In November 1752, 20-year-old George Washington placed his hand on a leather-bound King James Bible at the Lodge of Fredericksburg and joined the Masons.
For more than two and a half centuries, generations of the oldest fraternal organization in the world would take steps to guard that gilt-edged book, one of only two Washington is known to have sworn an oath on.
The University of Mary Washington has now partnered with Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4 to digitally preserve the 1668 Bible for the ages.
By the summer of 1753, Washington had taken three Masonry obligations on that book, rising to the final degree of Master Mason. When he swore his presidential oath of office – on another Mason Bible – the Revolutionary War hero was one of the most famous men in the world.
“Everybody wanted something attached to him,” Fredericksburg Mason Dan Goodwin said, from locks of hair to buildings named in his honor.
The lodge held fast to its now-historic Bible. When Union soldiers marched on Fredericksburg in 1862, Masons took care to hide it. Six decades later, in 1921, the relic went into a locked glass case. Members developed a protocol for loaning it; even then, at least two Fredericksburg Masons traveled with it.
So far, the Bible had remained in remarkably good condition. Still, Goodwin said, “If something wasn’t done, 200 years from now it might not be available.”
What, members asked themselves, could they do now so that Masons might always be able to enjoy it? The answer was digital preservation.
They might have turned to any lab that offered the service. But collaboration between UMW and the Fredericksburg Lodge dated to 2015, when a member took a historic preservation course called Archives and Society.
Carolyn Parsons, Head of Special Collections and University Archives at Simpson Library, taught it, covering everything from processing collections to working with born-digital records. Soon, three UMW students were organizing the lodge’s archive for the first time in its centuries-long history, with the Historic Preservation Department’s support. A year later, two more students – both historic preservation majors – continued their efforts. The volunteer work turned into an internship.
In 2016, Michael Spencer, associate professor and director for the Center for Historic Preservation, put a group of students in his building forensics laboratory to work investigating the lodge’s 200-year-old building on Princess Anne Street.
And there was more. In the spring of 2017, students in a collections management course taught by Associate Professor of Historic Preservation Cristina Turdean inventoried, accessioned and scanned hundreds of photographs, then placed them in archival-quality boxes and folders and cataloged them in the lodge’s database.
This summer, the Masons turned their attention to their most prized possession: the George Washington Bible. It arrived at UMW’s Digital Archiving Lab in a foam-lined Pelican case.
On the third floor of the Hurley Convergence Center, Digital Resources Librarian Angie White ’11 developed a plan to preserve it using the university’s rare book scanner. She took photographs, turned it over carefully in her hands, considered the significance of it.
“The chance to work with a piece of history,” White said, “is so incredible.”
The book was in better shape, she said, than some a quarter of its age.
Next came scanning – 418 pages in all – with old signatures and margin notes, fold-out maps and marbled papers. Some were torn and stained; other sections remained clean and intact after centuries of use by countless Masons.
Finally, Mary Novitsky ’19, an art history major who never imagined she’d work with a Bible George Washington placed his hands on, created copies of each digital image, editing and cropping them for future facsimile prints.
Earlier this month, they gathered around a table inside the lab – Parsons, White, Novitsky and three Masons.
“We feel like a family when we work with you guys,” said Charles Cooper, the lodge’s treasurer.
In front of them sat the Bible. Nothing could ever replace it. But a digitized copy means more people can access its pages, and what’s in them can never be lost.