The First Prayer in Congress
September 7, 1774
The circumstances surrounding the Colonial and Revolutionary period were dramatic, fascinating and often ironic. Such is the case of one Reverend Jacob Duche’, who served as Rector of Christ Church in Philadelphia until 1777.
In September, 1774, Reverend Duche’ was approached to come and lead the First Continental Congress in prayer. The Congress was assembled to discuss the weighty matters that the Colonies faced as the tension with the English Parliament were pointing slowly and surely to separation and revolution.
Depiction of Rev. Duche’ leading prayer
On September 7th, the Reverend went to Carpenter’s Hall, a two story brick building completed only one year earlier, to convene with the delegates. In that assembly he read Psalm 35, which speaks of the Lord as defender of righteousness against those who are wronged by injustice and oppression. Obviously moved and emotional, Reverend Duche’ spontaneously dropped to his knees, followed almost immediately by many of those in attendance, and uttered the following prayer:
“O 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 uncontolled over all the Kingdoms, Empires and Governments; look down in mercy, we beseech thee, on these our American States, who have fled to thee from the rod of the oppressor and thrown themselves on Thy gracious protection, desiring to be henceforth dependent only on Thee, to Thee have they 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 purposes, of own unerring justice, sounding in their hearts, constrain them to drop the weapons of war from their unnerved bands 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 amongst The 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 and our Savior. Amen.”
Oddly enough, there was opposition to the suggestion of prayer in congress because the assembly, composed of Episcopalians, Quakers, Anabaptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, was uncomfortable yielding to any one clergyman.
At this point, Samuel Adams took to his feet and proclaimed 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.”
These remarks softened, for the first time, the religious differences that each man brought into the congress and allowed them to move beyond their personal views to seek the collective good of the country. When Reverend Douche’ concluded, the impact of the prayer rallied those in attendance to see the task before them as more clearly given from God.
John Adams wrote his wife Abigail with a full account of the day. He mentioned the prayer was done with “such fervour, such Ardor, such Earnestness and Pathos, and in Language so elegant and sublime for America… It has had an excellent Effect upon every Body here.”  He also implored Abigail to go and read Psalm 35 for herself and to her father, obviously feeling the profound impact of God’s word on the moment.
It is wonderful to see how those who faced the task of forming a new country were cemented together with Holy Scripture and prayer. There is an equally wonderful reminder here for our task of preserving that same country today. By reading and repeating the sentiments of the Reverend’s prayer, we see a pattern for us to use in our own prayers for our nation.
Ironically, the same piety and virtue that Samuel Adams detected in Reverend Duche’ was to haunt him. When Philadelphia was captured by the British, the Reverend was arrested and detained.
Confronted with the fact that he had broken his oath of loyalty to the King, Duche’ affirmed his oath, was released and wrote an impassioned plea to General George Washington begging him to lay down his arms and negotiate peace with England. As a result, the Reverend was convicted of high treason to the State of Pennsylvania and as a consequence his estate was confiscated and he fled to England, where he was appointed chaplain to an orphanage. He was not able to return to America until 1792 and died in 1798. He remained known for his tireless service and his reputation as an eloquent preacher.
After 1777 and the arrest of Reverend Duche’ chaplains of different denominations were selected to lead the congress in prayer. Congress expressed a revolutionary egalitarianism in religion and its desire to prevent any single Christian denomination from monopolizing government patronage. This policy was followed by the first Congress under the Constitution which on April 15, 1789, adopted a joint resolution requiring that practice be continued.
Abigail and John Adams
 Letter of John Adams to Abigail Adams, September 16th, 1774
Phyladelphia Septr. 16, 1774
Having a Leisure Moment, while the Congress is assembling, I gladly embrace it to write 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 Aanabaptists, 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 Phyladelphia, 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. 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 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. 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.
I long to see my dear Family. God bless, preserve and prosper it.