Earlier this week Mitt Romney, former governor and then critic of Massachusetts, gave a speech about religion and politics that concluded with this Revolutionary anecdote:
Recall the early days of the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia, during the fall of 1774. With Boston occupied by British troops, there were rumors of imminent hostilities and fears of an impending war. In this time of peril, someone suggested that they pray. But there were objections. “They were too divided in religious sentiment,” what with Episcopalians and Quakers, Anabaptists and Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Catholics.Romney and his speechwriters no doubt based their description of that event on John Adams’s letter home to Abigail, dated 16 Sept 1774, or other writers’ retellings of it:
Then Sam Adams rose, and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character, as long as they were a patriot.
When the Congress first met, Mr. [Thomas] Cushing made a Motion, that it should be opened with Prayer. It was opposed by Mr. [John] Jay of N. York and Mr. [Edward] 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.But that wasn’t the first time John Adams had written about this moment. His first allusion to it appeared in his diary on 10 September:
Mr. S[amuel]. 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 Phyladelphia, but had heard that Mr. [Jacob] 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.
The Motion was seconded and passed in the Affirmative. Mr. [Peyton] 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 with his Clerk and in his Pontificallibus, 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 a better Prayer or one, so well pronounced. Episcopalian as he is, Dr. [Samuel] Cooper 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.
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.
It will amuse your Friends to read this Letter and the 35th. Psalm to them. Read it to your Father and Mr. Wibirt.—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.
Mr. Reed [George Read of Delaware?] returned with Mr. [Samuel] Adams and me to our Lodgings, and a very social, agreable and communicative Evening We had.The phrase “Masterly Stroke of Policy” reveals that the cousins’ agreeable colleague saw Samuel’s proposal as a political act. Why? And what was the background of this moment?
He says We 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.
First of all, it was almost certainly a setup. Thomas Cushing and Samuel Adams went way back. Cushing had been Adams’s boss in his early, unrewarding attempt at a mercantile career. In the Massachusetts General Court, Cushing was Speaker and Adams was Clerk. Adams must have known that Cushing would propose opening the congress with a prayer, and had probably prepared what he was going to say in response.
The Massachusetts delegates had arrived in Philadelphia with a reputation of being Congregationalist zealots who oppressed minority religions in their region, including the Quaker, Anglican, and Baptist faiths. Some people feared the New England Congregationalists might push the rest of the American colonies into civil war, like the English Puritans of the 1640s. Adams seized (or created) this chance to show that “he was no Bigot” precisely because a lot of the men around him suspected he was a bigot.
And in some ways Samuel Adams definitely was. He was suspicious of the Anglican Church and downright hostile to Catholicism. But on the latter point, so was the rest of Congress. Romney was wrong to claim that the First Continental Congress included “Catholics”; there were no Catholic delegates in the room. It was a bunch of Protestant men congratulating themselves on being so open-minded as to listen to a Protestant prayer.
On 14 Oct 1774, that same Congress issued a Declaration and Resolves listing this among Parliament’s “infringements and violations of the rights of the colonists”:
establishing the Roman Catholic religion, in the province of Quebec, abolishing the equitable system of English laws, and erecting a tyranny there, to the great danger (from so total a dissimilarity of religion, law and government) of the neighboring British colonies, by the assistance of whose blood and treasure the said country was conquered from France.The First Continental Congress’s attitude toward religious diversity was clearly limited. They believed that making Catholicism the established church in a separate province populated mainly by Catholics somehow endangered them and infringed on their rights.
Some more ironies of this situation:
- The same John Jay who spoke against starting the Congress with a prayer also called the U.S. of A. a “Christian nation” in an 1816 letter, and is therefore often cited by people who wish to enforce that belief.
- The “the horrible Rumour, of the Cannonade of Boston,” that made Duche’s prayers so resonant turned out to be completely false. (This was the same rumor that prompted the Powder Alarm.)
- Adams’s letter shows that he knew his Congregationalist friends and family back in Massachusetts would be surprised that an Anglican like Duche could ardently support the Patriot cause. He urged Abigail to share his praise for the minister with her father, the Rev. William Smith, and the north Braintree minister, the Rev. Anthony Wibird. When he wrote, “I wonder what our Braintree Churchmen would think of this?” Adams alluded to his Anglican neighbors, who mostly leaned toward the Crown. In sum, Adams’s letter says as much about division and suspicion along religious/political lines as it does about unity and tolerance in the early nation.
- A month after Adams’s letter, on 14 October, the Massachusetts delegates were surprised to find themselves in a tense meeting with local Quakers and two New England Baptists about “certain Laws of that Province [Massachusetts], restrictive of the Liberty of Conscience.” Anglicans might have become less suspicious of Massachusetts after Samuel Adams’s masterstroke, but people from minority faiths back in New England still knew that the government favored one church over all others.
This Town is a small one, not larger than Plymouth. — There are in it, two German Churches, the one Lutheran, the other Calvinistical. The Congregations are pretty numerous, and their Attendance upon public Worship is decent. It is remarkable that the Germans, wherever they are found, are carefull to maintain the public Worship, which is more than can be said of the other Denominations of Christians, this Way. There is one Church here erected by the joint Contributions of Episcopalians and Presbyterians, but the Minister, who is a Missionary, is confined for Toryism, so that they have had for a long Time no publick WorshipThe Rev. Mr. Duche (shown above, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania) had asked Gen. George Washington to stop resisting the British military. When that letter became public, Duche fled to Britain, was convicted of treason against Pennsylvania, and had all his American property confiscated.
Congress have appointed two Chaplains, Mr. [William] White and Mr. [George] Duffield, the former of whom an Episcopalian is arrived and opens Congress with Prayers every Day. The latter is expected every Hour.
Mr. Duche I am sorry to inform you has turned out an Apostate and a Traytor. Poor Man! I pitty his Weakness, and detest his Wickedness.