At its initial meeting in September 1774 Congress invited the Reverend Jacob Duché (1738-1798), rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia, to open its sessions with prayer. Duché ministered to Congress in an unofficial capacity until he was elected the body's first chaplain on July 9, 1776. He defected to the British the next year. Pictured here in the bottom stained-glass panel is the first prayer in Congress, delivered by Duché. The top part of this extraordinary stained glass window depicts the role of churchmen in compelling King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215.
The Prayer in the First Congress, A.D. 1774
Stained glass and lead, from The Liberty Window, Christ Church, Philadelphia, after a painting by Harrison Tompkins Matteson, c. 1848
Courtesy of the Rector, Church Wardens and Vestrymen of Christ Church, Philadelphia (101)
On October 1, 1777, after Jacob Duché, Congress's first chaplain, defected to the British, Congress appointed joint chaplains: William White (1748-1836), Duché's successor at Christ Church, Philadelphia, and George Duffield (1732-1790), pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. By appointing chaplains of different denominations, Congress expressed a revolutionary egalitarianism in religion and its desire to prevent any single denomination from monopolizing government patronage. This policy was followed by the first Congress under the Constitution which on April 15, 1789, adopted a joint resolution requiring that the practice be continued.
Oil on canvas by Charles Peale Polk, 1790
Independence National Historical Park Collection, Philadelphia (103)
Congressional resolution, paying military personnel [left page] - [right page]
This resolution directed that military chaplains, appointed in abundance by Congress during the Revolutionary War, were paid at the rate of a major in the Continental Army.
Broadside, April 22, 1782
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (102)
Legend for the Seal of the United States, August 1776 [left side] - [right side]
On July 4, 1776, Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams "to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America." Franklin's proposal adapted the biblical story of the parting of the Red Sea (left). Jefferson first recommended the "Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by Day, and a Pillar of Fire by night. . . ." He then embraced Franklin's proposal and rewrote it (right). Jefferson's revision of Franklin's proposal was presented by the committee to Congress on August 20. Although not accepted these drafts reveal the religious temper of the Revolutionary period. Franklin and Jefferson were among the most theologically liberal of the Founders, yet they used biblical imagery for this important task.
Holograph notes, Benjamin Franklin (left) and Thomas Jefferson (right)
Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (104-105)
Proposed Great Seal of the United States:
"Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Drawing
by Benson Lossing, for Harper's New Monthly Magazine, July 1856.
General Collections, Library of Congress. (106)
Congressional Fast Day Proclamation, March 16, 1776
Congress proclaimed days of fasting and of thanksgiving annually throughout the Revolutionary War. This proclamation by Congress set May 17, 1776, as a "day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer" throughout the colonies. Congress urges its fellow citizens to "confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his [God's] righteous displeasure, and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness." Massachusetts ordered a "suitable Number" of these proclamations be printed so "that each of the religious Assemblies in this Colony, may be furnished with a Copy of the same" and added the motto "God Save This People" as a substitute for "God Save the King."
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (107)
Congressional Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, November 1, 1777
Congress set December 18, 1777, as a day of thanksgiving on which the American people "may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor" and on which they might "join the penitent confession of their manifold sins . . . that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance." Congress also recommends that Americans petition God "to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.'"
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (108)
Congressional Fast Day Proclamation, March 20, 1779
Here is the most eloquent of the Fast and Thanksgiving Day Proclamations.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (109)
Congressional Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, October 11, 1782
Congress set November 28, 1782, as a day of thanksgiving on which Americans were "to testify their gratitude to God for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience to his laws, and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness."
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (110)
Morality in the Army
Congress was apprehensive about the moral condition of the American army and navy and took steps to see that Christian morality prevailed in both organizations. In the Articles of War, seen below, governing the conduct of the Continental Army (seen above) (adopted, June 30, 1775; revised, September 20, 1776), Congress devoted three of the four articles in the first section to the religious nurture of the troops. Article 2 "earnestly recommended to all officers and soldiers to attend divine services." Punishment was prescribed for those who behaved "indecently or irreverently" in churches, including courts-martial, fines and imprisonments. Chaplains who deserted their troops were to be court-martialed.
