Inauguration 2013: President Obama, three Bibles, two oaths

A Bible is not required for the oath of office, but presidents usually select one that has personal or historical meaning to them. Photo: President Obama taking the oath of office, 2009, on Lincoln Bible AP

WASHINGTON, January 12, 2013 — When President Obama takes the oath of office on January 21, he will actually be doing it for a second time, having done so just 24 hours before, January 20. That’s because the U.S. Constitution requires that the President of the United States must be sworn into office by noon on January 20.

Most presidents do take the oath privately early on the day of their inauguration before the official ceremony to ensure a smooth transition of power, but this year was special since January 20 falls on a Sunday and an inauguration cannot be held on a Sunday.

So the 2013 Inauguration will be on a federal holiday, the birthday of fallen Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., making January 21 a doubly special day as the first African American president is sworn in for his second term.

The Lincoln Bible, one of two that Pres. Obama will use

President Obama will use three different Bibles for his oaths. For the private ceremony on Sunday, he will use the Bible belonging to Michelle Obama’s family, the Robinsons.

At the official inauguration, the President will put his hand on two Bibles, stacked on top of one another, the Lincoln Bible he used four years ago and one that belonged to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“President Obama is honored to use these Bibles at the swearing-in ceremonies,” said Steve Kerrigan, president and CEO of the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC). “On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, this historic moment is a reflection of the extraordinary progress we’ve made as a nation.”

Michelle Obama’s Bible was one that her family, the Robinsons uses. It was a gift from her father to her mother on Mother’s Day in 1958.

The Lincoln Bible is on loan from the Library of Congress and was purchased to be used in 1861 for Lincoln’s first inauguration. An ornate Bible, it is bound in burgundy velvet with a gold-washed metal rim and the pages are gilt trimmed.

In 2009, President Obama was the first person sworn in as president with his hand on the Lincoln Bible.

The King Bible is known as Dr. King’s traveling Bible that he used as inspiration for sermons and speeches when he was on the road.

Etching of Lincoln taking the oath of office

“We know our father would be deeply moved to see President Obama take the Oath of Office using his bible,” the Presidential Inaugural Committee quoted Dr. King’s children as saying. “His ‘traveling Bible’ inspired him as he fought for freedom, justice and equality, and we hope it can be a source of strength for the President as he begins his second term.”

Vice President Joe Biden will be sworn in on Sunday and Monday as well, using the Biden family Bible with its Celtic cross on the cover. It has been in the Biden family since 1893 and he has used it every time he  has been sworn in, first as U.S. Senator and then Vice President in 2009.

Since no Bible is required to take the oath of office, some people have suggested that the President forego using one this time. Two presidents have not used a Bible, just raising their hand to take the oath: Teddy Roosevelt, his first inauguration after the assassination of President William McKinley on September 14, 1901, and John Quincy Adams, March 4, 1825, who placed his hand on a volume of law.

There is a long list of presidents in which there is no record of a Bible at the swearing in. There may have been one, but nothing was recorded at the time: George Washington, Second Inaugural; John Adams; Thomas Jefferson; James Madison; James Monroe; Andrew Jackson; Martin Van Buren; William H. Harrison; John Tyler; Zachary Taylor; Millard Fillmore; Franklin Pierce; James Buchanan; Ulysses S. Grant, First Inaugural; and Lyndon Johnson, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. While from photos of that iconic moment show his hand on something, it is unclear what it is.

President Obama appears to be the first president to use three Bibles for his inaugural vows.

Also read: 

Want to see the 2013 Inauguration and Parade? Here’s how

2013 Inauguration: How much will it cost you?


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Catherine Poe

Catherine was named one of the top Progressives in Maryland along with Senator Barbara Mikulski and Congresswoman Donna Edwards. She has been a guest of President Obama in the Rose Garden.

As past president of Long Island NOW, she worked to reform women's prisons in New York, open the construction trades to women, change laws to safeguard battered women, and protect the rights of rape victims. 

Long active in Democratic politics, she served as the presidentof the Talbot Democrats in Maryland for six years and fought to getthe Health Care Reform bill passed.

Catherine has been published in a diverse range of newspapers and magazines, including Newsday, Star Democrat, Rocky Mountain News, Yellowstone News, and the Massachusetts Review.

If Catherine has learned anything over the years it is that progressive change does not come easily, but in baby steps. 

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