Church Services at the Capitol? Never! Right?

Church services were held before and during the administration of President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)!  Believe it or not Congress allowed Sunday services in the newly built capitol building.   Everyone attended!  Why, by 1867 the largest church in D.C. was the one at the U.S. Capitol building-  2000 people a week met there for church!  Within a year of his inauguration, even Jefferson began attending church services there!

Worship services in the House–a practice that continued until after the Civil War–were acceptable to Jefferson because they were nondiscriminatory and voluntary. Preachers of every Protestant denomination appeared. (for instance Catholic priests began officiating in 1826.)  Throughout his administration Jefferson also permitted church services in executive branch buildings and at the Supreme Court chambers.

Jefferson’s actions may seem surprising because modern liberal/progressives want everyone to think he wanted “a wall of separation between church and state.” Nothing could be further from the truth!

That infamous statement, contained in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, was intended by Jefferson to clearly show his concern about the lack of government support of religion and an opposition to a “national” religion.  Jefferson consciously and deliberately gave his symbolic support to Christian faith as the best foundation for a republican (not Republican as in GOP) form of government.  See the letter to and from Jefferson here.

Some even claim Jefferson was an atheist!  Not so fast!  Jefferson to his detriment appears to have not been a Christian (what with his doubting the deity of Christ).  Regenerated or not he attended many church services and there’s plenty of evidence from impartial third party correspondences to prove it!

In his diary, Manasseh Cutler (1742-1823), a Federalist Congressman from Massachusetts and Congregational minister, notes that on Sunday, January 3, 1802, John Leland preached a sermon in Congress on the text “Behold a greater one than Solomon is here.” Jefferson was there only two days after sending that letter to the Danbury Baptists.

A Washington “insider,” of the day, Margaret Bayard Smith (1778-1844), wrote about Jefferson’s attendance at church services in the House of Representatives: “Jefferson during his whole administration was a most regular attendant. The seat he chose the first day sabbath, and the adjoining one, which his private secretary occupied, were ever afterwards by the courtesy of the congregation, left for him.”  Doesn’t sound like a man who was irreligious does it!

A Sermon on the Second Coming of Christ, and on the Last Judgment,  was delivered on December 25th, 1804, before both houses of Congress, at the Capitol in the city of Washington. John Hargrove. Baltimore: Warner & Hanna, 1805.  Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (171)

Exactly Where Were These Services Held?

Church services were held in what is now called Statuary Hall from 1807 to 1857. The first services in the Capitol, held when the government moved to Washington in the fall of 1800, were conducted in the “hall” of the House in the north wing of the building. In 1801 the House moved to temporary quarters in the south wing, called the “Oven,” which it vacated in 1804, returning to the north wing for three years. Services were conducted in the House until after the Civil War. The Speaker’s podium was used as the preacher’s pulpit.

Church Services & Fund Raising Oh My!

One of the earliest sermons preached before Congress was offered on July 4, 1801, by the Reverend David Austin (1759-1831), who proclaimed to his Congressional audience the imminence of the Second Coming of Christ (after all it was a new millennium).  Austin took up a collection on the floor of the House to support services at “Lady Washington’s Chapel” in a nearby hotel where he was teaching that “the seed of the Millennial estate is found in the backbone of the American Revolution.”  Here’s a fund raising brochure that was distributed at another service.

Jefferson’s Opinion of Jesus & The Jefferson Bible

Jefferson once held a rather low opinion of the Gospel message.  However, in the 1790s, he changed.  Experts think he was influenced by the writings of Joseph Priestly, theorizing they gave him a more higher regard for the faith. In fact in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush, Jefferson asserted that he had become a “Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished any one to be.”  Jefferson came to believe the “merit of the doctrines of Jesus” was superior to those of the classical philosophers and the Jews.   He pronounced Jesus’ doctrines, though “disfigured by the corruptions of schismatising followers” far superior to any competing system.  Unfortunately he didn’t have the biblical belief of  “..[Jesus] being a member of the god-head, or in direct communication with it…”

That disbelief led to him constructing “The Life & Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” more commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible” in 1820. He used excerpts from the New Testament in four languages to create parallel columns of text recounting the life of Jesus, preserving what he considered to be Christ’s authentic actions and statements, but eliminating (there’s that doubting side of his faith) the mysterious and miraculous.  Sadly he also deleted the birth story in which the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds.  He does end the book with Christ’s crucifixion and burial of Jesus but unfortunately he deleted any thing about the resurrection.

Other Services Held at the Capital

As early as January 1806, a female evangelist, Dorothy Ripley, delivered a camp meeting-style exhortation in the House to Jefferson, Vice President Aaron Burr, and a “crowded audience.” Sizing up the congregation, Ripley concluded that “very few” had been born again (lots of us might agree even today) and broke into an urgent, camp meeting style exhortation, insisting that “Christ’s Body was the Bread of Life and His Blood the drink of the righteous.”

On January 8, 1826, Bishop John England (1786-1842) of Charleston, South Carolina, became the first Catholic clergyman to preach a rather testy sermon in the House of Representatives.  The overflow audience included President John Quincy Adams, who may have felt singled out a bit over a remark he made in a July 4, 1821, speech claiming that the Roman Catholic Church was intolerant of other religions and therefore incompatible with republican institutions.  England’s delivery included:  “we do not believe that God gave to the church any power to interfere with our civil rights, or our civil concerns.” “I would not allow to the Pope, or to any bishop of our church,” added England, “the smallest interference with the humblest vote at our most insignificant balloting box.”

In 1827, Harriet Livermore (1788-1868), became the second woman to preach in the House of Representatives.

Services at the Treasury Building

Manasseh Cutler in a House Journal entry, dated December 23rd, 1804, described a four-hour communion service in the Treasury Building, conducted by a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend James Laurie: “Attended worship at the Treasury. Mr. Laurie alone. Sacrament. Full assembly. Three tables; service very solemn; nearly four hours.”

Presidents After Jefferson

President James Madison (1809-1817) followed Jefferson’s example, although unlike Jefferson, who rode on horseback to church in the Capitol, Madison came stylishly in a coach.

John Quincy Adams Attended Church in the Supreme Court Building

John Quincy Adams described the Reverend James Laurie, pastor of a Presbyterian Church that had settled into the Treasury Building, preaching to an overflow audience in the Supreme Court Chamber, which in 1806 was located on the ground floor of the Capitol.  It’s a little hard to read but here it is:  Diary entry, February 2, 1806.

Church Services in Congress after the Civil War

Charles Boynton (1806-1883) was chaplain of the House of Representatives in 1867.  He was also an organizing pastor of the First Congregational Church of Washington, which was trying at that time to build its own sanctuary.  In the meantime the congregation, as Boynton informed potential donors, was holding services “at the Hall of Representatives” where “the audience is the largest in town. . . .nearly 2000 assembled every Sabbath” for services, making the congregation in the House the “largest Protestant Sabbath audience then in the United States.”  When the House moved to its present site on the south side of the Capitol building in 1857, the FCCW continued to meet there until 1868.

So when someone tells you that this nation wasn’t built on a Christian heritage, that there has always been a deliberate distance put between our government and the Christian faith they’re either ignorant of history, or lying to you.  If they won’t relent direct them to the Library of Congress.  It’s located on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and on-line.  No one in our nation need be ignorant of the bond between Christianity and our form of government.  It’s all right there.  You just have to look.

Images courtesy of wikipedia.org

Portions derived from a reprint of an on-line publication.  See: Religion and the Founding of the American Republic at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel06-2.html


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