As has been widely reported, on Monday President Obama swore on a stack of bibles to uphold the Constitution. On one hand, maybe doubling-up on the sacred iconography will reassure those on the right who doubt the President’s sincerity, but the primary purpose was to honor two periods of American history simultaneously. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and the bibles were direct material links to those eras: one was the bible on which Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office in 1861, and the other belonged to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
United in this one event, they are very different books. The Lincoln bible has, for all intents and purposes, never been used. It was purchased specifically for the inauguration by William Thomas Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court at the time of Lincoln’s first swearing-in, and it seems clear enough that Carroll chose it because it looked the part: the Library of Congress reports that it is “bound in burgundy velvet with a gilt metal rim around the outside edges” and that it has an embossed metal shield on the cover announcing that it is, in fact, a Holy Bible. (All other trappings of authority aside, though, the Lincoln bible is very small. Watching poor Jill Biden supporting the massive Biden family bible with two arms as her husband recited his oath, we can acknowledge the wisdom of Carroll’s concession to convenience and portability.)
The Lincoln bible was then, as it is now, a display piece. Bought new for the inauguration, it immediately became an artifact not of Lincoln’s or anyone else’s bible reading, but of this one event (there are other Lincoln bibles, books that the bible-soaked President might actually have spent time reading; this isn’t one of them). After the ceremony, Carroll inscribed the book with a note and a seal certifying its use at the inauguration, and then he presented it as a gift to his wife. One way or another, it eventually found its way to the Lincoln family and then to the Library of Congress.
The King bible, on the other hand, was not a display piece during its era, but a working book. It was made to be used – it has tabbed pages for quick reference, an innovation that came after the Lincoln bible’s time. It is referred to as King’s “traveling bible,” and bears its scars accordingly. At the risk of stretching the Junto’s stipulated time frame, I called up Gordon Ponsford shortly after the inauguration on Monday to find out more about the King bible’s condition. Ponsford is a conservationist with his own company in Acworth, Georgia, and was contracted to do some restoration work on the King bible prior to the inauguration. Although as a professional with 36 years of experience he characterized his work as fairly minor – “just some basic stabilization” – Ponsford confirmed that the book bears extensive evidence of its revered owner’s use. Ponsford’s work focused on the cover, where he laid down some leather with a wheat starch solution and flattened a corner that had been bent all the way around.
Significantly, the copyright page is missing, but Ponsford estimates that the book dates from around 1950. When I asked him if the King bible bore evidence of readership and usage, the enthusiasm of his response was palpable. “Absolutely,” he said. “And that was cool. When you open it up and you see areas that have been underlined, and writing going down the margins, and references to different sermons that he was going preach…then you’re looking at true history.”
Ponsford thinks hard about his work, and was proud to have played a role in maintaining the King bible. “The artifacts we have, they’re here because someone cared about them to preserve them,” he said. “And in the future, we’ll be forgotten, but the artifacts will be there.”
The importance of that material connection was on full display Monday. Placed one atop the other, the contrast between the two books’ conditions marks the conflicted time that separates them in dog-eared pages and scribbled notes. One is an icon: a static symbol of a single moment that refers us to other moments. Who knew where things would go when Lincoln put his hand on it in March of 1861? The other, though, is a battered artifact of the work required to actually make change.