at Presidential Inaugurations
by David Barton
Americans have long believed that civic ceremonies such as presidential inaugurations should include religious activities. Recently, some individuals and groups have raised objections to these activities, often arguing that they violate the Founders’ supposed commitment to secularizing the public square by separating church and state. 1 These arguments have no historical foundation, as can be seen by briefly considering America’s first presidential inauguration.
Constitutional experts abounded at George Washington’s inauguration. The inauguree himself was a signer of the Constitution, and one-fourth of the members of the Congress that organized and directed his inauguration had also been delegates to the Constitutional Convention. 2 This body certainly knew what was, and was not constitutional.
The first inauguration occurred on April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall in New York City (the city served as the nation’s capital in 1789-1790). Extensive preparations for that event were made by Congress, with the cooperative help of a body of fourteen clergy, including ministers from different denominations and a rabbi. 3
Local papers reported the first of these activities:
[O]n the morning of the day on which our illustrious President will be invested with his office, the bells will ring at nine o’clock, when the people may go up to the house of God and in a solemn manner commit the new government, with its important train of consequences, to the holy protection and blessing of the Most High. An early hour is prudently fixed for this peculiar act of devotion and it is designed wholly for prayer. 4
As the day proceeded, things appeared to be moving smoothly. But as the parade carrying Washington by horse-drawn carriage was nearing Federal Hall, it was realized that no Bible had been obtained for administering the oath. Today this would not be a problem for some civic officials, but in that era it would have been highly unusual to take an oath without a Bible.
In the Christian West, oath taking had long been held to be an innately religious activity. Many early colonial and state laws required oaths to be taken on the Bible. Some states even specified that they were to be taken “on the holy evangelists of Almighty God” 5 —that is, on the Bible, but with special emphasis on the Gospels. Requirements also routinely stipulated that “So help me God” be part of the official oath, 6 and multiple states specifically required that the person taking the oath, “after repeating the words, ‘So help me God,’ shall kiss the Holy Gospels.” 7 These general provisions—in place at the time of the federal Constitution—were retained for generations. 8
With this as the standard practice for oath-taking, a Bible was certainly needed. So Parade Marshal Jacob Morton hurried off and soon returned with a large 1767 King James Bible.
The inaugural ceremony was conducted on the balcony at Federal Hall. With a huge crowd gathered below to watch the proceedings, the Bible was laid upon a crimson velvet cushion held by Samuel Otis, Secretary of the US Senate. New York Chancellor Robert Livingston administered the oath of office. (He was on the five-man committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence, but before he could affix his signature to the document he was called back to New York to guide his state through the Revolution. Because Livingston was the highest ranking judicial official in New York, he was chosen to administer the oath to President Washington.) Standing beside them were many distinguished officials, including Vice President John Adams, future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, and Generals Henry Knox and Philip Schuyler.
When it came time to take the oath, Washington placed his left hand upon the Bible, which had been opened at random to Genesis 49, 9 raised his right, and swore to “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” He then bent over, reverentially kissed the Bible, and then likely added the words “So help me God.”
Significantly, twelve of the thirteen colonies at the time required the use of that phrase when taking an oath, 10 and the thirteenth colony required a declared belief in God just to hold office. 11 While no contemporary records verify this addition to his oath, it would have been highly unusual if he had neglected to do so; and we can be confident that the absence of these words would certainly have been noted in contemporary accounts.
Many of Washington’s actions related to oath-taking have clear antecedents in the Bible. For example, God declared: “I RAISED MY HAND IN AN OATH . . .” (Ezekiel 20:15, 23; 36:7; Psalm 106:26) and the Scripture further affirms that “The Lord has sworn by His RIGHT hand” (Isaiah 62:8). And when God’s people were instructed how to take an oath, they were told: “You shall . . . take oaths IN HIS NAME” (Deuteronomy 10:20), which is reflected with our use of the phrase “So help me God.”
