OPELIKA, Ala. (BP) -- When President Trump signed Bibles in an Alabama region devastated by tornadoes, he was giving comfort to survivors by participating in a time-honored Southern tradition, some observers say. Others claim signing Scripture was inappropriate.
In the South, signatures in a person's Bible "bring back great memories of relationships and friendships and moments in our life," said Rusty Sowell, pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Opelika, Ala., where Trump signed tornado victims' Bibles March 8.
Trump and First Lady Melania Trump visited Providence in the aftermath of an EF-4 tornado that killed 23 people. The church has been used as a staging area for disaster response. While gathering at Providence with survivors, first responders and volunteers, Trump and the first lady signed memorabilia including Bibles for those who asked, Sowell told Baptist Press.
The Bible signing provoked media reports over the weekend, with some critics voicing strong opposition to Trump's actions.
Sowell said he "didn't think anything about it" when Trump began signing Bibles. The pastor noted signatures in his own Bible of friends and other significant people dating back to the mid-1970s.
Individuals whose Bibles Trump signed -- most of whom were young teens or children -- "are going to remember the leader of the free world came down to our little corner of the world and said, 'I care,'" Sowell said.
Bill Leonard, a Baptist historian and founding dean at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, told the Associated Press Bible signing is a Southern tradition. He elaborated on the importance of that tradition to BP.
"I was kind of grateful" when AP called about Trump, Leonard said, "because I thought probably this generation of Baptists and others didn't know about the tradition of people having others sign their Bibles. That was a kind of historical qualification ... I thought would be worth talking about."
Though Leonard does not know the tradition's genesis, he said Christians in the South have sought signatures in their Bibles, especially from traveling preachers and evangelists who visited their churches. "It wouldn't be unheard of that presidents, particularly coming to events that were celebrative or traumatic, would do that," he said.
Among presidents to sign Bibles in the past were Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, according to media reports.
Bible signing in Opelika likely "was a way of marking time" at a significant moment when survivors "were trying to find something to undergird them" and "respond to their own grief," Leonard said.
Wayne Flynt, a Baptist deacon and history professor emeritus at Auburn University, saw Trump's Bible signing differently. He told AP it was "right next to a sacrilege." Flynt told BP it was not appropriate for Trump to sign Bibles because he does not appear to live by Scripture.
"If Jimmy Carter had signed a Bible ... I would have no problem with that," Flynt said. "Donald Trump signing a Bible as if he affirms what's in the Bible" is a different matter.
Hershael York, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told AP and BP some believers may be uncomfortable personally with the tradition of Bible signing, but there's nothing objectively sinful about the practice.
"It falls into the category of personal preference and conviction," York told BP. "There's nothing in the Scripture [stating] that somehow it defiles the Word of God if we write anything on it ... I imagine President Trump would have hurt [people's] feelings had he refused to sign the Bible."
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.