Sunday, November 8, 2009

President Truman and the Bible

People like to claim that religion generally or Christianity specifically had little place in American history. But the facts seem to overwhelm that claim.

Harry Truman became President upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His ceremony was in the White House, and before it could begin, the staff needed to locate a Bible. As President Arthur had done, Truman ended the oath with the optional words "So help me God" and then kissed the Bible. Here is an accounting of that event from the U.S. National Archives.

Summoned to the White House from the Capitol early in the evening of Thursday, April 12, 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman was escorted upstairs to the study of Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Putting her arm around Truman, Eleanor informed him, "Harry, the President is dead." Stunned and speechless, the Vice President found the words to ask Mrs. Roosevelt, "Is there anything I can do for you?" The new widow's reply was simple and to the point: "Is there anything I can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now."

Truman, like Tyler, had been Vice President for a short period of time— less than three months. Unlike the Coolidge swearing-in ceremony, this oath of office would be administered in the White House spotlight amid press and high-ranking officials.

In the Cabinet Room, the Vice President, sitting by himself in a brown leather chair, looked "absolutely dazed." A tearful Bess Truman and daughter, Margaret, "feeling as if she were going under anesthesia," arrived. At seven o'clock nearly everyone who was expected, including all ten members of the cabinet, stood quietly waiting for the staff to locate a Bible. Howell Crim, the fastidious head usher, returned with a Gideon edition that was properly dusted before being placed on the table. Truman later told his mother he would have "brought Grandpa Truman's Bible from his office bookcase if had he only known."

Standing in the area between the end of the conference table and the wall, on which the portrait of President Woodrow Wilson hung, Vice President Truman held the book in his left hand as Chief Justice Harlan Stone administered the oath of office. Bess and Margaret stood within arm's length, while the cabinet squeezed into the area's remaining space behind the family. Cameramen, with less bulky equipment than that which disturbed Theodore Roosevelt's 1901 ceremony, positioned themselves to capture such a proceeding on film for the first time. Like Coolidge, Truman ended the oath with the added words "So help me God," and like President Arthur, Truman kissed the Bible.

From the National Archives' magazine Prologue

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