America’s Founders repeatedly affirmed that oath taking is an inherently religious activity. For example (emphasis added in each quote):
[An] oath—the strongest of religious ties. 12 JAMES MADISON, SIGNER OF THE CONSTITUTION
[In o]ur laws . . . by the oath which they prescribe, we appeal to the Supreme Being so to deal with us hereafter as we observe the obligation of our oaths. The Pagan world were and are without the mighty influence of this principle which is proclaimed in the Christian system. 13 RUFUS KING, SIGNER OF THE CONSTITUTION
Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. 14 JOHN ADAMS, SIGNER OF THE DECLARATION, FRAMER OF THE BILL OF RIGHTS
An oath is an appeal to God, the Searcher of Hearts, for the truth of what we say and always expresses or supposes an imprecation [calling down] of His judgment upon us if we prevaricate [lie]. An oath, therefore, implies a belief in God and His Providence and indeed is an act of worship. . . . In vows, there is no party but God and the person himself who makes the vow. 15 JOHN WITHERSPOON, SIGNER OF THE DECLARATION
The Constitution enjoins an oath upon all the officers of the United States. This is a direct appeal to that God Who is the avenger of perjury. Such an appeal to Him is a full acknowledgment of His being and providence. 16 OLIVER WOLCOTT, SIGNER OF THE DECLARATION
According to the modern definition  of an oath, it is considered a “solemn appeal to the Supreme Being for the truth of what is said by a person who believes in the existence of a Supreme Being and in a future state of rewards and punishments . . .” 17 JAMES IREDELL, RATIFIER OF THE CONSTITUTION, EARLY U. S. SUPREME COURT JUSTICE
The Constitution had provided that all the public functionaries of the Union, not only of the general [federal] but of all the state governments, should be under oath or affirmation for its support. The homage of religious faith was thus superadded to all the obligations of temporal law to give it strength. 18 JOHN QUINCY ADAMS, PRESIDENT
George Washington, in his famous Farewell Address at the end of his presidency, pointedly warned Americans never to let the oath-taking process become secular:
[W]here is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths . . . ? 19
Clearly, in the Founding Era, the act of taking an oath was considered an intrinsically religious activity.
After George Washington finished taking his oath, Chancellor Livingston proclaimed “It is done!” Turning to the crowd assembled below, he shouted, “Long live George Washington —the first President of the United States!” That shout was echoed and re-echoed by the crowd. As reported by one eyewitness:
It would seem extraordinary that the administration of an oath, a ceremony so very common and familiar, should in so great a degree excite the public curiosity. But the circumstances of his election—the impression of his past services—the concourse of spectators – the devout fervency with which he repeated the oath—and the reverential manner in which he bowed down and kissed the Sacred Volume—all these conspired to render it one of the most august and interesting spectacle ever exhibited on this globe. It seemed, from the number of witnesses, to be a solemn appeal to Heaven and earth at once. Upon the subject of this great and good man, I may perhaps be an enthusiast, but I confess that I was under an awful and religious persuasion that the gracious Ruler of the Universe was looking down at that moment with peculiar complacency [satisfaction] on an act, which to a part of His creatures was so very important. Under this impression, when the Chancellor pronounced in a very feeling manner, “Long live George Washington,” my sensibility was wound up to such a pitch that I could do not more than wave my hat with the rest, without the power of joining in the repeated acclamations which rent the air. 20
Washington and the other officials then left the balcony and went inside Federal Hall to the Senate Chamber, where he delivered the first Inaugural Address to a joint session of Congress. He began by emphasizing that
it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being Who rules over the universe, Who presides in the councils of nations, and Whose providential aids can supply every human defect – that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes. 21
Washington then called his listeners to remember and acknowledge God:
In tendering this homage [act of worship] to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of Providential Agency. . . . [and] we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious [favorable] smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained. 22
Washington concluded the address by offering a heartfelt closing prayer:
I shall take my present leave—but not without resorting once more to the benign Parent of the Human Race in humble supplication [prayer] that . . . His Divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this government must depend. 23
After the address, Congress had stipulated:
That after the oath shall have been administered to the President, he—attended by the Vice-President and members of the Senate and House of Representatives—proceed to St. Paul’s Chapel to hear Divine service. 24
So, agreeable to the congressional resolution:
The President, the Vice-President, the Senate, and House of Representatives, &c., then proceeded to St. Paul’s Chapel, where Divine Service was performed by the chaplain of Congress. 25
The president and Congress went en masse to church, where the service was conducted by The Right Reverend Samuel Provoost—the Episcopal Bishop of New York who had been chosen chaplain of the Senate the preceding week. 26 He performed the service according to The Book of Common Prayer, including prayers taken from Psalms 144–150, administering the sacrament of Holy Communion, and Scripture readings from the book of Acts, I Kings, and the Third Epistle of John. 27
After the church service Congress returned to Federal Hall where it adjourned, thus concluding the official inaugural activities.
The first presidential inauguration included at least eight distinctly religious activities: (1) a time of public prayer preceding the inauguration (today, this often occurs through an official prayer breakfast preceding the inauguration); (2) the use of the Bible to administer the oath; (3) solemnifying the oath with multiple religious expressions (placing a hand on the Bible, saying “So help me God,” and kissing the Bible); (4) prayers offered by the president himself; (5) religious content in the inaugural address; (6) the president calling the people to pray or acknowledge God; (7) official church worship services; and (8) clergy-led prayers. These have been repeated, in whole or part, in every subsequent inauguration. 28
From the earliest colonial settlements to the first presidential inauguration, Americans believed that religious practices should play an important role in civic ceremonies. There is no reason to think America’s Founders desired to change these practices, and every reason to believe they firmly embraced them.
