Church Services at the Capitol? Never! Right?

It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) the state became the church. Within a year of his inauguration, Jefferson began attending church services in the House of Representatives.  Congress had specifically authorized that Sunday services were to be held in the newly built Capital building.   (By 1867 the largest church in D.C. was the one at the U.S. Capitol building-  2000 people a week met there for church).

James Madison (1809-1817) followed Jefferson’s example, although unlike Jefferson, who rode on horseback to church in the Capitol, Madison came in a coach. Worship services in the House–a practice that continued until after the Civil War–were acceptable to Jefferson because they were nondiscriminatory and voluntary. Preachers of every Protestant denomination appeared. (Catholic priests began officiating in 1826.) As early as January 1806 a female evangelist, Dorothy Ripley, delivered a camp meeting-style exhortation in the House to Jefferson, Vice President Aaron Burr, and a “crowded audience.” Throughout his administration Jefferson permitted church services in executive branch buildings. The Gospel was also preached in the Supreme Court chambers.

Jefferson’s actions may seem surprising because his attitude toward the relation between religion and government is usually thought to have been embodied in his recommendation that there exist “a wall of separation between church and state.” In that statement, Jefferson was apparently declaring his opposition, as Madison had done in introducing the Bill of Rights, to a “national” religion. In attending church services on public property, Jefferson and Madison consciously and deliberately were offering symbolic support to religion as a prop for republican government.

Jefferson’s Opinion of Jesus

In the 1790s, Thomas Jefferson, influenced by the writings of Joseph Priestly, seems to have adopted a more positive opinion of Christianity. In this letter to his friend Benjamin Rush, Jefferson asserted that he was a “Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished any one to be.” In an attached syllabus, Jefferson compared the “merit of the doctrines of Jesus” with those of the classical philosophers and the Jews. Jefferson pronounced Jesus’ doctrines, though “disfigured by the corruptions of schismatising followers” far superior to any competing system. Jefferson declined to consider the “question of [Jesus] being a member of the god-head, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others.”

Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803

The Jefferson Bible
It is thought that Jefferson prepared what is referred to as the “Jefferson Bible” in 1820. In this volume, Jefferson used excerpts from New Testaments in four languages to create parallel columns of text recounting the life of Jesus, preserving what he considered to be Christ’s authentic actions and statements, eliminating the mysterious and miraculous. He began his account with Luke’s second chapter, deleting the first in which the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to the Messiah by the Holy Spirit. On the pages seen here, Jefferson deleted the part of the birth story in which the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds. The text ends with the crucifixion and burial and omits any resurrection appearance.

Jefferson at Church in the Capitol
In his diary, Manasseh Cutler (1742-1823), a Federalist Congressman from Massachusetts and Congregational minister, notes that on Sunday, January 3, 1802, John Leland preached a sermon on the text “Behold a greater than Solomon is here. Jef[ferso]n was present.” Thomas Jefferson attended this church service in Congress, just two days after issuing the Danbury Baptist letter. Leland, a celebrated Baptist minister, had moved from Orange County, Virginia, and was serving a congregation in Cheshire, Massachusetts, from which he had delivered to Jefferson a gift of a “mammoth cheese,” weighing 1235 pounds.

Reserved Seats at Capitol Services
Here is a description, by an early Washington “insider,” Margaret Bayard Smith (1778-1844), a writer and social critic and wife of Samuel Harrison Smith, publisher of the National Intelligencer, of Jefferson’s attendance at church services in the House of Representatives: “Jefferson during his whole administration was a most regular attendant. The seat he chose the first day sabbath, and the adjoining one, which his private secretary occupied, were ever afterwards by the courtesy of the congregation, left for him.”

The Old House of Representatives
Church services were held in what is now called Statuary Hall from 1807 to 1857. The first services in the Capitol, held when the government moved to Washington in the fall of 1800, were conducted in the “hall” of the House in the north wing of the building. In 1801 the House moved to temporary quarters in the south wing, called the “Oven,” which it vacated in 1804, returning to the north wing for three years. Services were conducted in the House until after the Civil War. The Speaker’s podium was used as the preacher’s pulpit.

