Historic Bible surfaces Fredericksburg

Masons put George Washington items on exhibit Richmond Times-Dispatch, page B5

The Fredericksburg lodge of the world's oldest fraternal organization, the Masons, had been hiding a secret. Behind the doors of Lodge No. 4 were key artifacts from the young adulthood of George Washington. Only insiders saw the Bible used at his Masonic initiation ceremony in 1752, the minutes of his meetings at the lodge and a portrait by the celebrated painter Gilbert Stuart dating to the late 1700s. But now, 250 years after Washington swore on the Bible, it and the collection are on public display for the first time. The exhibit opened last month at the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center.

For the past decade, museum officials have asked the Masons to move the collection to a safer place and allow the city to display it on a grander stage. The Masons had resisted, influenced by a combination of possessive pride in their unique connection to Washington and two centuries of dealing with anti-Mason sentiment. "People who have experienced persecution are more hesitant about opening themselves up," said J. Travis Walker, a former "worshipful master," or president, of the lodge and its historian. The Masons went to city museum officials to say they had changed their minds about the display. It had been 250 years since Washington swore on the Bible, they told the city, and they didn't want the anniversary to go unnoticed. They also knew they didn't have the funds to mark the occasion themselves. But there was more to it than just that.

The Free and Accepted Masons are losing membership. In a culture that reveres free information and free trade, the group's secretive nature about its traditions doesn't help. So the Fredericksburg Masons hoped bringing some of their 250-year-old traditions into the open would help save them from extinction. The Masons also published a book by Walker about their history and registered the lodge as a nonprofit organization so they can begin raising funds to restore their 188-year-old red-brick building. They want to restore the permanent exhibit there. "There has been a concerted effort to reintegrate our lodge into public life," Walker said.

The history of the Masons is controversial, but most Masonic historians believe the group evolved from guilds of stonemasons and cathedral builders in the Middle Ages. The group focuses on morality and charity, and members must believe in a higher being - regardless of what it is.

Because of its link with George Washington, the Fredericksburg lodge hasn't been hit as hard as other lodges with a decline in numbers in recent years. However, it has been unable to afford to maintain its relics. "One minute-book page was open with sunlight on it, and it almost faded away," said Don Robey, a former Virginia state president who is involved with the Fredericksburg lodge. Another document mounted on an oily board was ruined, he said. Scholars have long studied the significance of Washington's experiences in the Masons. The impact of the group can be seen in his writing and ideas, said John Kaminski, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who wrote "A Great and Good Man" about Washington. Washington's writings use the terminology and philosophy of the Masons, Kaminski said. For example, his writings rarely include references to God and never to Jesus, but to "the Great Architect." After Washington's death, suspicion about the group grew into a political party, the nation's first Third Party, which was based on anti-Mason sentiment. U.S. Masons split into many factions, and suspicions about Masonic practice have lingered.

Officials with the Fredericksburg Area Museum said they think part of the reason they had difficulty raising money for the exhibit may have been some donors' reluctance to be connected with the Masons. Franklin Powell, 71, said he was worried about turning over the items to the museum. "When you think about it, that Washington was initiated 250 years ago and you have this Bible, it's not replaceable," said the retired contractor, who has been a member of Lodge No. 4 since 1956. For the sake of saving Lodge No. 4, Powell said he supported going through with removing the artifacts from the lodge. "What can you do?" he said. "It's just a sign of the times.