1. See, for example, " FFRF asks Trump to eject religion and prayer from public oath-taking," Freedom From Religion Foundation, January 3, 2017; Newdow v. Roberts, 603 F.3d 1002, Ct. of Appeals, Dist. of Columbia (2010); Newdow v. Bush, USDC, District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 04-2208 (JDB), opinion rendered January 14, 2005. (Return)
2. Significantly, many of the U. S. Senators at the first Inauguration had been delegates to the Constitutional Convention that framed the Constitution including William Samuel Johnson, Oliver Ellsworth, George Read, Richard Bassett, William Few, Caleb Strong, John Langdon, William Paterson, Robert Morris, and Pierce Butler; and many members of the House had been delegates to the Constitutional Convention, including Roger Sherman, Abraham Baldwin, Daniel Carroll, Elbridge Gerry, Nicholas Gilman, Hugh Williamson, George Clymer, Thomas Fitzsimmons, and James Madison. (Return)
3. See, for example, The Jewish Encyclopedia (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1907), Vol. XI, p. 160, "Gershom Mendez Seixas." (Return)
4. The Daily Advertiser, New York, Thursday, April 23, 1789, p. 2. (Return)
5. See, for example, the laws of Georgia, both before and after the federal Constitution: Oliver H. Prince, A Digest of the Laws of the State of Georgia (Milledgeville: Grantland & Orme, 1822), p. 3, "An Act for the case of Dissenting Protestants, within this province, who may be scrupulous of taking an oath, in respect to the manner and form of administering the same," passed December 13, 1756 and South Carolina: Joseph Brevard, An Alphabetical Digest of the Public Statue Law of South Carolina (Charleston: John Hoff, 1814), Vol. II, p. 86, "Oaths-Affirmations." (Return)
6. See, for example, Connecticut as an example. For policies on this before the federal Constitution: R.R. Hinman, A.M., Letters From the English Kings and Queens, Charles II, James II, William and Mary, Anne, George II, &C., To the Governors of the Colony of Connecticut, Together With the Answers Thereto, From 1635 to 1749; And Other Original, Ancient, Literary and Curious Documents, Compiled From Files and Records in the Office of the Secretary of the State of Connecticut (Hartford: John B. Eldredge, Printer, 1836), pp. 26-28. For policies on this following the federal Constitution, see: The Public Statute Laws of the State of Connecticut (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1808), pp. 535, Title CXXII: Oaths, Ch. 1, Sec. 6, law passed in May, 1742; 540, Title CXXII: Oaths, Ch. 1, Sec. 25, law passed in May, 1726; 541, Title CXXII: Oaths, Ch. 1, Sec. 30 & 32, law passed in May, 1718. For additional examples of states requiring people being sworn into office to say "so help me God" see: The Federal and State Constitution, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws, Francis Newton Thorpe, editor (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1909), Vol. I, p. 523, 1638-1639 Fundamental Orders of Connecticut; Vol. II, p. 780, 1777 Georgia Constitution, Art. XIV-XV; Vol. III, p. 1909, 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, Ch. VI; Vol. IV, p. 2468, 1784 New Hampshire Constitution, "Oaths and Subscriptions"; Vol. VI, p. 3255, 1778 Constitution of South Carolina, Sec. XXXVI; Laws of the State of Delaware (New Castle: Samuel and John Adams, 1797), Vol. II, p. 1261, Ch. XCVIII, Sec. 29; Laws of Maryland, Made Since MDCCLXIII (Annapolis: Frederick Green, 1787), Ch. V from "A Session of the General Assembly of Maryland…in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven"; William Patterson, Laws of the State of New-Jersey (Newark: Matthias Day, 1800), p. 376, "An Act prescribing certain oaths," February 20, 1799; The Public Laws of the State of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations (Providence: Miller & Hutchens, 1822), pp. 109, 111, "An Act to establish a Supreme Judicial Court," passed from 1729-1822; Abridgment of the Public Permanent Laws of Virginia (Richmond: Augustine Davis, 1796), pp. 219-220, "Oaths," December 22, 1792, the text of many of the oaths listed here come from 1779. (Return)
7. John Haywood, A Manual of the Laws of North Carolina (Raleigh: J. Gales, 1814), p. 34, "Oaths and Affirmations. 1777"; Laws of the State of New-York (New York: Thomas Greenleaf, 1798), p. 21, "Chap. XXV: An Act to dispense with the usual mode of administering oaths, in favor of persons having conscientious scruples respecting the same, Passed 1st of April, 1778"; and James Parker, Conductor Generalis: Or the Office, Duty and Authority of the Justices of the Peace (New York: John Patterson, 1788), pp. 302-304, "Of oaths in general". (Return)
8. George C. Edward, A Treatise on the Powers and Duties of Justices of the Peace and Town Officers, in the State of New York (Ithaca: Mack, Andrus & Woodruff, 1836), p. 91, "Of the proceedings on the trial." (Return)
9. See, for example, "The 1st Presidential Inauguration," Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (accessed on January 17, 2017). (Return)
10. Laws requiring some version of "so help me God" are found in all original 13 colonies except Pennsylvania. American Political Thought (Spring 2014), 3, no. 1, p. 55, Mark David Hall, "Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Liberty, and the Creation of the First Amendment." (Return)
11. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 required legislators to swear or affirm, "I do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the universe, the Rewarder of the good and the Punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration" [The Constitutions of the Several Independent States of America (Boston: Norman and Bowen, 1785), p. 81, Pennsylvania, 1776, Chapter II, Section 10]. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790 required that the official "acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments" [The American's Guide: Comprising the Declaration of Independence; the Articles of Confederation; the Constitution of the United States; and the Constitutions of the Several States Composing the Union (Philadelphia: Towar, J. & D. M. Hogan, 1830), p. 168, Pennsylvania, 1790, Art. 9]. (Return)
12. James Madison, The Writings of James Madison, Gaillard Hunt, editor (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), Vol. V, p. 30, to Thomas Jefferson on October 24, 1787. (Return)
13. Reports of the Proceedings and Debates of the Convention of 1821, Assembled for the Purpose of Amending The Constitution of the State of New York (Albany: E. and E. Hosford, 1821), p. 575, Rufus King, October 30, 1821. (Return)
14. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown and company, 1854), Vol. IX, p. 229, to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts on October 11, 1798. (Return)
15. John Witherspoon, The Works of John Witherspoon (Edinburgh: J. Ogle, 1815), Vol. VII, pp. 139, 142, from his "Lectures on Moral Philosophy," Lecture 16 on Oaths and Vows. (Return)
16. Jonathan Elliot, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (Washington: Printed for the Editor, 1836), Vol. II, p. 202, Oliver Wolcott on January 9, 1788. (Return)
17. Jonathan Elliot, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (Washington: Printed for the Editor, 1836), Vol. IV, p. 196, James Iredell on July 30, 1788. (Return)
18. John Quincy Adams, The Jubilee of the Constitution. A Discourse Delivered at the Request of the New York Historical Society, in the City of New York, on Tuesday, the 30th of April, 1839; Being the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States, on Thursday, the 30th of April, 1789 (New York: Samuel Colman, 1839), p. 62. (Return)
19. George Washington, Address of George Washington, President of the United States . . . Preparatory to His Declination (Baltimore: George and Henry S. Keatinge, 1796), p. 23. (Return)
20. Gazette of the United States (May 9-13, 1789), p. 3, "Extract of a letter from New-York, May 3." See also The American Museum: Or Repository of Ancient and Modern Fugitive Pieces, & c. Prose and Poetical (Philadelphia: Matthew Carey, 1789), Vol. V, p. 505. (Return)
21. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, Joseph Gales, editor (Washington: Gales & Seaton, 1834), Vol. I, p. 27. See also George Washington, Messages and Papers of the Presidents, James D. Richardson, editor (Washington, D.C.: 1899), Vol. 1, pp. 44-45, April 30, 1789. (Return)
22. Debates and Proceedings (1834), Vol. I, pp. 27-29, April 30, 1789. (Return)
23. Debates and Proceedings (1834), Vol. I, pp. 27-29, April 30, 1789. (Return)
24. In the Senate: Debates and Proceedings (1834), Vol. I, p. 25, April 27, 1789; in the House: Debates and Proceedings (1834), Vol. I, p. 241, April 29, 1789. (Return)
25. Debates and Proceedings (1834) Vol. I, p. 29, April 30, 1789. (Return)
26. Clarence W. Bowen, The History of the Centennial Celebration of the Inauguration of George Washington (New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1892), p. 54; "Chaplain’s Office," United States Senate (accessed on January 12, 2017). (Return)
27. Book of Common Prayer (Oxford: W. Jackson & A. Hamilton, 1784), s.v., April 30th. For evidence that George Washington participated in that communion, see Peter Lillback, Sacred Fire (Bryn Mawr, PA: Dickinson Press, 2006), pp. 420-423. (Return)
28. The religious activities that took place during Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony in 2009 were fewer than those at Washington’s Inauguration but did include prayer before and after the oath of office, using a Bible during the oath, saying "so help me God" at the end of the oath ["The 56th Presidential Inauguration," Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies], religious content in the inaugural address ["President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address," The White House, January 21, 2009], and attending a prayer service the day after the inauguration [Amanda Ruggeri, "For President Obama, a Somber, Inclusive Inaugural Prayer Service," U.S. News & World Report, January 21, 2009]. (Return)