Extracts from the Journals of Congress, relative to the Capture and Condemnation of Prizes,
Congress particularly feared the navy as a source of moral corruption and demanded that skippers of American ships make their men behave. The first article in Rules and Regulations of the Navy (below), adopted on November 28, 1775, ordered all commanders "to be very vigilant . . . to discountenance and suppress all dissolute, immoral and disorderly practices." The second article required those same commanders "to take care, that divine services be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays." Article 3 prescribed punishments for swearers and blasphemers: officers were to be fined and common sailors were to be forced "to wear a wooden collar or some other shameful badge of distinction."
and filling out Privateers, together with the Rules and Regulations of the Navy,
and Instructions to Private Ships of War [page 16] - [page 17]
Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1776
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (113)
Horn beaker with scrimshaw portrait of Esek Hopkins
Etched on this horn beaker is Esek Hopkins (1718-1802), a Rhode Islander, appointed by Congress, December 22, 1775, as the first commander-in-chief of the American Navy. Hopkins was dismissed, January 2, 1778, after a stormy tenure in which he achieved some notable successes in spite of almost insuperable problems in manning the tiny American fleet.
Horn, c. 1876
Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Virginia (114)
Congressional resolution, September 12, 1782, endorsing Robert Aitken's Bible [page 468] -- [page 469]
The war with Britain cut off the supply of Bibles to the United States with the result that on Sept. 11, 1777, Congress instructed its Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from "Scotland, Holland or elsewhere." On January 21, 1781, Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken (1734-1802) petitioned Congress to officially sanction a publication of the Old and New Testament which he was preparing at his own expense. Congress "highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion . . . in this country, and . . . they recommend this edition of the bible to the inhabitants of the United States." This resolution was a result of Aitken's successful accomplishment of his project.
Philadelphia: David C. Claypoole, 1782 from the Journals of Congress
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (115)
The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments: Newly translated out of the Original Tongues. . . .
Aitken published Congress's recommendation of September 1782 and related documents (Item 115) as an imprimatur on the two pages following his title page. Aitken's Bible, published under Congressional patronage, was the first English language Bible published on the North American continent.
Philadelphia: printed and sold by R. Aitken, 1782
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (116)
An Ordinance for ascertaining the Mode of disposing of Lands in the Western Territory, 1785.
In the spring of 1785 Congress debated regulations for settling the new western lands--stretching from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi--acquired from Great Britain in the Peace Treaty of 1783. It was proposed that the central section in each newly laid out township be reserved for the support of schools and "the Section immediately adjoining the same to the northward, for the support of religion. The profits arising there from in both instances, to be applied for ever according to the will of the majority." The proposal to establish religion in the traditional sense of granting state financial support to a church to be controlled by one denomination attracted support but was ultimately voted down.
Broadside, Continental Congress, 1785
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (117)
An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, 1787
In the summer of 1787 Congress revisited the issue of religion in the new western territories and passed, July 13, 1787, the famous Northwest Ordinance. Article 3 of the Ordinance contained the following language: "Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, Schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged." Scholars have been puzzled that, having declared religion and morality indispensable to good government, Congress did not, like some of the state governments that had written similar declarations into their constitutions, give financial assistance to the churches in the West.
Broadside, Continental Congress, 1787
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (118)
Resolution granting lands to Moravian Brethren. [left page] - [right page]
In this resolution, Congress makes public lands available to a group for religious purposes. Responding to a plea from Bishop John Ettwein (1721-1802), Congress voted that 10,000 acres on the Muskingum River in the present state of Ohio "be set apart and the property thereof be vested in the Moravian Brethren . . . or a society of the said Brethren for civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity." The Delaware Indians were the intended beneficiaries of this Congressional resolution.
Records of the Continental Congress in the Constitutional Convention, July 27, 1787
National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (119)
David Zeisberger (1721-1802) was a famous Moravian missionary who spent much of his life working with the Delaware Indians. His Spelling Book contains a "Short History of the Bible," in the English and Delaware languages, on facing pages.
Delaware Indian and English Spelling Book for the Schools of the Mission
of the United Brethren [left page] - [right page]
Philadelphia: Mary Cist, 1806
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (120)