Donald Trump once claimed that Joe Biden would “hurt the Bible” if he became president, but the copy of the Scripture that Biden is bringing to the inauguration looks like it might hurt you if you tried to lift it.
The book is more than five inches thick, with a sturdy leather cover, and solid metal clasps holding it closed. When Jill Biden raises the book up for her husband to take his oath of office on Wednesday, she will have to use both hands.
“Why is your Bible bigger than mine? Do you have more Jesus in there?” said Stephen Colbert, the Catholic host of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in an interview with president-elect Biden in December.
“I don’t think so,” said Biden, who is also Catholic. “It’s just been a family heirloom in the Biden side of the family, and every important date is there. Every time I’ve been sworn in for anything, the date has been in that. It’s inscribed in the Bible.”
The Biden Bible carries 127 years of family history, but experts say it’s also a significant symbol for the new president. The choice to take the oath of office on this specific text says something about what Biden believes about the United States, the presidency, Catholics in this country, and the work ahead of him as he attempts to fulfill his promise to “restore the soul of America.”
“He’s not only undergirding his oath of office with the Bible but saying it reflects the essence of who he is, and his family heritage, and his own faith,” said Robert Briggs, president and CEO of the American Bible Society.
Presidents are not required to take the oath of office on a Bible—and some haven’t. Lyndon Johnson swore to “faithfully execute the Office of the United States” and “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution” on a Catholic prayer book. The missal was the most holy text his aides could find on the airplane back to Washington DC, after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.
But almost all the US presidents have taken their oath on a Bible, and frequently they have chosen historically significant copies. Kamala Harris will be sworn in as vice president on the Bible owned by Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice on the US Supreme Court. Trump was sworn in on Lincoln’s Bible and Obama used Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bibles.
Biden likely had his choice of historical Bibles, ranging from the one used by Kennedy, the first Catholic elected president, to the one owned by Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist leader who risked re-enslavement more than a dozen times to lead scores of people to freedom. One popular choice among American presidents has been George Washington’s copy of the Scripture. Briggs said when presidents choose that, they’re creating a connection with the country’s founding and renewing a commitment to the principles of the Bible.
“The oath of office links us all together as Americans. And it represents the reality that we are drawing together, by way of the president, as one nation under God, on principles of pursuing justice, proclaiming liberty, and loving your neighbor,” he said.
The choice of a family Bible points to another kind of connection, according to Paul Gutjahr, professor of English at Indiana University and author of An American Bible.
“Biden strikes me as a guy who is very interested in underlining the communities that were formational for him,” he said. “Family. Church. The towns he’s lived in. The continuity seems really important to him. He wants to show the longevity of his rootedness.”
When Biden’s great-grandparents bought the Bible in 1893, they may well have been trying to show their longevity and rootedness too, according to Gutjahr. For Catholics in the 19th century, purchasing a big family Bible was a way of declaring their middle-class status and making an investment in the records of future births and deaths and the family tree. And owning the Bible was a statement of Catholic identity.
The Douay–Rheims translation was approved for English-speaking Catholics in the 1600s. Unlike Protestant versions, the Catholic Bible is translated from the Latin and includes the books of the Apocrypha, as well as study notes from church authorities.
There weren’t very many of these Catholic Bibles available in the United States until the 1850s, when the number printed increased dramatically and the size of the Bibles started to get a lot bigger. Many weighed around 14 pounds and a top-of-the-line Catholic Bible could weigh as much as 19 or 20. Gutjahr said publishers added illustrations; maps; explanations of theological terms; explanations of how the Catholic Bible was different than Protestant versions; an injunction not to read the text without the guidance and instruction of a Catholic priest; and pages for family records.
“It’s also just nice to have a big impressive Bible and they become a marker for religiosity,” Gutjahr said. “They know they’re going to keep it around and pass it down from generation to generation.”
Some Catholics may have also seen their large Bibles as a rebuttal of Protestant prejudice. Many Anti-Catholic polemicists claimed Catholics didn’t read the Bible for themselves, but just accepted the authority of the church, and so weren’t suitable citizens for a democracy.
Catholic leaders such as Cardinal James Gibbons and politicians such as Al Smith and Kennedy said this wasn’t true. They paved the way for president-elect Biden to hold up his family Bible as a symbol of a country that can become better over time, as it learns to live up to the founding promises of universal liberty, justice, and equality.
According to Biden’s 2007 autobiography, he first learned about the Bible from the nuns at his Catholic grammar school. They also taught him that public service was a sacred calling.
“They took as a starting point the biblical exhortation that man has no greater love than to lay down his life for another man,” Biden wrote. “In school we were about 10 clicks back from that. You didn’t give your life, but it was noble to help a lady across the street. It was noble to offer a hand up to somebody who had less. It was noble to step in when a bully was picking on someone. It was noble to intervene.”
Biden is aware of the political dangers of overusing the symbolism of the sacred text, though. He writes that he once warned President Jimmy Carter about seeming too sanctimonious and holier-than-thou. He said that if Carter, a Baptist, thumped the Bible one more time, even loyal Democrats wouldn’t vote for him.
The American Bible Society also encourages people watching the inauguration to see the Bible as more than a symbol.
“We always hope it will lead to the president opening the Bible, looking at its contents, and being informed by what it says,” Briggs said. “We know Biden has a deep faith. We will look for opportunities to encourage him and pray for him and help promote the use of the Bible in his life and in the lives of the Americans he will be governing.”