When President Obama is sworn in for a second term on Monday, he will use two historic bibles – one belonging to Martin Luther King Jr. and the other used by only one other president – Abraham Lincoln.
“It’s such an iconic moment for Lincoln and this is a hotly contested campaign,” said Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Books and Special Collections division at the Library of Congress. “It, in that way, kind of has a rise to the presidency that President Obama had – this kind of: From the fields of Illinois emerges this profound president.
“It’s always been an object that’s heavily identified with Lincoln,” Dimunation said, “but now, [it] certainly has the electricity of two centuries worth of presidencies.”
Lincoln used the bible at his first inaugural address in 1861, and Obama forever tied himself to that holy item when he was sworn in the first time in 2009.
“This bible already has had a certain kind of historical weight to it as Lincoln stood up and approached the podium to take the oath with this particular piece,” Dimunation said. “To add to that, then President Obama, right towards the end of his campaign, referenced both of the inaugural addresses pretty consistently in his campaign, especially in his final speech. So it seemed equally fitting that he should not only turn to the bible [of] the president who, in essence, created the possibility to have an African American president but also because of the language he used in his own campaign.”
The 1,280-page Lincoln bible, which is 15 centimeters tall and 10 centimeters wide, is bound in burgundy velvet and bears a gold-washed white metal trim around its edges and a gold shield with the words “Holy Bible” placed atop the front cover.
The bible, which was printed by the Oxford University Press in 1853, was ordinary for the time period, but it did not belong to the Lincoln family. The bible was given to him by William Thomas Carroll, a clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court, after Lincoln arrived in Washington, D.C., before his family belongings came in from Springfield, Ill.
In the back of the bible, Carroll inscribed a note in remembrance of the swearing-in performed by Chief Justice Robert Taney, who wrote the majority opinion in the Dred Scott case that upheld slavery.
After Lincoln’s inauguration, it was returned to Carroll, who eventually gave it to his wife as a gift. The bible remained in the Carroll family until it was given to Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln, whose widow, Mary, donated the historical item to the Library of Congress in 1928.
Following this year’s inauguration, the Lincoln bible, which is normally housed in the Library of Congress’ Rare Books and Special Collections division, will be displayed in a Civil War exhibit alongside Lincoln’s two inaugural addresses until President’s Day. It will then be returned to the rare books collection and be used by researchers at the Library of Congress.
While the Lincoln bible will make a repeat appearance at the inauguration, Obama will use the bible belonging to King for the first time this year. King’s bible, which is described as his “traveling bible,” was used while King was a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., and was carried along his travels across the country fighting for equal rights.
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“We know our father would be deeply moved to see President Obama take the oath of office using his bible,” King’s children said in a statement earlier this month. “His ‘traveling bible’ inspired him as he fought for freedom, justice and equality, and we hope it can be a source of strength for the president as he begins his second term. With the inauguration less than two weeks away, we join Americans across the country in embracing this opportunity to celebrate how far we have come, honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. through service, and rededicate ourselves to the work ahead.”
During the private swearing-in ceremony in the Blue Room of the White House Sunday, Obama will use the Robinson family bible, which belonged to first lady Michelle Obama’s grandmother, LaVaughn Delores Robinson.