The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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The Political Move That Backfired

"... [T]he institutionalization of the congressional chaplaincy was motivated from the outset by partisan political concerns, and second, that the emergence of prayer at the inaugural ceremony was linked directly to the congressional chaplaincy and was characterized by concern about legislative privilege rather than spiritual necessity or religious establishment."(1)

Researched and edited by Jim Allison

The above is a very interesting comment made by Martin J. Medhurst, in his article. He might very well have been the first to do any in-depth research on the subject of chaplains in Congress, the motivations of the legislators, etc. It appears that most who have pointed to chaplains in Congress have basically assumed that there were spiritual and/or religious reasons for their appointment. In fact, it is that assumption that is the foundation of all the arguments that try to define the 1st Amendment by the fact that the same Congress appointed chaplains.

The focus of this particular article, however, is not the First Federal Congress, but rather Rev. Duche and the Continental Congresses from September 1774 to September 1776.

The facts:

On Tuesday, September 6, 1774, the second day of the Continental Congress's session, it was RESOLVED, that the Rev. Mr. Duche' be desired to open the Congress tomorrow morning with prayers, at Carpenter's Hall, at 9 o'clock.(2)

On 4 July 1776 the leaders of the Continental Congress proclaimed the birth of a new nation.(3) On 8 July, only four days later, Duche' received a note from John Hancock requesting him, because of his "uniform and zealous attachment to the rights of America," to serve as chaplain to the newly-formed Congress. Duche' accepted the appointment and in his first appearance following the Declaration delivered a stirring prayer.(4)

On 17 October 1776 Duche' resigned as chaplain to the Congress. A year later, with the British occupying Philadelphia, Duche' restored the prayers for the king to the divine service. Though he was arrested by the British in late September 1777 for his earlier role in the colonial cause, he soon convinced them of his loyalty and, on 8 October, ten- days after being released from jail, wrote his "infamous" letter to Washington.(5) [link to letter]

What was the reasoning behind the value placed upon the Rev. Duche' by members of the Continental Congress?


Rev. Duche' was an Anglican Minister. Having an Anglican Minister as chaplain would at least appear to add a measure of legitimacy to the actions of Congress.

Many of the Members of Congress, as well as other influential persons were members of the Church of England.

Having a member of the church of England as the Chaplain of the Congress could have a very positive and beneficial effect on other Anglican Ministers throughout the colonies. Having an Anglican Minister as the Chaplain of the Congress could have a very important effect on the laity in colonies. Rev. Duche' was serving as the assistant rector at two well known Anglican Churches in Philadelphia.

Throughout the time frame of 1774 through 1783 it has been said support for the "cause" and later for independence and the war was never that high. In fact, many claim that at any given time 1/3 of the people supported the "cause," 1/3 didn't, and 1/3 were indifferent. Therefore any move that had a potential to win converts was important. For those who were "churched" they tended to follow the politics of their ministers. If their minister was in favor of the American cause, most if not all of the members of that church would be as well, if the minister was a loyalist, so too were most if not all of the members of that church.

The majority of the Anglican Ministers in America would remain loyalist throughout the years of turmoil, but any potential to win converts had to be followed.

Thus from the outset political expediency formed part of the historical situation which gave rise to government-sanctioned prayer. It was in the context of this Political coup that John Adams wrote, "[Joseph Reed] says we never were so guilty of a more masterful stroke than in moving that Mr. Duche might read prayers. It has had a very good effect &c. He says the sentiments of people here are growing more and more favorable every day."(6)

Duche`, it appears, was used as an instrument, a symbol, to influence those who identified with his position as an Anglican minister. Samuel Adams's ploy succeeded, in part, before Duche` so much as uttered one verse.(7)

Samuel Adams had wanted "a respectable Anglican Priest" to "hurl psalm verse at the British." (8)

In the end the Rev Duche' did not prove to be such a friend of the American cause. He resigned as Chaplain to the Congress in the fall of 1776, and within a year had declared his loyalty to the English crown. He capped this with a rather remarkable letter to General George Washington.

(1) "From Duche to Provoost: The Birth Of Inaugural Prayer", by Martin J. Medhurst Journal Of Church And State, Vol. 24, No. 3, Autumn 1982, pp 573-588)

(2) (From the Minutes of the First Continental Congress, as reported in Church And State In The United States Vol I, page 448, by Anson Phelps Stokes).

(3) "From Duche to Provoost: The Birth Of Inaugural Prayer", by Martin J. Medhurst Journal Of Church And State, Vol. 24, No. 3, Autumn 1982, pg 579)

(4) Ibid. p 580

(5) Ibid. p 581

(6) Ibid. p 576

(7) Ibid. p 576

(8) Ibid. P 576
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