WASHINGTON — The book at the center of three major world religions got its own museum in the heart of the nation’s capital on Saturday.
The Museum of the Bible opened its doors to the public, placing a new $500 million religious institution just blocks from the U.S. Capitol in a city where the separation of church and state remains hotly debated.
Marion Woods of Greenville, S.C., was among the first inside. She’s been anticipating this day for two years. When she first heard the museum was in the works, she thought, “I can’t believe there’s going to be a Museum of the Bible.” And then: “Why hasn’t this happened before?”
Woods, the director of operations at a real estate firm, flew into Washington on Thursday night and will leave Monday, spending as much time as possible in between at the museum.
“Something inside of me just kept telling me I had to be there,” said Woods, who refers to herself as a “spirit-filled Christian.” “I feel like this museum is honoring God’s word, and I wanted to be a part of honoring God’s word.”
Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Woods — at 9:30 a.m., she was on her phone, trying to persuade her friends to come join her at the museum. Many fellow members, who had claimed 12 free tickets for the opening day, were handing their extra tickets to the security guards at the door.
Some exhibits were bustling with visitors, particularly the World of Jesus of Nazareth, and at the Milk & Honey cafe, just a few tables were open at noon as diners bowed their heads in prayer before biting into their chocolate croissants. But the museum was far from capacity in its first hours. On the lower floors, a gallery on “Amazing Grace” and another on sculptures of the Stations of the Cross were nearly empty at 1:30 p.m. A film about the Bible played to a huge theater of almost entirely empty seats.
As they exited, a few early visitors called the atmosphere inside “peaceful” and “serene,” a marked contrast to the hordes packing many Smithsonian museums on busy weekends. Museum officials said they would not publicly release an attendance count.
The lines outside were short. Couples, teenagers and parents with children in strollers snapped selfies in front of the museum’s massive Gutenberg Bible-themed doors as they waited to file through the metal detectors at the entrance.
Museum employee Brenda McKelvin greeted everyone with a smile. Originally from South Carolina, McKelvin can read Gullah, a Creole language spoken by African-Americans living along the Southern coast. When she learned the museum didn’t have a Gullah translation of the Bible among its artifacts, she purchased one and donated it for the collection.
Other artifacts in the museum span history, from ancient writings to Elvis’ personal Bible. Glitzy attractions include a motion ride, a walk-through first-century village and a rooftop garden with Bible-inspired plants.
Nine-year-old Ellie Moiola stood watching New Testament re-enactors, in robes and sandals, explain how they use twine as a measurement tool.
“For the kids to be able to walk into the world of Jesus of Nazareth — that’s a really neat experience they can’t get anywhere else,” said Ellie’s mom, Ayron Moiola, of Brawley, Calif. Twelve people in the extended Moiola clan flew from their small town near the Mexican border to be at the museum’s opening weekend.
Moiola praised the museum’s varied exhibits: “Just lots of options to tell the story you’ve heard your whole life in a really different way. And to have it so well done and so thoughtful.”
The Green family, who own the craft supply chain Hobby Lobby and advocate for evangelical Christian causes, spearheaded the creation of the museum and supplied much of the funding. They purchased the former Terminal Refrigerating and Warehousing building south of the National Mall, then gutted it and added two floors plus a glass atrium on top to create a gleaming new space.
The private museum stands just two blocks from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and its National Museum of the American Indian. Leaders of the Museum of the Bible hope that it, too, will become a must-see stop on Washington tourists’ lists.
Jane and Lenny Wells, both pastors from Lorton, Va., and daily readers of the Bible, said they were thrilled to see the museum open in such a prominent location. As they waited outside the entrance, 30 minutes early for their 9 a.m. admission, Jane said, “This nation has moved so far from God. Its god is money and power. By having the museum here, it’s in your face.”
Her husband said he thinks the museum will be a good influence on America. “When you think of Washington, you think the Smithsonian and the other museums,” he said. “I think it will have an impact on beliefs, maybe persuade some people that God is real.”
Tawana Moore, a 60-year-old lifelong resident of the District and a Baptist minister, was less convinced of the museum’s evangelistic impact. “I’ve devoted my life to serving Jesus Christ, just maybe not all of this,” she said, waving her hand toward the museum’s gift shop. “It’s a museum. It’s not going to save your soul.”
Jean Johnson of Crow, W. Va., however, was awestruck. “I’m 73 years old, and I’ve seen a lot of things, but this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” she said.
An exhibit showing all the languages the Bible hasn’t yet been translated into was upsetting to her. “I’m too old” to be a missionary, she said, but she left the museum thinking about ways she could support work that would bring Christianity to even more people.
After touring the museum for three hours, she wished that her church group didn’t have to go to the tour of the White House it had scheduled for the afternoon. “In the room with the history of the Bible, I felt like I needed two days just to get through it, but all we had was 20 minutes.”
The museum’s leaders have said they want the exhibits not to take sides on the myriad controversial issues in which the Bible gets invoked, from homosexuality to contraception to climate change. Their primary goal is to get people to read the Bible, not necessarily to believe in it.
But at a private opening event on Friday, religious leaders described the museum as a tool for evangelism.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, read a message from Pope Francis hoping visitors’ “ears, hearts and minds be open to the good news that pours forth from its pages.”
“Hallow this moment, open this door to reveal how active and alive your word has been through the centuries,” Adm. Margaret Kibben, the Navy’s chief of chaplains, prayed before the audience of nearly 500 people on Friday.
And despite professing that the museum is apolitical, leaders hosted a $50,000-a-table opening gala on Thursday night at the Trump International Hotel.
The Mathemeier family from Winter Garden, Fla., said they were fine with an evangelistic mission. Watching her daughter Evangeline, 7, push a heavy wooden arm of a replica Gutenberg printing press, Chazzalynde Mathemeier recalled when museum chairman and Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green came to speak at her church in Orlando, Fla., months ago about the museum.
“I looked at my husband and said, ‘We’re going,'” Chazzalynde said. She home-schools Evangeline and her son Eric because she wants them to have a “biblical worldview,” and doesn’t like how God is being removed from public schools.
“All faiths should be welcome, but we should remember there was one faith that the country was founded on,” Scott said.