Inauguration Day Bibles: how presidents choose, and what that reveals

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.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
Barack Obama, joined by his wife, Michelle, takes the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts to become the 44th president of the United States at the US Capitol in Washington in this Jan. 20, 2009, photo. Obama used the Lincoln Bible for the ceremony.

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.

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.

But Lincoln opened this Bible, at random, for the swearing in at his first inauguration. For his second, he used an open Bible, since lost, and noted three verses: "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matthew 7:1), "Woe to the man by whom the offence cometh!" (Matthew 18:7), and "Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments" (Revelation 16:7).

George Washington, who began the tradition of using a Bible for the swearing-in, opened his Masonic Bible – since used by Presidents Harding, Eisenhower, and George H.W. Bush – to Genesis 49:13: "Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for an haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Zidon." The president chose this verse “at random, due to haste,” according to the Library of Congress

Subsequent presidents have given more thought to the words on the page. After a searing, contested election that left him with the popular nickname "Rutherfraud," Rutherford Hayes gave a conciliatory inaugural address (1877), but his choice of Bible verses under his hand when he swore the oath suggested another view of his take on events: "They compassed me about like bees; they are quenched as the fire of thorns: for in the name of the Lord I will destroy them" (Psalms 118:11-13).

Several presidents used the same passages, repeatedly.

Franklin Roosevelt, beginning his presidency at a time of fear and crisis, denounced the "practices of the unscrupulous money changers" and the "evils of the old order" in his first inaugural address. But the passage he chose for the oath was a primer on love: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal" (I Corinthians 13). He used the same citation for all four of his inaugurations.

Richard Nixon, taking over the presidency in the midst of an unpopular war, chose Isaiah 2:4 for his oath in 1969 and 1973: "And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

Ronald Reagan, while not conspicuously religious, kept his mother's heavily annotated Bible close at hand. He used it for both inaugurations, opened to the same passage: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land" (II Chronicles 7:14).

President Bill Clinton took the oath for his second term highlighting a verse from Isaiah 58:12, "...thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in."

"These are passages that mean something," says Mark Dimunation, chief of the rare book and special collections division at the Library of Congress, which houses the Lincoln Bible.

"Some see it as a theme of their presidency or guidance on taking the cloak of power," he adds. "It's the moment where the president is allowed to personalize what is otherwise a very formal moment in our procedure by choosing what they are swearing on."

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