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The Texas Supreme Court Bible

06 Jul

There are two Texas traditions involving state governors and the Bible.  They are referred to as the “Supreme Court Bible” and the “Governor’s Bible.”  The following is the story of the Supreme Court Bible.

The historic book itself has been referred to as Sam Houston’s Bible, but its actual origin is unknown.  However, it has been used to administer the oath of office to Texas governors for well over 150 years.  The Bible might possibly be even more highly revered if perhaps the Sam Houston link could be established, but it simply cannot be proven to have belonged to Houston.

The Bible is now in the custody of the Clerk of the Supreme Court of Texas. The publishing date is 1816, making it now just over 200 years old.  The dedication page reads “Supreme Court of the Republic of Texas” followed by the numbers “184” presumably referring to a year in the 1840s, but the bottom half of that particular page is missing.

There is a legend that a former janitor tore out the bottom half of the dedication page during a capitol basement domino game, so if there had been an inscription by Houston or anyone else, it is no longer there.  On the contrary, the strongest argument against a Sam Houston connection may be that there is no mention of any such connection to Houston in old Texas newspapers.  A number of Texas newspapers were quite robust back in the day.  In addition, digital newspaper archives go back to the 1800s and are easily searchable.  Had there been a connection, it is logical to assume that it would have been mentioned in print.  An alternative theory set out in a 1941 newspaper article regarding the same dedication page proposes that the Bible bore the handwriting of the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Hemphill.  There seems to be no prevailing opinion one way or the other regarding the author of the remaining inscription.

Over 30 Texas governors have been sworn in using this Bible.  The traditional protocol is for the Lieutenant Governor and then the Governor to place their right hands on the Bible and raise their left hands as the oath of office is  administered by the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court.  The entire ceremony takes about thirty minutes.  Shown below is Greg Abbott being sworn in as Texas’ 48th governor on January 20, 2015.

abbott_inaug

(Image credit: fox4news.com)

The historic book survived the November 9, 1881 fire of the previous Capitol building.  The former Capitol building was built from 1853 to 1855.  Though “only” about 25 years old at the time, it was not in good shape by all accounts.  The outer shell was limestone and brick.  The inner structure was primarily made of wood.  A wood-burning stove had been recently installed in the office of a clerk.  It had been been attatched to an existing flue, which was later thought to be defective.  The first time the new stove was lit, it caused a fire in the wooden structure of the building which gutted the interior.  A second theory for the fire attributes it to a custodian having started a fire to burn some paper trash.  Embers from the stove fell to the wooden floor may have started a fire.  The nearest fire hydrant was 700 feet away and downhill from where the capitol building sat, there being were no hydrants on the capitol grounds.  Accordingly, the nearby firehouses’ response was inadequate.  Some historic paintings and documents were saved by quick-thinking state employees, but many working documents and valuable artifacts were destroyed.

More recent damage to the Bible occurred in 1917 following the inauguration of James E. “Pa” Ferguson when it was inadvertently left on the speaker’s stand during the informal handshake period that follows the official inauguration ceremony.  Some pages were removed, but were later recovered, and two girls autographed it.

The leather-bound volume was also rebound at least once, by Governor Preston Smith, but that is the only major repair that we are aware of.  Despite these possible calamaties and the wear and tear from routine handling, the venerable Bible has survived to serve its role in this long standing Texas tradition.

© 2017, all rights reserved.

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Posted by on July 6, 2017 in governor, history, texas

 

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