Two Ceremonies, Three Bibles, No Scriptures: The 2013 Inauguration

Two Ceremonies, Three Bibles, No Scriptures: The 2013 Inauguration January 20, 2013

This morning while you were probably still at church, Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States for a second term by Chief Justice John Roberts.  The small private ceremony in the White House was unique in several respects:

TWO CEREMONIES.  This year, there will be not one but two separate inaugurations.  Because the Inauguration must occur on January 20, but the formal celebration is not typically held on a Sunday, the President will repeat the oath of office publicly on the steps of the Capitol tomorrow, January 21.

THREE BIBLES.  This morning, the President took the oath of office with his left hand on Michelle Obama’s family Bible.  Tomorrow, he will rest his hand on two historic Bibles, stacked together:  the Lincoln Bible, the same burgundy velvet Bible on which Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office in 1865; and Martin Luther King’s “traveling bible,” the small, gently used bible which Dr. King carried with him when he visited southern cities to demand civil rights for all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin.


The Lincoln Bible

NO VERSES.  Unlike the seven most recent residents of the White House, President Obama has not selected a Scripture verse which he likes, and upon which he will base his presidency.  He will place his hand on the stack of closed bibles, but will not read the words which they contain.

In contrast, when Abraham Lincoln swore on that velvet Bible, he placed his hand on three favorite verses:  Matthew 7:1 and 18:7, and Revelation 16:7.  Those verses are:

Mt 7:1  Do not judge, or you too will be judged.

Mt 18:7  Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!

Rev 16:7  And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments.”

William C. Davis, writing in his book Lincoln’s Men (1999: The Free Press), perhaps explains Lincoln’s thinking in selecting these passages:

…on March 4, 1865, Lincoln took his oath of office for the second term and spoke of a nation that preferred charity and hope to malice….”

Lincoln had been deeply troubled by the law’s stern handling of deserters and frequently pardoned them, rather than permit their execution.


And here’s just a peek at some of the verses chosen by earlier presidents as they began their terms of office.  All verses, regardless of the original translation used, are taken from the New American Standard Bible.

George W. Bush had his family bible opened to Isaiah 40:31

Yet those who wait for the Lord
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary.

William J. Clinton used a King James Bible which had been given to him by his grandmother.  For his first inauguration in 1993, it was opened to Galatians 6:8

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.

Four years later, for his second inauguration, Clinton used the same treasured bible but rested his hand on Isaiah 58:12

“Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins;
You will raise up the age-old foundations;
And you will be called the repairer of the breach,
The restorer of the streets in which to dwell.

George H.W. Bush opened his Family Bible to Matthew 5.  He also had the bible used by George Washington (belonging to St. John’s Masonic Lodge No. 1), opened at random.

Ronald Reagan swore upon a Family Bible which had been given to him by his mother.  For both of his inaugurations, in 1981 and 1985, he rested his hand on II Chronicles 7:14

and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

Jimmy Carter had his family bible opened to Micah 6:8

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Gerald R. Ford had a Bible held by his wife, opened to Proverbs 3:5-6

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.

And Richard M. Nixon used two brown leather family Bibles.  In 1969 and again in 1973, he placed his hand on Isaiah 2:4.

And He will judge between the nations,
And will render decisions for many peoples;
And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they learn war.

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