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Inauguration Day Bibles: how presidents choose, and what that reveals (+ video)

President Obama will have two highly symbolic Bibles at his Inauguration Day swearing-in ceremony: one used by Abraham Lincoln and another from the family of Martin Luther King Jr.

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In no aspect of his second inauguration is President Obama more explicitly historic, even iconic, than in his choice of Bibles: the Lincoln Bible and – to rest underneath it, as the president takes his oath of office – the "traveling" Bible of Martin Luther King Jr.

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It’s hard for the second inauguration of America’s first black president to approach the gravitas of the first. But to invoke, in a simple choice of books, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (Jan. 1, 1863) and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (Aug. 28, 1963), at an inauguration that happens to fall on Martin Luther King Day, comes close.

In fact, there's no requirement that a Bible or any other book be used for the oath of office, as provided in Article II of the Constitution. John Quincy Adams (1825) chose a US law book. Theodore Roosevelt, in his first inauguration (1902), used none at all.

Most US presidents have opted to swear the oath on a Bible – many choosing an open Bible and noting, for the record, the verse(s) on the page to mark the occasion. It’s a moment that can offer a rare glimpse into the spiritual lives of US presidents or, at least, into how they want their spiritual lives or place in history to be understood.

Mr. Obama has left nothing to guesswork on this point. The choice of the Lincoln and King Bibles is “fitting,” he said in a video statement on Friday, “because their actions, the movements they represented, are the only reason that it’s possible for me to be inaugurated.” 

“Me stating before the entire country that I will uphold my oath of office while at the same time letting them know that there’s a connection between me being there and the sacrifices of those of the past, I think it’s entirely fitting,” he added.

The King Bible, on loan from the King Center in Atlanta, was Dr. King's "traveling Bible," heavily annotated and used in preparing sermons and speeches. It has never been used previously in a presidential inauguration.

The Lincoln Bible, used during Lincoln's first inauguration, had not been used again until Obama chose it for his first inaugural. Lincoln had no previous ties to the book. Facing assassination threats, Lincoln entered the capital for his first inaugural in secret and in haste, under the guard of Pinkerton detectives. His luggage, including the family Bible, had not yet caught up with him en route from Springfield, Ill. The faded burgundy velvet Bible – 5.9 inches long, 3.9 inches wide, and 1.8 inches deep – was one of several like it on hand at the US Supreme Court for use on such occasions.

The White House says President Obama will not be opening this Bible for the oath. It's too fragile to open easily or to lay flat.


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