The Presidential Bible Class: Abraham Lincoln’s diligent reading of the Good Book informed the Gettysburg Address.

The Presidential Bible Class

Abraham Lincoln’s diligent reading of the Good Book informed the Gettysburg Address.


Feb. 13, 2014 6:13 p.m. ET


President Lincoln reading the Bible to his son in 1865.Getty Images

If you’re looking for a way to celebrate Presidents Day on Monday, but don’t plan to buy aused car or a new mattress, you could do worse than to spend time reading the Bible.

Our earliest presidents, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were all assiduous readers—of history and philosophy, and the Bible as well.

During his student days at Princeton, Madison even studied Hebrew so he could better understand the Good BookJohn Quincy Adams wrote letters to his son on the Bible’s teachings, including his philo-Semitic but grim assessment of the Jewish prophets as “messengers, specifically commissioned of God, to warn the people of their duty, to foretell the punishments which awaited their transgressions.”

Abraham Lincoln was one of the most diligent readers of all U.S. presidents, though he had a limited selection of books as a child. Fortunately his books included the Bible, which he read and reread. From this he learned a common but elevated language, which allowed him to connect with ordinary Americans, who understood his frequent biblical allusions and references.

Lincoln’s famous opening to the Gettysburg Address—”Four score and seven years ago”—may sound stilted to a modern Twitter user, but it made perfect sense to Bible-literate Americans who knew Proverbs 90:10. The verse describes a man’s life span as “threescore years and 10; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years.”

The Bible continued to influence presidents throughout the 20th century, some more deeply than others. Woodrow Wilson would not talk about public policy on the Sabbath, recited grace before his meals, and read from the Bible nightly. When biographer Ray Stannard Baker visited Wilson at his sickbed after a stroke, Baker noticed that Wilson was flanked by detective novels and an old Bible.

Oddly enough, even though presidents often kept their Bibles close, Air Force One did not always have a Bible on board until the 1970s. This was a problem on Nov. 22, 1963, when Lyndon Johnson was sworn in on the presidential plane after John Kennedy’s tragic assassination. Without a Bible handy, the non-Catholic Johnson took the oath on a missal, the liturgical prayer book of the Catholic Church. Gerald Ford ensured this would not happen again. He specifically requested that a Bible be placed in the aircraft’s stateroom whenever he was aboard. Having a Bible on board is now an Air Force One tradition.

The Bible has continued to be a close companion for more recent presidents. Jimmy Carter, a devout Southern Baptist, even wrote a study Bible, “NIV [New International Version] Lessons from Life Bible.” Ronald Reagan also admired the Bible, at one point affirming: “All the complex and horrendous questions confronting us at home and worldwide have their answer in that single book.”

Bill Clinton kept a Bible close during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He was not just putting on a show; he knew the Bible well. After the death of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, White House speechwriters inserted Brown’s favorite biblical verse into the president’s eulogy. When Mr. Clinton saw it, he said, “Oh this is Isaiah 40:31. It sounds like the New English translation. I prefer the King James version myself.”

George W. Bush was a disciplined reader, reading 95 books in 2006 alone. In addition, our 43rd president also engaged in an annual reading of the entire Bible, along with a daily devotional.

Barack Obama has read the Bible as well, although with a personal twist. In his book “The Audacity of Hope,” he wrote that “When I read the Bible, I do so with the belief that it is not a static text but the Living Word and that I must continually be open to new revelations—whether they come from a lesbian friend or a doctor opposed to abortion.”

Mr. Obama’s interest in new revelations extends to his daily devotional. Joshua DuBois, former executive director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, emails Mr. Obama a daily devotional thought that often includes wisdom from non-biblical sources, including Johnny Cash and Nina Simone.

The continuing presidential devotion to the Bible has been a constant throughout American history, one that connects us directly to our Founding Fathers. Even as the cultural staples of the founding era have gone away, and TV, Twitter and movies have taken their place, the Bible has remained pre-eminent in American life. The book our Founders read and meditated upon in the past will continue to provide a hopeful path for Americans—one that will inspire presidents, and the rest of us, for generations to come.

Mr. Troy is a former White House aide and the author of “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House.”


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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