The treatment the Franklin episode has received in popular imagination and Christian revisionist-historical apology serves as simply a more brazen example of the kind of hagiographical pious-washing also applied to a moment of prayer that, according to all parties, actually did transpire when the Continental Congress met for the first time in September of 1774. As with the story of the Franklin Prayer, subsequent “memory” has tended to overemphasize the unifying function of prayer in this case at the expense of the very real and historically documented religious diversity and pluralism that almost prevented it from happening.
The backbone of the story of this first Congressional prayer emerges in a letter John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on September 16, 1774. During the very first meeting of the Continental Congress on September 5th, as Adams tells it, Massachusetts representative Thomas Cushing moved that the legislative body open its meetings with prayer. John Jay of New York and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, both with Anglican/Episcopalian sympathies, opposed the motion, pressing their case on the grounds that:
“[W]e were so divided in religious Sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians and some Congregationalists, so that We could not join in the same Act of Worship.”
At that point, Samuel Adams, a good friend of Cushing’s with whom he had likely prearranged the moment as a set-up, arose and:
“[S]aid he was no Bigot, and could hear a Prayer from a Gentleman of Piety and Virtue, who was at the same Time a Friend to his Country. He was a Stranger in Phyladelphia [sic], but had heard that Mr. Duche (Dushay they pronounce it) deserved that Character, and therefore he moved that Mr. Duche, an episcopal Clergyman, might be desired, to read Prayers to the Congress, tomorrow Morning.”
As writer J. L. Bell has noted, Samuel Adams’ declaration that “he was no bigot” likely stems from the fact that the Massachusetts delegates’ home—and presumably also the delegates themselves—had a deserved reputation precisely for Congregationalist zealotry and bigotry toward religious minorities, in particular Quakers, Anglicans, and Baptists. This moment of proposed prayer was probably orchestrated by the Bostonians in order to belie that reputation somewhat. John Adams, Samuel’s cousin, would record in his diary entry for September 10, 1774, the telling opinion of Pennsylvania statesman Joseph Reed regarding the Duché prayer:
“He [i.e. Reed] says We [i.e. John and Samuel Adams] never were guilty of a more Masterly Stroke of Policy, 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 favourable every day.”
The records of the Congress show that, on the next day—the 6th—the delegates formally resolved that Duché offer a prayer at nine o’clock the following morning and that the session on the 7th began with said prayer. Part of the reason for Joseph Reed’s enthusiasm regarding the Adams’ “masterly stroke of policy” lay in the effect Duché’s prayer had on the delegates that day.
Duché first read from Psalm 35 which, largely due to persistent rumors of a British cannonade against the city of Boston (which turned out to be unfounded), greatly moved his audience. Adams wrote:
“I never saw a greater Effect upon an Audience. It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that Morning…. I must beg you to read that Psalm. If there was any Faith in the sortes Virgilianae, or sortes Homericae, or especially the Sortes biblicae, it would be thought providential.”
Here in Adams’ learned prose, the Latin phrases sortes Virgilianae, sortes Homericae, and Sortes biblicae refer to the ancient practices—common in Antiquity—of using the text of Virgil’s Aeneid and the Homeric epics the Iliad and Odyssey as prophetic texts, opening them to random passages and reading out the words in an effort to divine the future or at least secure some guidance from the gods as to the present. Adams likens those ancient practices to the use of the Bible for a similar purpose, given how aptly Duché’s choice of Psalm 35 seemed to fit the context of a feared British attack on Boston. Despite early Christian condemnation of augury, the use of the Bible as a tool for fortune-telling was common enough in the earliest years of the Church and experienced a revival of interest in evangelical circles in Europe and America between 1730 and 1900, whence Adams’ mention of it. After the Psalm reading, Duché, “unexpected to every Body [sic],” launched into “an extemporary Prayer” which Adams praised in these terms:
“I must confess I never heard a better Prayer or one, so well pronounced. Episcopalian as he is, Dr. [Samuel] Cooper [Congregational minister in Boston] himself never prayed with such fervour, such Ardor, such Earnestness and Pathos, and in Language so elegant and sublime—for America, for the Congress, for The Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially the Town of Boston. It has had an excellent Effect upon every Body here.”
