January 5, 2021

​I Do Solemnly Swear

With few exceptions, U.S. presidents begin their terms by putting their hands on a Bible.

Merle Poirier

As I write, the election results for the 2020 U.S. presidential election have yet to be certified; nor has its electoral college cast their votes. Publishing work occurs months in advance of an issue in order to bring quality content. Writing now as I am on this topic offers me the opportunity to play a prophetic role. But I will resist the urge, since that is not my calling. I will assume, though, that as you read this, you know who will take the presidential oath of office on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2021.

Inauguration Day started simply enough. Newly elected, George Washington entered New York City by barge to the sound of cannons and a 13-gun salute. He stood on the outdoor balcony of Federal Hall (then capitol of the United States). Aware he was setting a precedent for the future, Washington took his oath with his hand placed on a Bible. The Bible, having been forgotten and found in haste, was a King James Version borrowed from a Masonic Lodge, and was randomly opened to Genesis, noting 49:13 as the specific, albeit chance, text.

While it is not a U.S. Constitutional requirement, most, but not all, presidents have taken their oath, just as Washington did, with their hand on either an open or closed Bible. The same Bible used by George Washington in 1789 has been preserved. A few presidents—Harding (1921), Eisenhower (1953), Carter (1977), and George H. W. Bush (1989)—decided to swear their oath of loyalty to the U.S. Constitution using this same Bible.

Inaugural records are not as clear on whether Bibles were used, until we reach Abraham Lincoln (1861). From that time forward, we know exactly what each president decided to do as they were inaugurated into this most important position. Most follow Washington’s example, although there have been a few exceptions.

John Quincy Adams (1825) used a book of the law that included the Constitution. Teddy Roosevelt (1901) did not use anything for his first inauguration. That may be because of the rapid administration of the oath owing to the assassination of William McKinley. Likewise, Lyndon B. Johnson (1963) used a Roman Catholic missal found on Air Force One following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Presidents-elect are allowed to decide what they would like to do. If they choose a Bible, they are also able to select which Bible, if it is open or closed, and, if open, to what place in the Bible. Most have chosen family Bibles. Many have chosen specific verses, while others have opened the Bible at random (see table).

Some presidents, perhaps unable to choose, or wanting further inspiration, protection, and encouragement, have used two Bibles. In this group are Presidents Truman (1949), Eisenhower (1953), Nixon (1969 and 1973), Obama (2009), and Trump (2016). Each has used two Bibles either open or closed. For example, Truman had one Bible opened to Matthew 5, while the other Bible was open to the Ten Commandments. President Obama used Lincoln’s and Martin Luther King’s Bibles, both closed.

Contemporary accounts of Washington’s inauguration are few. It is commonly reported, although not verified, that President Washington kissed the Bible after taking the oath, and whispered, “So help me, God.” Once the ceremony concluded, he went immediately to St. Paul’s Chapel to invoke the blessing of God upon the new government. Because Washington recognized the importance of the venture on which this then-fledging country was to embark, he included God. And because of his forethought, the Bible continues to be used. Some presidents also include both the saying and the kissing of the Bible upon taking the oath.

History can be an interesting profession or hobby. Presidential history holds its own intrigue; even spiritual intrigue. Is the presence of the Bible at inaugurations important? Is the verse selected important? For me, perhaps.

It may give insight as to where the heart of the leader lies. For the cynical among us, it may be seen as a prop, no more important than the decisions made about bands, balls, and parades. We don’t know, for we cannot judge a leader’s heart. What we can wish is that the Bible’s presence at least causes that individual to pause, ponder, and perform in a way that recognizes that God is and should be fully acknowledged and active in directing a country’s leadership and vision.

Merle Poirier is operations manager for Adventist Review Ministries.

Inaugural Scriptures1
George Washington2Genesis 49:13
Martin Van BurenProverbs 3:17
Abraham Lincoln
Matthew 7:1; 18:7; Revelation 16:7
Andrew JohnsonProverbs 20 and 21
Ulysses S. Grant
Isaiah 11:1-3
Rutherford B. HayesPsalm 118:11-13
James GarfieldProverbs 21:1
Chester ArthurPsalm 31:1-3
Grover Cleveland
Psalm 112:4-10
Benjamin HarrisonPsalm 121:1-6
Grover ClevelandPsalm 91:12-16
William McKinley
2 Chronicles 1:10; Proverbs 16:20, 21
Theodore Roosevelt
James 1:22, 23
William Howard Taft1 Kings 3:9-11
Woodrow Wilson
Psalm 119:43-46; Psalm 46
Warren G. HardingMicah 6:8
Calvin Coolidge
John 1
Herbert HooverProverbs 29:18
Franklin Delano Roosevelt⁶1 Corinthians 13:13
Harry Truman
3, 5
Matthew 5:3-11;

Exodus 20:3-17
Dwight Eisenhower
Psalm 33:12; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Psalm 33:12
Richard Nixon
4, 5
Isaiah 2:4; Isaiah 2:2-4
Gerald FordProverbs 3:5, 6
Jimmy CarterMicah 6:8
Ronald Reagan2 Chronicles 7:14
George H. W. Bush
random, Matthew 5
Bill Clinton
Galatians 6:8; Isaiah 58:12
George W. BushIsaiah 40:31

  1. If not listed, it is because information is unknown, a Bible was not used, or the Bible(s) remained closed. Sources: time.com/4639596/inauguration-day-presidents-bible-passages/; Library of Congress (memory.loc.gov/ammem/pihtml/pibible.html); scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1032&context=ask_gleaves.
  2. Bible opened at random.
  3. Text selected for second inauguration.
  4. First text used for first term; second text for second term.
  5. Used multiple Bibles.
  6. Used for all four inaugurations.