When Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday, January 20, 2021, he will take an oath and raise his right hand while almost certainly placing his left on a Bible. While Article II Section I of the Constitution requires presidents to take the oath of office, there is no requirement for them to use a religious text, or any text at all, while doing so— but almost all of them have done so on a Bible.
The choice of which Bible to use is very personal and varied. Most incoming presidents have chosen a family Bible or one used by a former president. Additionally, some presidents have taken their oath with the Bible closed, while others have opened the Bible to a specific passage that is meaningful to them. And a few presidents didn’t use one at all. Here’s everything you need to know about the history of Bibles at presidential inaugurations, and which one Biden will use.
It all started with George Washington
George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789, at the Old City Hall in New York. (At the time, New York was the nation’s capital, as construction on the new city of Washington, D.C. did not begin until 1790.) For his oath, Washington chose to use a Bible borrowed from St. John’s Lodge No. 1, the oldest Masonic lodge in New York. The Bible was opened to a page at random (apparently due to “haste”), and after taking his oath, Washington kissed the Bible.
Many of Washington’s successors have used his Bible: Warren G. Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush all chose it for their inaugurations (although some of them also used a family Bible, stacked on top).
George W. Bush wished to use it in 2001, but due to the Bible’s fragile nature and the threat of rain, he was not able to and opted for a family Bible instead.
While the Washington Bible has been a popular pick throughout history, it is unknown which Bible many of the nation’s early presidents used. The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC), which has planned all presidential inaugurations since it was formed in 1901 and maintains records on the inaugurations, only has a partial list of the swearing-in Bibles.
The Lincoln Bible was used by Presidents Obama and Trump
The Lincoln Bible, which is stored at the Library of Congress, is the one used by Abraham Lincoln at his first inauguration in 1861. President Obama was the first president after
Lincoln to use it, in both of his inaugurations. (For his second inauguration in 2013, he also used a bible belonging to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
In 2017, Donald Trump also used the Lincoln Bible (in a protective box) as well as a family Bible that was given to him by his mother in 1955, two days before his ninth birthday.
Most presidents have opted for a family Bible
Many presidents have chosen to use a family Bible for their oath. For example, Franklin D. Roosevelt used the Roosevelt family Bible—the same one he choose when was sworn in as Governor of New York in 1928 and 1930—for each of his four presidential inaugurations, though it was opened to a different passage each time. Notably, in his first inauguration, Dwight D. Eisenhower used his personal “West Point” Bible, in addition to the Washington Bible.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy used the Fitzgerald family Bible from his mother’s family. Dating back to the 1850s, it contains handwritten pages of the Fitzgerald family record, starting with Thomas A. Fitzgerald in 1857. There are notes included for the engagement of Rose E. Fitzgerald and Joseph P. Kennedy (JFK’s parents), their marriage in October 1914, and a list of births for their nine children. It is now housed at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
Not all presidents have used a Bible at their inauguration
According to the JCCIC, John Quincy Adams’s recollections of his 1825 inauguration indicate he was sworn in on a law book. And in 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was hiking in the Adirondacks when he received word that President William McKinley (who had been shot a week prior) was not expected to survive. By the time Roosevelt got to Buffalo, where McKinley had been shot and was being treated, McKinley had died and the nation had been without a president for about 12 hours. Roosevelt was quickly inaugurated at the home of his friend Ansley Wilcox, and the rushed ceremony did not include a Bible.
Likewise, Lyndon Johnson did not use a Bible when he was sworn in after JFK’s assassination. With Jacqueline Kennedy by his side, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath in a conference room on Air Force One at 2:38 p.m. CST on November 22, 1963, after Kennedy had been pronounced dead at 1 p.m. A Bible could not be found, so a Catholic missal (a liturgical book that contains the rites for Catholic mass), which was found in JFK’s bedroom aboard the plane, was used instead.
Which Bible Will Joe Biden use?
At both of his Vice Presidential inaugurations in 2009 and 2013, Joe Biden used a Bible that has been in his family since 1893, and he plans to use it again on January 20. (He also used it each time he was sworn in as a U.S. senator.) It is five inches thick with a Celtic cross on the cover.
Biden’s son Beau–who passed away in 2015—also used the Bible for his own swearing-in ceremony as attorney general of Delaware and helped carry the Bible to his father’s 2013 ceremony.