The so-called Washington Family Bible probably first belonged to George Washington’s mother; on an early blank page an inscription (in pencil, likely from the late 19th century) reads: “Mary Washington’s Bible with the Family Record.” Betty Washington Lewis, a great-granddaughter of George’s sister, gave it to Mount Vernon in the 1890s. Among the Washington Library’s collections are several other Washington Bibles, including one George gave to Martha that includes her own notes on family genealogy.
The Washington Family Bible is a King James version of the text, the one most commonly found in 18th-century America. Approximately 1,030 unnumbered pages, it is bound in brown leather (the binding is not original, but the leather on its covers may be), measures 7.5 by 10 inches, and includes 133 illustrations (one of which is inserted loosely). The first few surviving pages are fragmentary. Inscribed in a bold, clear script on a page about two-thirds of the way into the book is a record of the Washington family’s genealogy (pictured), probably written by George Washington in the years before the Revolutionary War.
It is helpful to understand the Washington Family Bible and its page of genealogical information in the context of 18th-century Virginia. The King James Bible was the official text of the Anglican Church, the government-established religion of several colonies, including Virginia. This meant that in order to vote and hold office in British Virginia, a man (women were not eligible) had to take an oath attesting to his fidelity to the Anglican Church. Perhaps more so than they do now, the church and its parishes also served functions that modern-day Americans associate with government social and welfare services. These included keeping birth, baptism, and death records, and providing assistance to widows, orphans, the mentally ill, and impoverished individuals. This combination of church and state authority meant that the church and its records could play an important role in settling legal questions about wills and inheritance, property ownership, custodianship of minors, and, before church establishment ended during the Revolutionary era, eligibility to participate in civil society.
Each family Bible was to some degree an extension of the sacred and secular functions of religion in the 18th century. In instances when information was missing from church and civil records, reference to a family’s Bible could fill those factual gaps. George Washington was not in the habit of writing in his books, and with the exception of the family history page, there are few markings or marginalia anywhere in the Bible that indicate study or interpretation of the text. But we know Washington was familiar with the contents of the King James Bible, as he frequently included references to verses and allegories in his writings (including one of his favorite phrases, a reference to vines and fig trees from the Book of Micah). Washington’s careful effort to record multiple generations of his family tree demonstrates the central role that religion played as a source of authority in early America.
Discover more objects in the Mount Vernon collection at emuseum.mountvernon.org.