Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

How Presidents use Bibles at inaugurations

January 20, 2017 by NCC Staff

 

President-Elect Donald Trump will use two Bibles on Inauguration Day, which isn't actually consistent with traditions associated with the public ceremony.

The Lincoln Bible (Wikimedia Commons).

Like his predecessor President Barack Obama (who also used two Bibles), the new President will use a Bible that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln. Trump's second Bible will be one given to him by his mother.

Trump will be the fifth known President to use a pair of Bibles in the public swearing-in. In addition to President Obama, Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon used two Bibles as part of the ceremony, which is rich in tradition and significance.

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 he 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.

Trump’s personal Bible was given to him by his mother at his church school graduation at First Presbyterian Church, Jamaica, New York, on June 12, 1955. The Trump transition team says the Bible is a revised standard version published by Thomas Nelson and Sons in New York in 1953.

The Lincoln Bible is part of the collections belonging to the Library of Congress.

Inauguration Stories on Constitution Daily

When presidential inaugurations go very, very wrong

Great inaugural addresses: Abraham Lincoln's two speeches

Great inaugural addresses: Franklin Roosevelt
 

Sign up for our email newsletter