On Thursday, April 30, 1789, General George Washington took the first oath of presidential office in American history. As he walked to the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, thousands of people jammed into the street below gave him a thunderous ovation. Suddenly the crowd became quiet as General Washington turned toward Judge Robert R. Livingston and placed his left hand on an opened Bible sitting upon a table beside him. He raised his right hand and took the oath of office.
There was a pause. Then, according to eyewitness Washington Irving, the nation’s first president added his own words, unscripted or expected: “So help me God.” The president bent over and kissed the Bible. Then Justice Livingston turned to the crowd below and cried out, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States!” People cheered. Church bells pealed. Cannons at the nearby fort fired a salute.
Today, Barack Obama will take the public oath of office in the city named for our first president. Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution requires him to state: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Historians still debate when “so help me God” was added to the oath. Some believe that General Washington was the first; others think the phrase was first used by Abraham Lincoln in 1865, when he finished his oath with these words and then kissed the Bible. Still others trace the phrase to Chester Arthur in 1881.
Is there any question that our president and nation need the help of God today? The Algerian tragedy shows that Americans are not truly safe anywhere in the world. Yesterday, a teenage gunman killed five people in a home near Albuquerque, New Mexico. The insecurity we feel is reflected in the ongoing gun control debate, as thousands rallied over the weekend to protest President Obama’s latest proposals.
“In God we trust” is our nation’s motto. How would our country be different if “so help me God” became our nation’s prayer? Imagine a president and cabinet who led America only as they were led by God. Envision a country where moral decisions were submitted to the truth of Scripture and the leading of the Spirit, a nation run on Kingdom principles. Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10)?
I cannot give you what I do not have, or lead you where I will not go. Before “so help me God” can become our national prayer, it must become mine. Will you join me today?