Thursday, January 22, 2009
The Preacher’s Corner
Poor sport who will not wish our country, new president well
President-elect Obama took a piece of history as he chose to be sworn in on Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural Bible. The historic book was not Lincoln’s personal Bible, as during the long train trip from Springfield to Washington, the Lincolns became separated from their baggage, and President Lincoln’s own Bible was in one of those waylaid trunks. (Some problems never go away for travelers, and, kudos to Amtrak, the Obama-Biden train trip went far more smoothly than the Lincoln train of 1861!)
In 1968 there was an exhibit of presidential inaugural Bibles at the Washington Cathedral and from the guidebook to that event I glean a few facts. Desiring a Bible on which to rest his hand while taking the oath, Lincoln asked the clerk of the Supreme Court to acquire one for him to use.
So the Bible that Lincoln and President Obama used was brought from the Supreme Court (which then met inside the capitol). It had been routinely used for administering oaths of office to federal officials sworn in by justices of the high court.
Some of the presidential inaugural Bibles have been quite interesting. Franklin D. Roosevelt used his family Bible, containing records of all the births, marriages, and deaths, which was so old, it was printed in Dutch.
President Truman also had to send someone to find a Bible, when he was sworn in upon the death of President Roosevelt, April 12, 1945. The Trumans had been hastily summoned to the White House so that he could take the oath of office in the cabinet room, and it being determined that nobody in the west wing had a Bible, and not wishing to disturb Mrs. Roosevelt in the family quarters, the chief usher suddenly remembered that he had some Bibles in a bottom drawer of his desk that had been provided by the Gideons to be placed in the guest rooms of the White House. So it was upon a humble Gideon Bible such as you see in any motel that Harry Truman took the oath of office for the first time.
Truman, a devout Southern Baptist, used his own Bible when he was sworn in after winning that famous election in 1948.
Not all presidents chose to be sworn in on Bibles. It is not provided for in the constitution or by law. George Washington began the custom, but as far as is known, no other president used a Bible until James Buchanan in 1857. John Quincy Adams was sworn in on a law book — which is actually somewhat more closely related to the business of the day, since the president swears to uphold the Constitution, which is the law of the land.
Some of my congregation rejoiced at the outcome of this election; others were not so glad. I am glad that my folks work together in spite of differing opinions.
I worry about groups where everybody has the same viewpoint on matters where good people can differ. Are people really thinking? For people have to think for themselves if democracy is to function. Besides, when people who disagree over politics can serve together in church, it is a reminder that religion — while it does have something to say to princes, potentates and presidents — is also and ultimately about something else, something higher and more enduring than who won the last election.
It would be a poor sport and a deep cynic who would not wish our new president and our country well on this historic day, for the Bible is supremely a message of hope and confidence in God’s future.
So God bless America. But more importantly, may America be worthy of God’s blessing, for it is not so much that God may be found on our side, but that we may be found on His. (It was Lincoln, I think, who said something like this, after placing his hand on that now-famous Bible long ago.)
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