A Millennialist Sermon Preached in Congress

This sermon on the millennium was preached by the Baltimore minister, John Hargrove (1750-1839) in the House of Representatives. One of the earliest sermons preached before Congress was offered on July 4, 1801, by the Reverend David Austin (1759-1831), who at the time considered himself “struck in prophesy under the style of the Joshua of the American Temple.” Having proclaimed to his Congressional audience the imminence of the Second Coming of Christ, Austin took up a collection on the floor of the House to support services at “Lady Washington’s Chapel” in a nearby hotel where he was teaching that “the seed of the Millennial estate is found in the backbone of the American Revolution.”

A Sermon on the Second Coming of Christ, and on the Last Judgment.
Delivered the 25th December, 1804 before both houses of Congress, at the Capitol in the city of Washington. John Hargrove. Baltimore: Warner & Hanna, 1805
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (171)

First Catholic Sermon in the House
On January 8, 1826, Bishop John England (1786-1842) of Charleston, South Carolina, became the first Catholic clergyman to preach in the House of Representatives. The overflow audience included President John Quincy Adams, whose July 4, 1821, speech England rebutted in his sermon. Adams had claimed that the Roman Catholic Church was intolerant of other religions and therefore incompatible with republican institutions. England asserted that “we do not believe that God gave to the church any power to interfere with our civil rights, or our civil concerns.” “I would not allow to the Pope, or to any bishop of our church,” added England, “the smallest interference with the humblest vote at our most insignificant balloting box.”

2nd Woman Preacher in the House
In 1827, Harriet Livermore (1788-1868), the daughter and granddaughter of Congressmen, became the second woman to preach in the House of Representatives. The first woman to preach before the House (and probably the first woman to speak officially in Congress under any circumstances) was the English evangelist, Dorothy Ripley (1767-1832), who conducted a service on January 12, 1806. Jefferson and Vice President Aaron Burr were among those in a “crowded audience.” Sizing up the congregation, Ripley concluded that “very few” had been born again and broke into an urgent, camp meeting style exhortation, insisting that “Christ’s Body was the Bread of Life and His Blood the drink of the righteous.”

Communion Service in the Treasury Building
Manasseh Cutler here (in a House Journal entry, dated 12/23/1804) describes a four-hour communion service in the Treasury Building, conducted by a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend James Laurie: “Attended worship at the Treasury. Mr. Laurie alone. Sacrament. Full assembly. Three tables; service very solemn; nearly four hours.”

The Treasury Building Services
The first Treasury Building, where several denominations conducted church services, was burned by the British in 1814. A new one was built on approximately the same location as the earlier one, within view of the White House.

Washington City, 1820.

Adams‘s Description of a Church Service in the Supreme Court
John Quincy Adams here describes the Reverend James Laurie, pastor of a Presbyterian Church that had settled into the Treasury Building, preaching to an overflow audience in the Supreme Court Chamber, which in 1806 was located on the ground floor of the Capitol. Diary entry, February 2, 1806.

Church Services in Congress after the Civil War
Charles Boynton (1806-1883) was in 1867 chaplain of the House of Representatives and organizing pastor of the First Congregational Church in Washington, which was trying at that time to build its own sanctuary. In the meantime the church, as Boynton informed potential donors, was holding services “at the Hall of Representatives” where “the audience is the largest in town. . . .nearly 2000 assembled every Sabbath” for services, making the congregation in the House the “largest Protestant Sabbath audience then in the United States.” The First Congregational Church met in the House from 1865 to 1868.

Fundraising brochure
Charles B. Boynton. Washington, D.C.: November 1, 1867

House of Representatives, After the Civil War
The House moved to its current location on the south side of the Capitol in 1857. It contained the “largest Protestant Sabbath audience” in the United States when the First Congregational Church of Washington held services there from 1865 to 1868.
The House of Representatives, 1866

A reprint of an on-line publication.  See: Religion and the Founding of the American Republic at

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