WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – When President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office on Wednesday (Jan 20), he is likely to place his hand on a familial artefact that has followed him throughout his 50-year political career: a hefty Bible, accented with a Celtic cross, that has been in his family since 1893.
While this possibility has yet to be confirmed by Mr Biden’s inaugural committee, the Bible has been a staple at Mr Biden’s past swearing-in ceremonies as a United States senator and as vice-president.
His son, Mr Beau Biden, also used it when he was sworn in as the Delaware attorney-general.
Mr Biden, who will make history as the country’s second Catholic president, after Mr John F. Kennedy, often invoked his faith during the 2020 presidential campaign as he courted voters with a promise to restore the “soul of America”. In an interview last month with Stephen Colbert, Mr Biden shared some history about the family heirloom.
“Every important date is in there,” Mr Biden said. “For example, every time I’ve been sworn in for anything, the date is inscribed.”
But on Tuesday, a spokesman for Mr Biden’s inaugural committee said he could not confirm whether Mr Biden would use that tome for his inauguration – or even whether he would use a single Bible. (President Donald Trump used two.)
The Bible that a president-elect chooses to use for the swearing-in ceremony often relays a symbolic message to the American public, said Associate Professor Seth A. Perry, religion expert at Princeton University and the author of Bible Culture And Authority In The Early United States.
“It’s difficult to imagine the ritual of the inauguration happening without that book at this point,” Prof Perry said. “It’s part of the scenery. It’s part of the thing that gives the moment the authority that it has.”
Here’s a look how the Bible has figured into some of the most pivotal moments in US history: the inaugurations of new presidents.
George Washington’s Bible popular with other presidents
Like much of the pageantry associated with presidential inaugurations, the presence of a Bible at swearing-in ceremonies is steeped in tradition, dating to the nation’s first president.
During his 1789 inauguration in New York, George Washington used a Bible from St John’s Masonic Lodge No. 1. The Bible is said to have been retrieved after attendees noticed one was not on hand at Federal Hall, where Washington was preparing to take the oath of office, according to Ms Claire Jerry, a curator of political history at the National Museum of American History.
The Bible represented the agreement that Washington was making with the American people, she said.
“Having sacred imagery associated with the taking of a covenant is fairly consistent and emphasises that idea that we, who are witnessing the taking of the oath, and the individual who’s taking the oath are entering into a very profound relationship with each other,” Ms Jerry said.
Washington’s Bible has been used in the inaugurations of four other presidents: Warren G. Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George Bush.
In 2017, Mr Trump used one Bible that had been given to him by his mother when he was a boy and another used by Abraham Lincoln for his inauguration in 1861, just before the start of the Civil War. Mr Barack Obama used the Lincoln Bible when taking the oath of office, though in 2013, for his second inauguration, he supplemented it with a Bible given to the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr in 1954.
Some presidents have taken the oath of office with the Bible opened to a specific verse or passage, Ms Jerry said. Popular choices include verses in Proverbs and Psalms.
How is an inaugural Bible chosen?
According to head of the rare book and special collections division at the Library of Congress Mark Dimunation, presidents-elect often look for a text with which they have a personal connection, or one that represents the history of the moment in which they are taking office.
“The electricity of that moment was profound,” Mr Dimunation said of the use of the Lincoln and King Bibles by Mr Obama, the nation’s first black president. “It’s been ensconced in these objects that really would seem to be nothing more than a book, but it carries with it the weight of its moment and history.”
Does the president have to use a Bible?
Although presidents and members of Congress are required by the Constitution to take an oath of office, they are not required to place a hand on a sacred text while doing so. But if they choose to swear on an object, they can pretty much use any text they prefer.
Mr John Quincy Adams used a book of law during his ceremony, and in 1963, after President Kennedy’s assassination, Mr Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One with his hand on a Roman Catholic missal.
Over the years, members of Congress have also incorporated other texts in their swearing-in ceremonies, sometimes speaking to their own personal faith or beliefs, Ms Jerry said.
In 2007, Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the only Muslim in Congress at the time, used Thomas Jefferson’s Quran at his swearing-in ceremony. In her swearing-in photo, Michigan’s Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib, used a Quran given to her by her best friend.
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