Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson, and the King James Bible, Cherry Blossom Edition
Washington, DC, the home of the Folger Shakespeare Library, is reveling in the National Cherry Blossom Festival (March 20 to April 14) as the Japanese cherry trees around the Tidal Basin and elsewhere are now approaching their glorious but short-lived “peak bloom.”
We thought we’d revisit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, first discussed in this blog post by Manifold Greatness curator Hannibal Hamlin around the time of the memorial’s original (but storm-delayed) dedication in August 2011.
Martin Luther King often quoted from the Bible, including the King James Bible, in his speeches, including a line from Amos evoking a time when justice runs down “like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” You can see that quotation in the inscription here from a 1955 speech in Montgomery, Alabama. And yes, those are cherry blossoms at the top of the picture!
Over the past year and a half of the Manifold Greatness exhibit’s continuing travels, some of the Manifold Greatness host sites have included special events that touched on King’s use of the King James Bible as well as the connection between the King James Bible and the black church tradition. For more examples of the role of the King James Bible in American public life, you may want to explore the Modern Life image gallery on our Manifold Greatness website.
The King Memorial is located directly on the Tidal Basin, which is encircled by those blossoming Japanese cherry trees. King’s statue looks across the water at the Jefferson Memorial, which has its own historic associations with the King James Bible. One of Thomas Jefferson’s post-presidential projects was to assemble, from scripture, an account of Jesus’ teachings that excluded supernatural elements, producing what he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. You can see one passage in the Historic American Bibles image gallery on the Manifold Greatness website, or learn much more about it at the Smithsonian’s Thomas Jefferson’s Bible, which includes a complete online facsimile.
In between the Jefferson and King memorials along the edge of the Tidal Basin is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Unlike many American presidents, however, Roosevelt does not offer us a simple King James Bible connection through his inauguration ceremonies. Franklin Roosevelt followed the tradition of being sworn in on a Bible, and he used the same one for all four inaugurations (he had also used it when he was sworn in as governor of New York in 1928 and 1930). But it was not the King James Bible. Roosevelt was sworn in on his family’s 1686 Dutch Bible (scroll down to see photos), the oldest Bible used at any presidential inauguration to date, and the only inaugural Bible in a modern foreign language, Dutch.
The traveling exhibit Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife appears next in mid-April at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky; the Tifton Museum of Arts and Heritage in coordination with the Tifton-Tift County Public Library in Tifton, Georgia; and the Hays-Heighe House at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland.