How presidents use Bibles at inaugurations
President Barack Obama will use two Bibles on Inauguration Day, which isn’t actually a break from the many traditions associated with the public ceremony.
The two Bibles are both historic: one belonged to President Abraham Lincoln and the other to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
He will be the fourth known president to use a pair of Bibles in the public swearing-in. Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon also used two Bibles as part of the ceremony, which is rich in tradition and significance.
The official presidential inauguration website has an extensive list of Bibles uses at the ceremony, dating back to 1789.
In 1949, President Truman picked the same Bible he used in 1945 when he was sworn in upon the death of President Franklin Roosevelt, and opened it to Matthew 5 (the Beatitudes). The other Bible was a Gutenberg facsimile opened to the 10 Commandments.
Four years later, President Eisenhower chose the Bible used by George Washington in the first presidential inauguration in 1789, opened to 2 Chronicles 7:14, as well his own personal “West Point Bible,” opened to Psalm 33:12.
President Nixon used the same Bibles in the 1969 and 1973 inauguration, which were family Bibles opened to Isaiah 2:4.
The first use of a Bible at the Washington inauguration was a spontaneous affair. Washington arrived in New York City on April 30, 1789, much fanfare, and then a large crowd gathered in what turned out to be a parade.
When Washington arrived at Federal Hall, someone realized they forgot the Bible and obtained one from a nearby Masonic Lodge. For the swearing-in ceremony, the Bible was opened to a random page in the haste, Genesis 49:13, which read, ““Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea; he shall become a haven for ships, and his border shall be at Sidon.”
Since then, there is a fairly intact record of Bible usage starting with President Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861.
President John Quincy Adams used a book of law, including the Constitution, at his 1825 ceremony. For other ceremonies, it’s unknown if the presidents swore on a Bible or not, but a Bible was probably present.
In 1921, Warren Harding was the first president to use George Washington’s Bible at his own ceremony. Presidents Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush also used the Washington Bible. President George W. Bush was prevented from using the Washington Bible in 2001 due to bad weather.
In most cases, presidents have used a family Bible at the ceremony. When President Obama used the Lincoln Bible in 2009, it was the first time in decades that a family Bible wasn’t included in the public ceremony.
This year, because the official start of President Obama’s term is on a Sunday, he will use a family Bible in a private White House ceremony before the public event on Monday, January 21.
“The Robinson Family Bible was a gift from the first lady’s father, Fraser Robinson III, to his mother, LaVaughn Delores Robinson, on Mother’s Day in 1958, which she used regularly,” says the inaugural committee. “Mrs. Robinson was the first African-American woman manager of a Moody Bible Institute’s bookstore.”
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