The sometimes treacherous boundaries between religion and civil government are the subject of two new exhibits that run until the end of this summer.
"SO HELP ME GOD!"
A presidential inauguration exhibit at Washington National Cathedral's Rare Book Library Exhibit Room continues through August 28. "‘So Help Me God!' Presidential Prayer and Presence" uses medallions, photographs, and even a teddy bear to describe presidential visits to Washington Cathedral.
Pierre L'Enfant, designer of Washington, D.C., had proposed that the highest hill in the city be reserved for a "national church." This idea was struck from the final design, but the eventual result was Washington Cathedral, an Episcopal house of worship that attempts to be a center for national prayer.
The exhibit touches only lightly upon the problem of how a national church can exist in a nation that separates church and state. The reason for desiring such a separation is evident, though, in two Episcopal prayer books. One was printed by the Church of England and includes prayers for the royal family; in the late eighteenth century, the American church that owned the book replaced these passages with prayers for the new American government. By this time, the Episcopal Church was in the process of separating from England's state church. This caused numerous difficulties for the Episcopal clergymen who had sworn oaths of loyalty to the head of the Church of England – George III. Because of this difficulty, the Episcopal Church was forced to drop a controversial prayer from its proposed prayer book that would have thanked God for "the inestimable Blessings of Religious and Civil Liberty."
Since then, American presidents have struggled with the question of how to express their religious faith without becoming entangled in the church-state alliance that the U.S. Constitution forbids. From the time that George Washington added the words "So help me God" to his presidential oath, American presidents have continued to pray publicly and to visit houses of worship. Washington Cathedral in particular has received presidential visits at times of national mourning and thanksgiving.
Not far from a glass case holding memorabilia from the cathedral's V-E Day service is another case holding the Bible on which President Clinton swore his oath last January. Exhibit curator Margaret Shannon reveals that even the star-studded cloth behind the Bible has a deeper meaning. She noticed the expensive cloth in a Washington store and tentatively approached the store owner about it. Would he be willing to donate the cloth to the cathedral? The Belgian-born owner was glad to do so; he asked that the cloth be dedicated in honor of the liberation of Belgium by the Allies at the end of World War II. Thus Washington Cathedral has found another small way in which to serve as a focus for national prayer.
LET THERE BE LIGHT
Earlier ties between church and state are revealed in the Library of Congress exhibit entitled "Let There Be Light: William Tyndale and the Making of the English Bible." The exhibit, which runs through September 6 in the library's Thomas Jefferson Building, recalls the life of the Englishman who produced one of the first English translations of the Bible.
Highlighting the exhibit are two out of the three surviving copies of Tyndale's 1526 New Testament. Few copies survive because most were ordered burned by England's King Henry VIII. At a time when translating the Bible into the vernacular was illegal, Tyndale printed his translations on the European Continent and smuggled them into England in bales of cloth. He was eventually betrayed into the hands of the English authorities and was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536. His last words are reputed to have been, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes." The following year, Henry VIII authorized the publication of an English-language Bible; it was based mainly on Tyndale's translations.
Washington National Cathedral, Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues N.W., Washington, D.C., 20016-5098. 202-537-5700. 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily; nave (May 1-Labor Day): 10 a.m.-9 p.m. weekdays. Optional donation.
"‘So Help Me God!' Presidential Prayer and Presence." Through August 28. Rare Book Library Exhibit Room. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 1-4 p.m. Sunday.
Library of Congress, 101 Independence Avenue S.E., Washington, D.C. 20540. Capital South Metro. 202-707-5000; 202-707-6200 (TTY). 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Free admission.
"Let There Be Light: William Tyndale and the Making of the English Bible." Through September 6. North Great Hall Gallery (first floor, Thomas Jefferson Building).
Library of Congress Information Bulletin – July 1997 (contains three articles on the Tyndale exhibit)
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson