| “It does not take a majority to prevail… but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brush fires of Freedom in the minds of men.” -Samuel Adams
September 1774. Carpenter’s Hall – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It’s morning in the city of brotherly love and 36 men from all walks of life and all types of faith are filing in for a meeting. John Adams was one of the first to arrive, and having found a moment to himself, decided to write a letter to his wife Abigail. Adams didn’t know it at the time, but his letter would serve as a detailed explanation of what happened as the debate for having a prayer in Congress ensued.
“Having a Leisure Moment, while the Congress is assembling, I gladly embrace it to write to you a line. When the Congress first met, Mr. Cushing made a Motion, that it should be opened with prayer. It was opposed by Mr. Jay of N. York and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, because we 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. Mr. S. Adams arose and said 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 Philadelphia, but had heard that Mr. Duche (Dushay) deserved that Character, and therefore he moved that Mr. Duche, an Episcopal Clergyman. Might be desired, to read Prayers to the Congress, tomorrow Morning. The Motion was seconded and passed in the Affirmative. Mr. Randolph our President, waited on Mr. Duche, and received for Answer that if his Health would permit, he certainly would. Accordingly next morning he appeared … and read several Prayers, in the established Form; and then read the Collect for the Seventh Day of September, which was the Thirty fifth Psalm. You must remember this was the next Morning after we heard the horrible Rumour, of the Cannonade of Boston. I never saw a greater effect upon an Audience. It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that Morning."
"After this Mr. Duche, unexpected to every Body struck out into an extemporary Prayer, which filled the Bosom of every Man present. I must confess I never heard an better Prayer or one so well pronounced. Episcopalian as he is Dr. Cooper himself never prayed with such fervor, 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. I must beg you to read that Psalm. … Read it to your Father and Mr. Wilbirt. I wonder what our Braintree Churchmen would think of this? 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. I long to see my dear family. God Bless, preserve and prosper it. Adieu. John Adams”
When John and Samuel Adams arrived at the First Continental Congress, they encountered extreme prejudice from other delegates who remembered that the Puritans in Massachusetts once hanged their Quaker brothers. There was a great fear that these Massachusetts delegates were bigots. It was a “masterly stroke” as John Adams later wrote, when Samuel Adams rose up and declared that he was no bigot. It must have shocked those who knew him well, because for years he had identified the Church of England with the “whore of Babylon”. This was tantamount to swearing in his day and here he is proposing to hear a prayer from a clergyman of that denomination.
One of the principle results of this first Congress was universal financial support for the City of Boston, which was under attack in response to the Boston Tea Party. Without Samuel Adams’ support for the prayer, it was doubtful that Boston would have received the help they needed. It is also doubtful that this body would have found the harmony of purpose that led them to sign the Declaration of Independence just two years later.
By proposing and supporting this prayer, the Massachusetts delegates at once showed that they were not bigots, and at the same time called the assembly to more universal values. It destroyed the animosity towards them and created the feeling of unified purpose. This Congress was the first test for these quarreling colonies to see if they could work together. Just ten years earlier, no one would have guessed they would some day unite against their mother country, so great was the tension between them. Spiritually speaking, the very existence of our country probably depends on this one prayer.
The reading of the 35th Psalm fell on that day in the regular Episcopal readings. It was such an appropriate Psalm that all must have felt it was a message from God
Lord, our Heavenly Father, High and Mighty King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers on earth; and reignest with power supreme and uncontrolled over all the Kingdoms, Empires and Governments; look down in mercy we beseech Thee, on these American States, who have fled to Thee from the rod of the oppressor, and thrown themselves on Thy gracious protection, desiring henceforth to be dependent only on Thee; to Thee, they have appealed for the righteousness of their cause; to Thee do they now look up for that countenance and support which Thou alone canst give; take them therefore Heavenly Father, under Thy nurturing care; give them wisdom in Council and valor in the field; defeat the malicious designs of our cruel adversaries; convince them of the unrighteousness of their cause; and if they persist in their sanguinary purpose, O, let the voice of Thy own unerring justice, sounding in their hearts, constrain them to drop the weapons of war from their unnerved hands in the day of battle! Be Thou present, O God of wisdom, and direct the councils of this honorable assembly; enable them to settle things on the best and surest foundation, that the scene of blood may be speedily closed; that order, harmony and peace may be effectually restored, and truth and justice, religion and piety prevail and flourish among Thy people. Preserve the health of their bodies and vigor of their minds; shower down on them and the millions they here represent, such temporal blessings as Thou seest expedient for them in this world, and crown them with everlasting glory in the world to come. All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Our Savior. Amen.
Witnesses record that during the prayer Washington knelt along with Henry, Randolph, Lee, Rutledge and Jay. The last two were originally the most vocal in opposing the idea of a prayer. After the prayer a profound silence followed, so deep was the sense of responsibility upon each man present.
Eventually a grave-looking man, coarsely dressed arose and began to speak, to the annoyance of the secretary who thought he was a country minister trying to show off. “But an unusual force of argument and a singular impassioned eloquence soon electrified the house.” This was how the world first learned of one of the greatest orators of all time: Patrick Henry. In the future he would often speak for the heart of the American people. Here his role was simply to state what had just been accomplished:
“British oppression has effaced the boundaries of the several colonies. The distinctions between Virginians and Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian but an American.”
Who would have expected that a few men praying could so profoundly change the course of history?
Our Founding Fathers were God-fearing men. Our more prominent patriots—Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Henry—often prayed in the course of their duties or commissions.
This may be the first time you've heard of the First Prayer in Congress, until now, yet we have significant primary sources and eyewitness accounts that record this event as it transpired that fall morning in 1774.
We started with a quote from an Adams and will leave you with this admonition from another Adams, John Quincy Adams,
"Posterity -- you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it." -John Quincy Adams
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