In his diary entry for September 7, Adams wrote similarly:
“A Prayer, which he gave us of his own Composition, was as pertinent, as affectionate, as sublime, as devout, as I ever heard offered up to Heaven. He filled every Bosom present.”
The official records of the Congress also recorded praise for Duché. The note of September 7, 1774, follows confirmation that the prayer took place with the observation:
“Voted, That the thanks of the Congress be given to Mr. Duche, by Mr. Cushing and Mr. Ward, for performing divine service, and for the excellent prayer which he composed and delivered on the occasion.”
Adams goes on in his letter to his wife from September 16th to praise Duché’s prowess as a speaker in florid terms:
“Mr. Duche is one of the most ingenious Men, and best Characters, and greatest orators in the Episcopal order, upon this Continent—Yet a Zealous Friend of Liberty and his Country.”
In this quote, as in the earlier sentence—“I wonder what our Braintree Churchmen would think of this?”—Adams reveals the prejudice and mutual suspicion of the time that conflated both the religious and political diversity in the colonies. Reverend Jacob Duché, a Philadelphia native of French Huguenot descent and Rector of Christ Church in Philadelphia, was an Anglican, and Anglicans inclined mostly toward England in their political sympathies. Adams shows his awareness that his fellow Congregationalists in Massachusetts would find it strange that an Episcopalian minister could still support the cause of the Patriots, as also, no doubt, that he could prove so pious and inspired in prayer.
New Jersey delegate Abraham Clark betrayed a similar prejudice in a letter he wrote to Reverend James Caldwell, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, dated August 2, 1776 (Letters to the Delegates of Congress, Vol. 4, p. 605). In the letter, Clark claims that he, and not Thomas Cushing, issued the proposal for a chaplain to lead prayers before the sessions of Congress every morning and that:
“[S]ome of my Starch brethren will scarcely forgive me for Naming Mr. [Jacob] Duche. This I did knowing without such a one many would not Attend. He hath Composed a form of Prayer Unexceptionable to all parties.”
The phrase “Starch Brethren” in this quote is somewhat opaque, but the same phrase also occurs in a poem published in 1843 in a collection by an anonymous undergraduate at Oxford, where, as part of a somewhat humorous poem entitled “Portrait of a ‘Sainte,’” it appears to invoke an image of traditional, straight-laced Protestants droning on endlessly in mindless prayer during a mind-numbing religious service:
“So, knowing what I’ve to expect,
From my starch brethren, stiffly neck’d,
My seat no sooner do I gain,
Than, a strict vigil to maintain,
I, in my sleeve, with all my might,
Pray for some quick ‘sainte’ opposite.”
Near the end of the poem, the anonymous author refers again to “starchèd Puseyites,” using the derogatory term for the high church movement championed at Oxford in the early-to-mid 1800s by Edward Pusey. This reference turns up in a section dealing explicitly with theological controversies at Oxford between those who championed the kind of Anglo-Catholicism favored by Pusey and those who followed the more liberal tendencies of clergyman Renn Dickson Hampden, who, for instance, backed a proposal to admit non-Anglicans to Oxford, replacing a requirement that students profess or “subscribe to” the 39 Articles of the Church of England as a prerequisite for matriculation with that of assenting to a simple declaration of faith. So the phrase “Starch Brethren” must refer in Clark’s letter either to strict, zealous religionists among the delegates or to such in his own church back home in New Jersey as would be not so pleasantly surprised at his having nominated an Anglican for leading prayer before the Congress. That is, like John Adam’s letter praising Duché, Clark’s pits a proposal for unifying prayer against the real religious diversity represented among the delegates, as well as in the larger world of the colonies, and expresses fear or apprehension at how the proposal might or might not be able to cut through the mutual suspicion and prejudice that marked interrelations among the representatives of that diversity.
Catholics, for instance, faired notoriously badly in early America in terms of their reputation among other Christian groups. New York representative John Jay, one of two delegates who was said in John Adams’ letter to have initially opposed the motion for prayer in Congress, famously wrote in a letter on October 12, 1816:
“Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”
At the same time, however, Jay, who like Duché was descended from the French Protestants known as Huguenots who followed the Reformation rather than remaining Catholic, argued that Catholics should be prevented from holding office in his home state. Then, when that measure proved unsuccessful, he managed to win approval for a religious test for officeholders in the state, requiring that they renounce all foreign authorities, including the Pope, before taking office, in effect barring Catholics from serving. Even John Adams, who attended a Catholic mass in Philadelphia on October 9, 1774, wrote derisively of the “awful and affecting” “afternoon’s entertainment” of seeing “the poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood.” Even as Adams praised the “good, short moral essay upon the duty of parents to their children” preached as the homily that day, he ultimately concluded his reminiscences of the Mass by noting:
“Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear and imagination—everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.”
Adams’ diary entry for the day recorded much the same judgmental thoughts and reactions.
In recording his own reactions to Jacob Duché’s prayer before Congress on September 7, 1774, Rhode Island delegate and Seventh Day Baptist Samuel Ward emphasized in his diary that the prayer possessed a unique capacity to cut through such religious divides. He called it “one of the most sublime catholic well adapted Prayers I ever heard” (emphasis mine). It should be remembered in this context that Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams—himself a Reformed Baptist who established the first Baptist church in America in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1638—had suffered expulsion from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 for “sedition and heresy” and remained a lifelong champion for freedom “of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-christian consciences and worships…granted to all men in all nations and countries” over and against the “Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience,” by which he meant a unitary church backed by and intertwined with the political power of the state in enforcing official religion. Rhode Island stood as a symbol of real religious diversity in early America, so much so that the new colony was feared and openly opposed by the Puritanical Massachusetts Bay Colony for at least a century after its founding in 1636.
It’s true that the spectrum of variation for the apparent religious diversity among the delegates of the first Continental Congress was not ultimately very wide: all of the various religious persuasions mentioned in this brief controversy over the first official prayer represented only so much variation as was present in early American Protestant Christianity, and the only two political views on display are those pro and con American independence from England. However, it is nonetheless instructive to note that even just this intra-Protestant diversity almost proved sufficient to derail the prayerful proceedings and was only overcome, in Adam’s retelling, by ante hoc political machinations between the Adams cousins and, in Clark’s, by the New Jersey delegate’s foreknowledge that only “such a one” as Duché could prove “Unexceptionable to all parties.” Despite, or perhaps rather because of, this fact, Duché’s prayer and the background of religious pluralism and diversity that formed its backdrop make appearances in U.S. Case law, where they serve as an example of religious unity in the midst of diversity. For instance, in its landmark 1983 decision in Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court determined that, by dint of the United States’ “unique history” of Congressional support for chaplain services, it does not violate the First Amendment for governmental entities to use public moneys to pay chaplains. In support of this decision, the Court cited the case of Duché’s prayer. The majority opinion stated:
“We do not agree that evidence of opposition to a measure weakens the force of the historical argument; indeed it infuses it with power by demonstrating that the subject was considered carefully and the action not taken thoughtlessly, by force of long tradition and without regard to the problems posed by a pluralistic society. Jay and Rutledge specifically grounded their objection on the fact that the delegates to the Congress ‘were so divided in religious sentiments . . . that [they] could not join in the same act of worship.’ Their objection was met by Samuel Adams, who stated that ‘he was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his country.’ This interchange emphasizes that the delegates did not consider opening prayers as a proselytizing activity or as symbolically placing the government’s ‘official seal of approval on one religious view.’ Rather, the Founding Fathers looked at invocations as ‘conduct whose . . . effect . . . harmonize[d] with the tenets of some or all religions.’ McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U. S. 420, 366 U. S. 442 (1961).”
The prayer likewise makes an appearance in both the majority decision and Justice Samuel Alito’s Concurring Opinion in the 2014 case of Town of Greece, NY, v. Galloway which determined that it does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment for cities to permit volunteer chaplains to open legislative sessions with prayer. In support of this verdict, Alito wrote:
“This first congressional prayer was emphatically Christian, and it was neither an empty formality nor strictly nondenominational. But one of its purposes, and presumably one of its effects, was not to divide, but to unite.”
As irony would have it, though, Duché turned out not to be the staunch friend and ally of the Patriot cause his Congressional admirers had supposed. True, Duché was asked by Congress to open the second session in May of 1775 with prayer as well, which he did and for which he received the thanks and renewed praise of the body “for performing divine service, agreeable to the desire of the Congress, and for his excellent prayer so well adapted to the present occasion.” On July 4, 1776, the Reverend did also call a special vestry meeting in advance of the vote on the Declaration of Independence held that evening, at which he oversaw the passing of a resolution to the effect that it was “necessary for the peace and well-being of the churches” to omit prayers to the King of England and replace them in the Book of Common Prayer with prayers for Congress, a move that would have been considered treasonous in Britain. On July 9, 1776, Duché even received word from John Hancock that Congress had voted to appoint him as the first Congressional Chaplain “from a Consideration of your Piety (& Religion), as well as your uniform & zealous Attachment to the Rights of America.” However, Duché would later suffer a pronounced change of heart as Patriot military forces began suffering a string of stinging defeats and the British eventually seized control of Philadelphia, marching in and taking the city unopposed on September 26, 1777. The Journals of the Continental Congress for October 17, 1776, show that Duché resigned his chaplaincy on that day and, for October 30, 1776, that he declined the $150 Congress had appropriated as acknowledgement for his services and requested instead that it “be applied to the relief of the widows and children of such of the Pensylvania [sic] officers, as have fallen in battle in the service of their country.” In a letter dated October 8, 1777, written from an occupied Philadelphia, Duché urged George Washington to back away from the Independence movement and to “represent to Congress the indispensable necessity of rescinding the hasty and ill-advised declaration of Independency.” He even restored to the Prayer Book those petitions to the King which he had earlier stricken, even as he opened his church to quarter and minister to the same British soldiers he had once reviled in prayer as “cruel adversaries.” In 1778, Duché was forced to flee America for England when the British evacuated Philadelphia. The property he left behind was confiscated. He would later return to Philadelphia in 1792, dying there in disgrace six years later. For the abrupt change in his political sympathies and his resultant actions, Duché earned repudiation from John Adams who, in another letter to his wife—this one dated October 25, 1777—called the Reverend “an Apostate and a Traytor [sic].” In the bitter end, then, Adams reviled the reverend he once found so pious and holy with charges not just of treachery, but of having turned away from the faith as well. “Poor Man!” Adams wrote, “I pity his Weakness and detest his Wickedness.”
As a letter to the editor of the New-York Daily Times published July 11, 1853, shows, however, this inglorious afterward to the story of Duché’s first Congressional prayer was quickly and conveniently forgotten in the hagiographical rush to solemnize this occasion of apparent American religious unity. The letter’s writer, identified only by the initials E.F.H., notes that “some four or five years since” an article entitled “Beautiful Reminiscence” appeared in the Newark, New Jersey, Daily Advertiser and was afterwards “extensively copied.” An example of one of these copies can be found in an 1862 edition of the Advocate and Family Guardian, a publication of the American Female Guardian Society in New York, New York. A summary of the Daily Advertiser article appeared in 1843 in an edition of the Supplement to the Connecticut Courant out of Hartford; like the New York Times letter, this summary piece explicitly attributes the content of the story of the “First Prayer in Congress” to the “Newark Advertiser.” An article from The Republican Compiler out of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, from July 24, 1843, reproduces the exact column and attributes it to the “Newark Daily Whig.” A piece from the August 26, 1843, edition of the Madison Courier from Madison, Indiana, also reprinted the entirety of the original Newark piece, this time attributing it to the “Newark Daily Adv.” Other copies and summaries of that original Newark piece enjoyed wide circulation in newspapers nationwide. Indeed, what prompted E.F.H. to write in to his own New York paper the New York Daily Times in the first place was yet another copy of the piece printed in the July 4, 1853, edition. That reprint obviously generated great interest in the reading public: it prompted three additional letters to the editor on July 7th, July 9th, and July 15th of 1853, all dealing with historical minutiae of the Duché case. Indeed, the principal motivation behind E.F.H.’s letter was the writer’s apparent desire to share details of Duché’s fall from grace and branding as a traitor and an apostate, to such an extent that, in the author’s words:
“He deserves a place in history at the side of Benedict Arnold—the more to be despised, because of the sacred profession which he dishonored by his treachery.”
E.F.H. credits the Newark Advertiser article with providing the inspiration behind artist T.H. Matteson’s painting “The First Prayer in Congress” which features the Founding Fathers kneeling or standing in prayer about the lectern where Duché, eyes uplifted toward the ceiling, offers his pious entreaty. In fact, the words of the “Beautiful Reminiscence of the First Congress in Philadelphia” directly suggested such a painting. The anonymous author of that article wrote:
“Here was a scene worthy of the painter’s art…. Washington was kneeling there, and Henry, and Randolph, and Rutledge, and Lee, and Jay, and by their side there stood, bowed in reverence, the Puritan patriots of New England, who at that moment had reason to believe that an armed soldiery was wasting their humble households. It was believed that Boston had been bombarded and destroyed.
They prayed fervently ‘for America, for the Congress, for the province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially for the town of Boston,’ and who can realize the emotions with which they turned imploringly to Heaven for divine interposition and aid? ‘It was enough,’ says Mr. Adams, ‘to melt a heart of stone. I saw the tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave, pacific Quakers of Philadelphia.’’’
That scene is precisely what Matteson drew. His painting was then engraved in steel by one H.S. Sadd in 1848 (E.F.H. erroneously spells the name Ladd) and was even turned into a stained glass window placed in Christ Church in Philadelphia, were Duché had served as Rector before his disgrace. Now, at some point, it seems Sadd’s engraving was made into a commemorative plate of some sort available to purchase. An article from the Wabash Courier in Terre Haute, Indiana, from October 7, 1848, advertises these plates, described as being “20 by 25 inches, printed on fine copper” and touted with the following words:
“Every American and every Christian should delight to have this fine historical engraving in his house. A more appropriate or beautiful ornament, [sic] cannot well be procured.”
These commemorative plates appear to be what conservative Christian American historical hagiographer William Federer has in mind in his 1994 book America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations when he cites the two paragraphs of the “Beautiful Reminiscence” quoted above and attributes them to “a famous historical placard” that included “the collected reports of the various patriots.” Federer provides the following citation for this “placard” in an endnote: “First Prayer in Congress—Beautiful Reminiscence (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress).” Federer’s statement about these placards has been widely repeated on conservative Christian blogs like this one. The same quoted passage of text and Library of Congress citation—this time with the prefatory notice, “In 1875, the Library of Congress produced a placard that summarized various reports from the founders on the impact that this first prayer had on the Continental Congress”—also appears in the 2006 book George Washington’s Sacred Fire by Westminster Theological Seminary’s Peter Lillback and evangelical author Jerry Newcombe, who is a senior producer, on-air host, and columnist for evangelist and Christian Broadcaster D. James Kennedy. Lillback’s and Newcombe’s book’s text about the placard and the Library of Congress citation have likewise reappeared either verbatim or near verbatim on several conservative hagio-historical blog sites like this one, this one, and this one. Whenever they came out, copies of this plate/placard obviously came with both the engraving of Sadd and the text of the original Newark Daily Advertiser article headed by the title “Beautiful Reminiscence of the First Congress in Philadelphia” and attributed to John Adams. These two elements—engraving and text—appear together, for instance, in this auction lot sold by the Atwater Kent Philadelphia History museum in 2009. An exact copy of the same page of printed text also appears in the Frederick Douglass papers housed at the Library of Congress, suggesting a history of mass production.
The odd thing about this text, though, as noticed in the letter to editor of the New York Daily Times from E.F.H., is that it contains an obviously erroneous conflation of two different letters by John Adams. One of the letters is that to his wife from September 16, 1774, which contains the bulk of what we know about the Duché prayer before the first Congress. The other letter, however, though also addressed to Adam’s wife, is dated September 18, 1774 and reports both Adam’s own and the general public’s reactions to two votes of support for Boston and Massachusetts that had been passed by Congress the previous day, September 17, 1774, and had been published widely about town. These votes had apparently exerted a profound effect on any and all observers when they were published. Adams writes that notices of the votes “were enough to melt an Heart of Stone. I saw the Tears gush into the Eyes of the old, grave, pacific Quakers of Pennsylvania,” which is verbatim the final line of the “Beautiful Reminiscence” text. As E.F.H. notices, this happening on September 17, 1774, that produced tears in the eyes of onlooking Quakers can have had nothing to do with the Duché prayer that had been delivered a full ten days prior.
The probable proximate source of the cross-contamination between John Adams’ two letters leading to the conflated text at the end of the “Beautiful Reminiscence” can be traced in a letter from Connecticut delegate to the Continental Congress Silas Deane, who wrote the following to his wife on September 7, 1774, the day Duché delivered his prayer:
“The Congress met and opened with a Prayer, made by the Revd. Mr. Deshay which it was worth riding One Hundred Mile to hear. He read the Lessons of the Day which were accidentally extremely Applicable, & then prayed without Book about Ten Minutes so pertinently, with such Fervency, purity, & sublimity of Stile, & sentiment, and with such an apparent Sensibility of the Scenes, & Business before Us, that even Quakers shed Tears.”
Obviously Quaker onlookers present for Duché’s prayer had also been observed crying. The fact remains, however, that the exact formulation of the line recalling the tears gushing in the eyes of “old, grave, pacific Quakers of Pennsylvania” that appeared in the placard/plate document and has been so often quoted in conservative Christian “histories” of the faith of the Founding Fathers comes from a document that has nothing to do with Duché or his momentous prayer before the first Continental Congress. Moreover, in the course of two years after his momentous prayer, the pious Duché would suffer such a plunge from grace that even his piety would fall under suspicion—and to such a degree that Adams could label him an apostate!
Incidentally, the profoundly emotional episode to which Adams refers in his September 18, 1774, letter also pops up in his diary for September 17, 1774, where he writes:
“This was one of the happiest Days of my Life. In Congress We had generous, noble Sentiments, and manly Eloquence. This Day convinced me that America will support the Massachusetts or perish with her.”
The notice in the official Journals of the Continental Congress for Saturday, September 17, 1774, records that the events of the day saw the unanimous passage of a sweeping and strongly worded declaration of independence from and opposition to aspects of British rule and military activity, especially in Massachusetts. Intriguingly, the statement also included, as article number 10, deep concern over and opposition to the British North America Act, or simply Quebec Act, of June 22, 1774, which in essence established Catholicism and French civil law in the Province of Quebec. The article calls the move:
“dangerous in an extreme degree to the Protestant religion and to the civil rights and liberties of all America; and, therefore, as men and Protestant Christians, we are indispensubly [sic] obliged to take all proper measures for our security.”
Again the old sticking point of religious intolerance! Samuel Adams’ 1772 leaflet The Rights of the Colonists makes clear that this resistance to Catholicism in particular probably has to do specifically with perceived Catholic intolerance to religious opposition and dissent, as well as to the historical intertwining of Catholicism with political regimes and might. Samuel Adams wrote:
“In regard to religion, mutual toleration in the different professions thereof is what all good and candid minds in all ages have ever practised [sic], and, both by precept and example, inculcated on mankind. And it is now generally agreed among Christians that this spirit of toleration, in the fullest extent consistent with the being of civil society, is the chief characteristical mark of the Church. Insomuch that Mr. Locke has asserted and proved, beyond the possibility of contradiction on any solid ground, that such toleration ought to be extended to all whose doctrines are not subversive of society. The only sects which he thinks ought to be, and which by all wise laws are excluded from such toleration, are those who teach doctrines subversive of the civil government under which they live. The Roman Catholics or Papists are excluded by reason of such doctrines as these, that princes excommunicated may be deposed, and those that they call heretics may be destroyed without mercy; besides their recognizing the Pope in so absolute a manner, in subversion of government, by introducing, as far as possible into the states under whose protection they enjoy life, liberty, and property, that solecism in politics, imperium in imperio, leading directly to the worst anarchy and confusion, civil discord, war, and bloodshed.”
The Newark Daily Advertiser article in the early 1840s, however, and the score of newspaper copies; the painting, engraving, and stained glass window; and even the official plate or placard by the Library of Congress that it would inspire all left out the messy and divisive religious background and subsequent history of Duché, his prayer, and his involvement as chaplain with the Patriot cause. The repetitions of this episode in conservative Christian revisionist histories—consisting only of the stripped down, conflated text of the “Beautiful Reminiscence” with its clear hagiographical bent—have only further telescoped and shaped the narrative into one of simple Christian unity under prayer at the nation’s birth.
America is a Christian Nation. I personally remember first hearing this now common declaration back in 1991, when it flew from the spittle-flecked lips of the daughter of a local chairman of the Republican party in my hometown in Georgia during a heated mock debate in Advanced Placement U.S. History class. My opponent that day flat out admitted that she believed the Bible formed part of the foundational cannon of our country, a fanciful notion which sounded to me then—and still sounds to me now—like an absolutely outrageous claim to make. Indeed, once I had worked my opponent up into such a lather that she blurted this statement out, I considered it my own personal Did you order the Code Red?! moment, recalling the scene in the film A Few Good Men where Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, portrayed by Jack Nicholson, launches into an unhinged and ultimately self-incriminating rant under the badgering of hot-shot attorney Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!
Yet now we have Kentucky governor Matt Bevin, in June of this year, signing into law House Bill 128, giving local school boards the option of creating elective Bible literacy classes as part of their social studies curricula. Kentucky State Representative D. J. Johnson defended the bill, saying:
“[The Bible] really did set the foundation that our Founding Fathers used to develop documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. All of those came from principles from the Bible.”
In April of 2016, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam vetoed a bill that would have designated the Bible as his state’s official book. That proposal was just one of three such measures to fail in southern states since 2014. One backer of the Tennessee bill, Republican State Representative Kerry Roberts, had defended the proposed legislation by claiming precisely that the Bible has foundational importance to government in the United States, saying:
“The very founding of our nation—the very form of government that we have today—was put forth by men of faith, based on their faith, based on what they read in Holy Scripture.”
Suddenly, what once seemed to me like the passing fancy of a Bible-besotted teenage girl in the deep South in the early nineties is sprouting up in the guise of serious proposed—and even actual—policy at the state level in America of the 21st century.
The Christian religious privilege that underlies the thinking on display in this policymaking makes victims of its very supporters by selling them an oversimplified and misleading historical narrative cobbled together from cherry-picked quotations and significantly winnowed complex contexts and crafted into a simple narrative in service of a polemical, apologetical agenda of American religious unity under generalized (Judeo-?)Christian prayer. I will probably never truly settle for myself the question of whether or not I think the perpetrators of these convenient, pious fictions at some point come to believe their own half-truths and even outright fabrications. Yet it’s clear that the many conservative Christian bloggers and consumers of specialty conservative news-media who continue to spread the contagion of these views definitely do buy into the mythos.
As Louis Sirico of Villanova Law School has noted of several popular homeschooling history textbooks that include the fictitious version of the Franklin prayer story found in the 1825 Steele Letter, false historical mythologizing is sold to those at the far-right Christian fringe of the religio-political spectrum even in early education. And not just in their churches, where highly partisan religious and moral lessons are to be expected, but in formal curricula followed both by homeschoolers—of whom the majority are still conservative Christians, comprising roughly two-thirds of the total homeschooling population in the U.S.—and small private Christian schools. Indeed, the the eight-grade U.S. History textbook America: Land I Love published by Abeka—one of the most popular creators and purveyors of textbooks for “education from a Christian perspective” in wide use not just in homeschool environments but also in about 27% of non-Catholic Christian voucher schools—contains the flawed narrative of Benjamin Franklin’s prayer proposal derived from the 1825 Steele letter. The book concludes its coverage of the event with the statement:
“Franklin suggested that they begin each morning with prayer, asking for God’s guidance and wisdom. From that day forward, the convention proceeded smoothly.”
It is probably no coincidence that Kentucky governor Bevin, whose love of the Bible lead to his giving open and enthusiastic encouragement to students across his home state of Kentucky to take their Bibles to school this past October because it is, in his words, “absolutely your right to do this, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise,” received his schooling up to the tenth grade in just such a “small Christian school.”
Pace the argument of writer Megan Kennedy to the contrary, religious pluralism in this nation is not an illusion. It is simply falling victim to systematic erasure from the historical and public narrative at the hands of dishonest partisan religious interests bent on preserving the presumptive privilege of a monolithic, bland, and politically active version of public Christianity that ultimately stems from little more than a cynical move by libertarian economic interests in the 1930s and ‘40s to coopt religion for the purpose of combatting New Deal-era “collectivism.” These interests aimed at convincing the American people that “the only antidote” to “check the virus of collectivism” was “a revival of American patriotism and religious faith,” as well as that the needed religious faith was essentially unified under the Judeo-Christian umbrella and unanimous in its emphasis on individual freedom as the bedrock on which the three legs of the “tripod of human freedom”—viz. “representative democracy”; “civil and religious liberties”; and “economic freedom, the institution of private enterprise”—rest. In a speech to manufacturers in April of 1940, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers, H. W. Prentis, Jr., declared of these legs on his supposed “tripod of human freedom”:
“The same basic principle underlies them all—a religious concept common to Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Judaism alike, the sacredness of the individual.”
In December of that year, Prentis proclaimed in another speech, which was heavily publicized in the Wall Street Journal and broadcast live on both ABC and CBS radio:
“We must give more attention to intellectual leadership and a strengthening of the spiritual concept that underlies our American way of life.”
From such humble seeds, a veritable industry of “attempting to sell the American Way of Life through Ministers” has grown up in this country like a choking weed. In their frequent appearances on Tucker Carlson’s program on Fox News, public Satanists have simply become one of the most recent and visible targets of that weed’s desperate attempts at strangling its competition lately sprung up in the fertile soil of American religious (and political!) diversity.
The question surrounding this diversity has never really been: How fertile is American religious soil? The universally agreed-upon answer to that query is simple: very fertile, and not just in diversity of Christian sects either. The true and pressing question of the day is, rather: What sorts of plants and flowers we will collectively permit to grow and flourish in this fecund environment? Now that’s a question whose answer is still very much up for grabs, and we must all now attempt to begin finding an honest answer for it. Hopefully, we’ll make the rational choice to pursue that goal cooperatively, together, for all our sakes.