Public Square

A Quick Look at the Role of the Bible in Presidential Inaugurations

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Today, President-elect Donald Trump will place his hand on a Bible and take the oath of office to become the forty-fifth President of the United States.

The inauguration ceremony has changed over the years, but the use of the Bible has remained the same. For over two hundred years, presidents have used different Bibles for their inaugurations. Tim Smith, an executive with the Museum of the Bible, writes that many presidents incorporated Bible passages into their inaugural addresses. Smith offers some interesting facts:

  • The most frequently used Bible during a presidential inauguration (five times) was the 1767 King James Version Washington used for his swearing in.
  • The most frequently used books of the Bible are Psalms, Isaiah, and Proverbs.
  • The most frequently used passage (four times) is I Corinthians 13.
  • Its runner-up (three times) is 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If 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 and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Smith also shares that President Reagan used his mother’s King James Bible for his inaugural oaths. At a news conference shortly after his 1985 inauguration, he said:

I’ve found that the Bible contains an answer to just about everything and every problem that confronts us, and I wonder sometimes why we won’t recognize that one book could solve a lot of problems for us.

Since the mid-1800s, the Bible has played a more substantial role in inaugural speeches, too. There is perhaps no better example of this than Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech, considered one of the best inauguration speeches ever given.

Lincoln delivered it on March 4, 1865, a time when the nation was truly divided. The Civil War would end in less than a month, having already claimed 600,000 casualties. Lincoln himself would be assassinated the following month.

In one of the shortest inauguration speeches, 701 words, Lincoln mentioned God fourteen times, quoted four specific Bible verses, alluded to several more, and invoked prayer three times. Frederick Douglass later wrote in his diary, “The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.”

That may have been Lincoln’s intention. Ronald C. White writes, “It is the religious cast of the Second Inaugural that gave it a power and authority singular in American public address.” In the context of God’s providence, Lincoln spoke of both judgment and grace and called the nation to act:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

This kind of language resonates throughout history because of the important place the Bible has held in our nation’s collective consciousness from its founding. Historian Danial Dreisbach writes in his new book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers:

The Bible is woven into the fabric of American social and cultural history. From the first English settlements in the early seventeenth century to the modern era, the Bible has been featured prominently in the American story.  It has exerted influence on the culture in powerful and enumerable ways…to understand the social, legal, and political history of the American founding, one must read the Bible.

Christians accept that the Bible is our guide for faith and practice. The Apostle Paul tells Timothy:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the faith and correcting error, for re-setting the direction of a man’s life and training him in good living. The scriptures are the comprehensive equipment of the man of God and fit him fully for all branches of his work (2 Tim. 3:16).

As we see the pictures of the president-elect being sworn in with his hand on the Bible, let us remember that God’s Word has and will continue to have a powerful effect on our country’s culture because of those who believe. Remember what God promised the prophet Isaiah: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).

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