The Real Meaning of the Reagan Family Bible

Faithful legacy of 40th president to be front-and-center at swearing in of Mike Pence

Vice President-Elect Mike Pence of Indiana is no stranger to showing his admiration for President Ronald Reagan. “There you go again,” he chuckled to Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) during their sole debate last year, reprising the now legendary putdown of President Jimmy Carter by the Gipper in their decisive debate in October 1980. Pence credited Reagan in his decision to enter politics, and often cites him as the icon of modern American conservatism. Pence, like Reagan, is a product of the Midwest. Pence, like Reagan, is gentle in his manners but firm in his convictions. Pence, like Reagan, got his start in radio.

Now there will be a further connection between the two conservatives.

Reagan conservatism and the Reagan presidency is not a past event, left in dusty history books. It is still as relevant and as powerful as ever.

Pence will be sworn in this Friday by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the first African-American justice to swear in either a president or vice president. But though this is a topic worth writing by itself, it’s what Pence will swear on which intersects with the legacy of our 40th president: Ronald Reagan’s family Bible.

This Bible, which belongs to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute in Simi Valley, California, is a piece of American history all its own. It was used by Reagan himself for his inauguration in both terms as governor and as president. It was the Bible of his mother, Nellie Wilson Reagan. It was published in 1901 in Chicago. It was, for many years, bound by tape and worn out, a sign of a faithful family which read it often, until it underwent restoration in 2011. Through the kindness of John Heubusch, executive director of the Reagan Library and Foundation, the Reagan family Bible is heading for Washington once again — and once again will be present at a pivotal moment in American history.

Nellie Reagan used it extensively, writing notes in every page on the margins. On the third page reads two notes. The first, written in blue, points to specific chapters of Scripture: “If in sorrow, if people fail, if you worry …” Clearly Nellie saw it as a historical and spiritual lesson book, and as way to conquer the tribulations of life. The second note on the page, in red ink, reads: “A Thought For Today. You can be too big for God to use / But you cannot be too small.” The page facing the title page also has two spiritual poems written by Nellie.

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When Reagan was sworn in on Jan. 21, 1981, it was unknown “how long the new indexed Bible, King James version, had been in the family,” according to a New York Times article that day. Since 1985, it has not been used by anyone else in any swearing in ceremony and has been on display at the Reagan Library. Reagan himself often quoted Psalm 121:1, “I lift my eyes up to the mountain …”

This Friday, it will be opened to 2 Chronicles 7:14, the same passage on which Reagan swore. The Lord appeared to King Solomon after building a temple. God then said, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” Pence, like Reagan before him, wants to put faith back into the country — both religious faith and faith in the administration. It’s a conservative’s goal to integrate faith and country.

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President Reagan in early 1983 declared that year “The Year of the Bible,” with Proclamation 5018. He pulled no punches against the secularization of society and America, outright saying that no other book ” may be said to be more fundamental and enduring than the Bible” in forming the United States, as “the Bible and its teachings helped form the basis for the Founding Fathers’ abiding belief in the inalienable rights of the individual.” It was deeply rooted in the president’s Christian faith that American liberty was destined for something great.

Reagan conservatism and the Reagan presidency is not a past event, left in dusty history books. It is still as relevant and as powerful as ever.

Swearing on the Bible that the Gipper himself had used not only tells us he is the personal hero of Mike Pence, but the ideological hero of conservatism and republicanism in the GOP: one of individual liberty, freedom, and self-determination, all from the hand of God. The conservative party in the United States is going through a sort of identity crisis today, electing the first non-political president in American history. Pence is showing America that this crisis in the Republican Party is not a crisis at all. It’s still Reagan’s party, no matter who is in charge.

The Reagan family Bible also acts as a sort of touchstone for the conservatives of today. Just as religious relics — clothing, books, and even possessions — connect the faithful to the saints, bringing them strength, so does the Reagan Bible spiritually connect conservatives to the fortieth president.

Craig Shirley is a New York Times best-selling author and a leading Ronald Reagan biographer, having written four books on the 40th president, including the forthcoming “Reagan Rising” in March 2017. Scott Mauer, Mr. Shirley’s research aide, assisted with this article.

Craig Shirley
meet the author

Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and Reagan biographer. He's written four books on Ronald Reagan, is working on several more, and is the author of the New York Times best-seller, "December 1941." His newest book is "Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother," just published in December 2019. He is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College in Illinois and has taught courses on Reagan at the University of Virginia.

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