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Biden Bible Rings a Bell

By Henry Handley

During the presidential inauguration ceremony Jan. 20, you might have noticed the hefty family Bible on which President Biden took the oath of office, becoming the United States’ second Catholic president. There’s no requirement to use a Bible — or any other book or object — when taking an oath of office in the United States, but many still use them as symbols of their faith, family tradition, and political or philosophical heritage. UD students, faculty and staff can read more about the Biden family Bible’s particular history and the history of inaugural Bibles and other books with UD’s New York Times online access, but for more on their bibliographical features, read on!

While the Marian Library is hardly a presidential library, we frequently receive questions about family Bibles — and sometimes receive the Bibles themselves, though please contact us before sending anything through the mail. A family Bible might be the oldest book you own, the biggest — or both. While we don’t appraise books or artworks, we may be able to tell you a little more about them, as the 1,500 Bibles, biblical commentaries and other biblical texts in our collections can often illuminate the features of others.

For instance: The binding on this Bible, 32 cm tall, 12 cm thick, is very similar to the Biden family Bible and typical of a 19th-century Bible. At one time, the bindings were nearly identical: On both, the moulding under the leather creates a raised cross with Mary and a young Jesus at the foot, and the dark leather dye used on both is visible in the Marian Library Bible’s less-worn crevices. The raised sections, along with the spine and the substantial 1.5-cm edges, are decorated with gilt lettering and designs apparently identical to that on the Bidens’ Bible, including the text identifying the Bibles as Douay-Rheims translations — the approved Catholic Bible in English at the time — with commentary by the Rev. George Leo Haydock, a biblical scholar. These similarities suggest a mass-produced (or at least easily mass-replicated) binding, which I confirmed by searching for other examples of 19th-century Bibles online.

Image(Please see the gallery below for additional photographs and descriptions.)

The two bindings do differ: where the inaugural Bible has two clasps that hold the book closed, the Marian Library Bible does not; the Bidens’ Bible also has had some apparent conservation work to repair the leather on the spine. Clasps are an important feature in very thick and/or heavy books that keeps the spine — especially the internal binding — strong. The Marian Library’s Bible requires some extra care without them, as it shifts easily under its own weight. The binding is already starting to give way, with frazzled edges; old repairs to reinforce the endpapers and keep the covers attached are also failing. Still, because the book does not have inscriptions from any previous owners, it doesn’t have the same level of conservation importance for us that the Biden family Bible has for the Bidens. With important dates inscribed in it, it’s a family heirloom, and its use in the presidential inauguration has made it a historic object.

One mystery we still can’t answer: when and where the Biden family Bible was published. Although it shares many similarities with the Marian Library’s — a comparable binding, a Church-approved English translation, and biblical commentary — the Marian Library’s edition was published by the Southwestern Publishing House in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1884. While the New York Times article said the Bidens’ Bible has been in the family since 1893, it didn’t give a publication date or location, so it could have been published elsewhere, and earlier or later than the Marian Library’s example.

Further reading

Waller, Allyson. "Joe Biden's Family Bible Has a Long History." The New York Times, Jan. 20, 2021.

— Henry Handley is a collections librarian in the Marian Library.

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