The Story of the National Cathedral

The dream of a national cathedral had its roots in the earliest days of our nation. In 1791, President George Washington commissioned architect Pierre L’Enfant to plan the nation’s capital. As part of that plan, they imagined a “great church for national purposes.”

Twelve years later, Congress offered a charter to the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia, and, in 1896, Mount Saint Alban, which overlooks the district, was chosen for the site of the National Cathedral. Often referred to as “the longest construction project in Washington, D.C.’s history,” the Cathedral took more than 83 years to complete. The foundation stone was laid on September 29, 1907. The stone is inscribed with the words of John 1:14: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” The imagery of the verse is symbolized in the foundation stone, which is actually two stones. The main stone was brought from the Holy Land, from a field near Bethlehem, but it is set into a larger piece of American granite — the rock of Bethlehem “dwelling” among American stone. The cathedral was completed on September 29, 1990. A feat of Gothic architecture, it is the second largest cathedral in the United States and sixth largest in the world. Showcasing more than 200 stained glass windows, 112 gargoyles, multiple mosaics, wood carvings and works of art, the building is replete with Christian and biblical symbols.

The National Cathedral has hosted myriad special events, from prayer services, to speeches, to funerals, all honoring the idea that the country needed a national cathedral. Martin Luther King’s last Sunday sermon in 1968 was at the cathedral, and funeral services for Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, as well as Senator John McCain and astronaut Neil Armstrong, were held there. The cathedral has also hosted a number of national prayer services for presidential inaugurations.

On Floor 2 of Museum of the Bible, check out our exhibit on the Bible and Architecture to see the Bible’s impact on architecture throughout the United States and the world. Or discover the Bible’s appearance in many familiar buildings and monuments in Washington Revelations, a multi-sensory tour that “flies” past biblical references in and around Washington, D.C., from the Lincoln Memorial to the Library of Congress.

(Source: Museum of the Bible)

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