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Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1889

[Detail] Administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison, 1889.

Scriptural Passages

The Bible is a common feature of the inaugural oath but the passage that the book is open to differs for many presidents. This collection's Special Presentation, “Bibles and Scripture Passages,” lists the passages used by the various presidents when they took the oath of office. A review of some selections may provide insight into the subject matter and tone of a president's inaugural address and even into the presidency, itself.

For example, for Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, he selected Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not, that you may not be judged.”), Matthew 18:7 (“Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling blocks comes!”), and Revelations 16:7 (“And I heard the altar saying, Yea, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments.”)

  • Why did Lincoln select passages that discuss judgment? What do these passages suggest about Lincoln's thoughts as he recommitted himself to the responsibilities of president in the midst of a civil war?
  • How do these selections relate to Lincoln's statement in his speech that both parties fighting in the Civil War “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other”?
  • What role does this kind of use of Scriptural passages play in an inauguration ceremony? What is its value to the president? To the audience? To the ceremony?
  • Has there always been meaning behind the presidents' selections of biblical passages?
  • Why do some presidents keep the Bible closed?
  • Should a president have to select a passage? Why or why not?