Swearing on the Bible

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QUESTION: When and where did the tradition begin of swearing on the Bible to take an oath?

ANSWER: History does not give an exact date when swearing on the Bible in order to confirm an oath first began. Paul Boller (a history professor who has written many books about American politics) states that this practice is it at least two hundred years old, with Christians, non-Christians, and even Jews performing this act. There is some interesting information regarding this practice, however, as it relates to the presidents of the United States.

Although it is not mandated in the U.S. Constitution, it has been customary for a copy of Scripture to be used in swearing in a new president since George Washington first took his oath of office in 1789. Information from the Architect of the Capitol, plus other resources, reveals that Washington’s inauguration ceremony was planned to the tiniest detail, with one exception. As he prepared to step onto the balcony, someone realized there was no copy of Scripture on hand. A 1767 King James translation was loaned for the occasion by the St John’s Lodge No. 1 of the Masons (which has also loaned out the book for several other presidential inaugurations).

Washington took the oath of office (written for the occasion) after God's word was opened randomly to the book of Genesis, chapter 49, verse 13. He then ad-libbed the phrase 'I solemnly swear, so help me God.' He then kissed the Bible, setting the precedent for other presidents to do the same.

In 1861, Abraham Lincoln used a copy of God's word, opened at random, to take his oath. In 1865, however, he chose the following Scriptures.

Judge not, that ye be not judged (Matthew 7:1, KJV)

Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! (Matthew 18:7)

And I heard another out of the altar say, Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments (Revelation 16:7)

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Some presidents have deviated from tradition during their swearing in ceremony. In 1853, Franklin Pierce affirmed, rather than swore, his presidential oath and broke tradition by not kissing the Bible. In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became the only president not sworn in using a copy of God's word. In 1945, Harry Truman held a closed copy of Scripture in his left hand, and placed his right hand on the upper cover. In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower recited an improvised prayer rather than kissing the Scriptures.

Taking an oath on the Bible

John F. Kennedy used his family’s Douay translation, brought by his Fitzgerald ancestors from Ireland, for his oath. Bill Clinton used a King James translation given to him by his grandmother. On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama took his oath of office on the same Bible Abraham Lincoln used to take his. The book was donated in 1928 to the Library of Congress by the widow of Lincoln’s child, Robert Todd Lincoln. Obama is the first president to use this historic volume.

In spite of such traditions that use swearing on the Bible to confirm an oath, Christians are commanded to have a good enough character so that their promise to fulfill what is asked of them is all that is needed (Matthew 5: 33 - 37).

Additional Study Materials
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