Stack of Bibles

Obama swore on “a stack of Bibles” when taking the oath of office for a second term as president of the United States. 

For this historic moment, President Obama chose two Bibles–one associated with Abraham Lincoln, and the other with Martin Luther King Jr.  While we know something about these famous men, what do we actually know about their Bibles? In this insightful essay, Seth Perry gives a brief history of these two Bibles, and how they were used (or not used) by President Lincoln and Dr. King.

Written by Seth Perry, guest contributor 

This article was originally published January 23, 2013 on The Junto, a blog dedicated to the study of early American history. 

As has been widely reported, on Monday President Obama swore on a stack of bibles to uphold the Constitution. On one hand, maybe doubling-up on the sacred iconography will reassure those on the right who doubt the President’s sincerity, but the primary purpose was to honor two periods of American history simultaneously. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and the bibles were direct material links to those eras: one was the bible on which Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office in 1861, and the other belonged to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

United in this one event, they are very different books. The Lincoln bible has, for all intents and purposes, never been used.  It was purchased specifically for the inauguration by William Thomas Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court at the time of Lincoln’s first swearing-in, and it seems clear enough that Carroll chose it because it looked the part: the Library of Congress reports that it is “bound in burgundy velvet with a gilt metal rim around the outside edges” and that it has an embossed metal shield on the cover announcing that it is, in fact, a Holy Bible. (All other trappings of authority aside, though, the Lincoln bible is very small. Watching poor Jill Biden supporting the massive Biden family bible with two arms as her husband recited his oath, we can acknowledge the wisdom of Carroll’s concession to convenience and portability.)

The Lincoln bible was then, as it is now, a display piece. Bought new for the inauguration, it immediately became an artifact not of Lincoln’s or anyone else’s bible reading, but of this one event (there are other Lincoln bibles, books that the bible-soaked President might actually have spent time reading; this isn’t one of them). After the ceremony, Carroll inscribed the book with a note and a seal certifying its use at the inauguration, and then he presented it as a gift to his wife. One way or another, it eventually found its way to the Lincoln family and then to the Library of Congress.

The King bible, on the other hand, was not a display piece during its era, but a working book.  It was made to be used – it has tabbed pages for quick reference, an innovation that came after the Lincoln bible’s time. It is referred to as King’s “traveling bible,” and bears its scars accordingly… 

Click here to read the full article.  

Mr. Perry recently participated as a respondent to a Timely Talk at the ICJS on “Mormonism and Other Religions.” He is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a Mellon Fellow in Early American Literature and Material Texts at the University of Pennsylvania’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies. His dissertation explores the creation of religious authority in early-national America, focusing on the form and content of American printed Bibles and the practices of reading and usage they inspired.