Jacob Duché: Mixing Religion and Politics During the Revolution

By Richard J. Werther - Posted at Journal of the American Revolution:

In a country in which one of the main constitutional principles is separation of church and state, it is counter-intuitive to find that there are chaplains for the two houses of Congress. Aside from a couple of unsuccessful court challenges, the position has managed to survive into modern times largely due to custom and tradition. This tradition, which dates to the First Continental Congress in 1774, did not start well. Jacob Duché was appointed as chaplain, at least unofficially, for purposes of providing an opening prayer. As Duché strode to the lectern on September 7, 1774, to deliver a rousing prayer in support of the revolutionary cause, few could foresee the twists and turns his life would take, most prominently a national furor over his brief correspondence with Gen. George Washington.

The motion to employ Duché, an Anglican Rector, to address the opening of the Continental Congress was made by Samuel Adams of Massachusetts. John Jay of New York and John Rutledge of South Carolina opposed it, because “we were so divided in religious Sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Aanabaptists, some Presbyterians and some Congregationalists, so that We could not join in the same Act of Worship.”[1] Adams, defending his proposal, said Congress could “hear a Prayer from a Gentleman of Piety and Virtue, who was at the same Time a Friend to his Country,” that he had heard that Mr. Duchè “deserved that Character,” and “that Duchè . . . might be desired, to read Prayers to the Congress” at their opening the next day.[2] The motion passed.

The New Englander Adams, no fan of the Anglican church, had a strategic motive. Having an Anglican rector deliver the prayer would hopefully encourage more Anglicans to support the cause and demonstrate to the British that support for the rebel position was more widespread than they thought. He made sure that his friend Joseph Warren in Boston publicized the address there.

Adams would later defend his choice of Duché, stating that “as many of our warmest friends are members of the Church of England, [I] thought it prudent, as well on that as on some other accounts, to move that the service should be performed by a clergyman of that denomination.” Delegate Joseph Reed pronounced the appointment of Duché (and the prayer service itself) to be not only a needed spiritual support for the fledgling country, but a “masterly stroke of policy.”[3]

Duché delivered a fiery prayer to open Congress, starting with the 35th Psalm and, to the surprise of many, adding extemporaneous remarks. The reaction was outstanding. John Adams observed that “the service stirred warm patriotic feeling in those present,” and that it generally “had an excellent effect upon everybody here”[4] Silas Deane went further, stating that Duché “prayed with such fervency, purity, and sublimity of style and sentiment . . . that even Quakers shed tears.”[5]

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