WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama takes the oath of office to officially begin his second term, he’ll double up on ceremonies and use three Bibles.
Because Jan. 20, the day the Constitution sets for the swearing-in ceremony, falls on a Sunday this year, the president will actually take the oath twice – once officially on the 20th in a small, private event, and ceremonially the next day on the steps of the Capitol.
The private formalities in the White House Jan. 20 will have the president place his left hand on his wife’s family Bible while he swears the oath of office. For the public ceremony Jan. 21 at the Capitol, Obama will place his hand on two Bibles, stacked together – one that was owned by Abraham Lincoln and one by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The federal holiday marking Rev. King’s birthday falls on Jan. 21.
The Lincoln Bible was purchased by William Thomas Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court, for Lincoln’s use at his swearing-in ceremony March 4, 1861. (The 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933, moved the inauguration date to Jan. 20.) Obama used the Lincoln Bible for his inauguration ceremony in 2009. It is part of the Library of Congress collection.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee said in a Jan. 10 press release that the King Bible was used by the civil rights leader and Baptist minister when he traveled.
The tradition of the president using a Bible for the ceremony dates back to George Washington, who used one from the collection of St. John’s Masonic Lodge in 1789. There is no constitutional requirement to use a Bible, but many presidents have chosen Bibles that had historical or personal significance.
Harry Truman in 1949, Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 and Richard Nixon in 1969 all used two Bibles, the committee said.
For Vice President Joe Biden’s oath of office – both times – he will use a Bible that has been in the family since 1893. The 5-inch-thick book with a Celtic cross on the cover has been used by Biden every time he was sworn in as a U.S. senator and when he became vice president in 2009.
The committee said his son Beau also used it when he was sworn in as Delaware’s attorney general in 2007.