The Bible's place on US Inauguration Day

The next US President, Joe Biden, will be sworn in overnight (around 3.30AM AEST), with his hand on his 127-year-old family Bible.

The heavy tome is almost 13cm thick (5 inches), which Biden’s wife, Jill, will have to hold during the swearing in. “Have you been working out?” Stephen Colbert asked Jill Biden on The Late Show in December, as the couple talked to Colbert about the ceremony plans. In that interview, Biden described the giant Bible as “a family heirloom” which contains “every important date, going way back” – every time Biden himself was sworn into office, including his Vice Presidencies in 2009 and 2013.

“He’s not only undergirding his oath of office with the Bible but saying it reflects the essence of who he is, and his family heritage, and his own faith,” Robert Briggs, president and CEO of the American Bible Society, told Christianity Today. Biden will be the second America’s second Catholic President, after John F Kennedy.

Kamala Harris will be sworn in as vice president on the Bible owned by Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice on the US Supreme Court (there’s a 2017 Netflix movie about Marshall, if you’re interested).

The Washington Bible

Many Presidents before him have used a Family Bible at the Inauguration. In fact, when President Barack Obama chose to use the Lincoln Bible at his 2009 Inauguration – the Bible President Abraham Lincoln used at his Inauguration in 1861 – it was the first time in decades that a family Bible wasn’t used for the ceremony, according to the US Constitution Centre.

Choosing a Bible for the Inauguration has become a symbolic act. Though, it wasn’t always so. When George Washington, the first President of the United States was sworn into office as the first president of the United States, he put his hand on an open Bible. The pages his hand rested on, though, were chosen at random – Genesis 49-50 (all about Jacob blessing his sons). The presence of a Bible at Washington’s swearing is said by historians to have been an afterthought. The Bible was fetched from a nearby Masonic lodge, and no thought was put into what page should be open.

When John F Kennedy was sworn in as the United States’ first Catholic President in 1961, he chose a Douay Bible, a translation of the Bible on which nearly all English Catholic versions of the Bible are still based.

For his second inauguration in 2013, Barack Obama chose a Bible used by Martin Luther King Jr, in recognition that inauguration day also fell on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day to celebrate the life and work of the civil rights leader.

Some Presidents have chosen two Bibles to lay their hand on. In 2017, Donald Trump chose the Lincoln Bible – also chosen by Barack Obama for his first inauguration – and also a Bible given to him by his mother in 1955 when he graduated from Presbyterian Sunday School.

The Washington Post speculated that Barack Obama chose the Lincoln Bible for his 2009 inauguration to be deeply symbolic – the first black president taking the oath on the Bible of the Great Emancipator. The reasons why Trump chose the Lincoln Bible seemed less clear, though The Post says Trump has referenced Lincoln several times before as a man of great intelligence.

Presidents can’t always use the Bible they want. George W Bush wanted to use the Washington Bible – the Bible used by George Washington at his first inauguration – as his father George H W Bush had done before him. Presidents Harding, Eisenhower and Carter had also used the Washington Bible.

George W Bush had the Washington Bible transported under guard from New York to Washington DC for use in the ceremony, but the weather looked bad and he was unable to take the Bible outside, so opted for a family Bible instead.

For what it’s worth, this writer’s favourite president – President Josiah Bartlet – turned up at his second inauguration without a Bible because he couldn’t decide. He wanted to use the Washington Bible, but didn’t allow enough time to get it to Washington DC (clearly, George W had a better planner!). Then he wanted to use the Bartlet family Bible, which was being housed at the New Hampshire Historical Society. After he’s told he can’t use the family Bible, because it needs to be in a climate-controlled vault (“Just as the disciples intended,” says Bartlet), Bartlet decides to go with a Bible that Jonathan Edwards, an American theologian, used. But that Bible turned out to be “the size of a volkswagon”.  In the end, Bartlet is sworn in on a Bible inscribed with ‘Donnie’s Motel’ on the inside cover, retrieved from a library at the very last minute.

It’s probably at this juncture that I should make sure that those of you still reading this realise that President Josiah Bartlet is a fictional character from The West Wing.

In the end, Bartlet’s frustration with his Bible choice was evident. Though, there is no rule that you have to be sworn in on a Bible. John Quincy Adams was sworn in on a law book, which contained the US Constitution. Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in during a rushed ceremony after the death of President William McKinley, and there was no time to get a Bible. Lyndon Johnson, sworn in aboard Air Force One only an hour and a half after JFK was pronounced dead, also did not swear his oath on a Bible. Instead, he swore on a Catholic missal a Catholic missal (a liturgical book that contains the rites for Catholic mass), which was found in JFK’s bedroom on the plane.

“Okay, you know what? Washington didn’t bring his own Bible, he just assumed one would be provided, which, frankly, isn’t unreasonable,” said President Josiah Bartlett, in Season 4 of The West Wing. “Guy wants you to swear an oath on a Bible, he ought to be packing a Bible. Just common courtesy, I think. “Place your hand on this Bible. And, oh, can I borrow your Bible?” That’s not right.”