Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Of Presidents and King James Bibles: Ronald Reagan

Ronald and Nancy Reagan with Jane Weinberger, chair of Folger trustees, at the Folger 50th anniversary. Photo: Bruce Wodder

Ronald Wilson Reagan, who died on June 5 in 2004, was one of numerous American presidents sworn in on a King James Bible, a tradition begun (as noted in an earlier post) by none other than George Washington. In Reagan’s case, as in many others, the Bible in question offers us something of a snapshot of American social history and family life, or at least the life of a particular family.

The Bible Reagan used, plainly visible in an inauguration photograph in the Historic American Bibles feature of the Manifold Greatness website, was his mother’s Bible. A relatively slender, much worn copy, it is known today as the Wilson Bible after the maiden name of his mother, Nelle Wilson Reagan. President Reagan used the same Bible for both of his inaugurations, and also spoke about it in a Mother’s Day radio address in 1983.

To make sure it was a King James Bible, rather than another English Bible translation, we checked with the curators at the Reagan Presidential Library. We were delighted when they quickly e-mailed us a scan of the title page, which confirms its use of the “Text of the Authorized Version,” another term for the King James Bible, and provides other interesting details as well.

Clearly meant as a family Bible (“for every home,” as stated on the title page), this King James Bible was published by John Dickson Publishing Company of Chicago under the title The New Indexed Bible. Like many family Bibles sold for the purpose, it included numerous additional educational features, including not only the promised indexes—biographical, geographic, historical, and “teaching”—but pronunciation guides and photographs of biblical locations. (For more on the phenomenon of family Bible publishing in the 1800s and early 1900s, see our feature on Family Bibles.)

As with many family Bibles, however, what was apparently most treasured were not those extra features included by the publisher, but rather the handwritten notes added over time. Of this Bible, President Reagan said in his radio comments, “it has its flyleaf filled with important events, its margins are scrawled with insights and passages underlined for emphasis. My mother, Nelle, made all those marks in that book.”

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