The presidential inaugurations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama were met by lawsuits from atheists. With Bush, they sought to stop prayer from being offered, and with Obama, “So help me God” from being part of the traditional oath. It remains to be seen whether atheists will file suit against Trump, but they undoubtedly would have done so with George Washington, for his inauguration included eight separate religious activities.
Constitutional experts abounded at the first inauguration. Not only was Washington himself a signer of the Constitution, but one-fourth of the members of the Congress that organized and directed his inauguration had also been delegates to the Constitutional Convention. That body certainly knew what was constitutional, so the religious activities at the first inauguration may well be said to have had the imprimatur of some of the greatest constitutional experts in American history.
Local papers reported the first of the eight activities: “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.” They noted that “this peculiar act of devotion … is designed wholly for prayer.”
Next on the schedule was the oath of office. Long before the adoption of the Constitution, legal requirements for oath-taking had been established both in colonial and state law. Oaths were to be taken on the Bible, and in many states, the person taking the oath, “after repeating the words, ‘So help me God,’ shall kiss the Holy Gospels.”
George Washington arrived by horse-drawn carriage and was sworn in on a 1767 King James Bible laid on a crimson velvet cushion. Robert Livingston administered the oath of office, surrounded by many distinguished officials, including Vice President John Adams, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, Generals Henry Knox and Philip Schuyler, and others. The Bible was opened (at random) to Genesis 49. Washington placed his left hand upon the open Bible, raised his right and took the oath of office.
Interestingly, many of the practices associated with traditional American 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 Scriptures further affirm 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.” So raising the right hand, swearing an oath and invoking God in the oath all have biblical precedents. As Constitution signer James Madison affirmed, an “oath [is] the strongest of religious ties.”
Finally – the truth about our third president and the rumors that have swirled about his beliefs and practices: Get David Barton’s “The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson.”
After Washington finished the oath, he bent over and reverentially kissed the Bible. He then delivered a 10-minute Inaugural Address to a joint session of Congress, beginning it with a heartfelt prayer, offering “my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being Who rules over the universe.” He next called the people to acknowledge God, reminding them that “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.” His address included much additional religious content, and he finished with a prayer, “resorting once more to the benign Parent of the Human Race in humble supplication.”
The next inaugural activity, specifically stipulated by congressional action, was 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.”
The president and Congress went together en masse to church, and the service was conducted by the Rev. Samuel Provoost – the Episcopal bishop of New York who had been chosen Senate chaplain the preceding week. He performed the service according to “The Book of Common Prayer,” including prayers from Psalms 144–150 and Scripture readings and Bible lessons from the book of Acts, I Kings and the Third Epistle of John. When the service ended, Congress returned to Federal Hall and adjourned, thus concluding official inaugural proceedings.
So, the eight distinctly religious activities of the first presidential inauguration (that have been repeated in whole or part in every subsequent one) include: 1) a time of public prayer preceding the inauguration (today, this often occurs through an official prayer breakfast before 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,” or kissing the Bible); 4) prayers offered by the president; 5) religious content in the inaugural address; 6) calling the people to pray or acknowledge God; 7) church worship services; and 8) clergy-led prayers.
For more than two centuries, the official actions surrounding this constitutionally mandated activity affirm that American civil process does not require the inauguration to be secular but rather just the opposite. Those who file suit to stop these religious activities are suing to halt two centuries of American constitutional practice.