’s first White House to Wall Street. Along the way, Untapped New York’s Chief Experience Officer Justin Rivers will point out notable locations and remnants of the historic day, including the inaugural Bible used during the ceremony, which you can still see inside Federal Hall.
Before this holy book became forever tied to Washington’s inauguration, it was used as an altar Bible at St. John’s Lodge No. 1, one of the oldest Masonic lodges in the country. At the time of the inauguration, the lodge was headquartered at the Old Coffee House on the corner of Water and Wall Streets. When it was discovered there was no Bible present for Washington to swear on during the ceremony, the Grand Master of St. John’s Lodge No. 1, Jacob Morton, offered to run and grab the altar Bible. Morton was assisting the Chancellor of State of New York and Grand Master of Grand Lodge of New York, Robert Livingston during the ceremony. Livingston was the Grand Marshal of Washington’s parade and the person who administered the oath.
The inaugural Bible Washington swore on is a King James version printed in London in 1767. In addition to the biblical text inside, there are historical, astronomical and legal data from the period. Among the books more than 1,000 pages there are 103 steel-engraved illustrations of Biblical scenes by English artist, John Stuart. It weighs a hefty nine pounds! An inscription on the front cover notes that the lodge was established in 1757 and burnt down in 1770. The lodge’s original Bible was lost in the fire, and the new one was gifted by Jonathan Hampton. Bibles were expensive at the time, so this was a significant donation. During the inauguration, it was opened, at random, to a passage from Genesis 49:13.
Photo via Wikimedia: public domain
After Washington’s inauguration, a page with a short description of the ceremony was inserted into the book to commemorate the event. It was accompanied by a portrait of George Washington. Having been made in England, the Bible also had a portrait of King George III, which faced the Washington portrait. Instead of removing the likeness of the monarch, which would have meant desecrating the inaugural Bible, Washington’s portrait was simply placed higher up, according to the St. John’s Lodge No. 1 Foundation, the caretakers of the Bible.
The Bible was subsequently used in the swearing-in ceremonies of Warren G. Harding in 1921, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, Jimmy Carter in 1977, and George H. W. Bush in 2001. It was also present at other historic events such as the 1964 World’s Fair, the introduction of Croton water into New York City in 1840, and the cornerstone layings of the Washington Monument, the Washington Square Arch, and the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The choice of which Bible to use for the inauguration ceremony is a personal one. For the upcoming inauguration of Joe Biden, he will place his hand on a Bible that has been in his family since 1893.
Part of the balcony Washington stood on when taking the oath of office
Today, the inaugural Bible can most often be found inside Federal Hall. The St. John’s Lodge No. 1 Foundation, the non-profit in charge of caring for the Bible, will loan it out on very rare occasions. The Bible is mainly used for Master Mason obligations, presidential inaugurations, or the oath of office for the Mayor of New York City, and the Governor of the State of New York. You can request to have the Bible present at a special occasion, but there is a fee that goes towards the Bible’s maintenance, and permission is at the discretion of St. John’s Lodge No. 1. Anyone who borrows the Bible also needs to cover the expenses of The Escort Committee, a team of at least three members of the St. John’s Lodge who travel with the Bible to ensure its safety. The foundation is currently raising money to restore the Bible so it can travel across the country more frequently and be more accessible to the citizens of America.
Join us on Tuesday, January 19th at 12:00PM to retrace the route of George Washington’s inaugural parade in a virtual tour! This live event is organized for Untapped New York Insiders. Not an Insider yet? Become a member today and get two months free with code JOINUS, then membership is just $10/month. A video of the talk will also be made available to all our Insiders afterward in the Video Archive section of our website. Already an Insider, register here!
Next, See George Washington’s Last Tooth and Denture at the NY Academy of Medicine and find another tooth at Fraunces Tavern!