The Continental-Confederation Congress, a legislative body that governed the United States from 1774 to 1789, contained an extraordinary number of deeply religious men. The amount of energy that Congress invested in encouraging the practice of religion in the new nation exceeded that expended by any subsequent American national government. Although the Articles of Confederation did not officially authorize Congress to concern itself with religion, the citizenry did not object to such activities. This lack of objection suggests that both the legislators and the public considered it appropriate for the national government to promote a nondenominational, nonpolemical Christianity.
Congress appointed chaplains for itself and the armed forces, sponsored the publication of a Bible, imposed Christian morality on the armed forces, and granted public lands to promote Christianity among the Indians. National days of thanksgiving and of "humiliation, fasting, and prayer" were proclaimed by Congress at least twice a year throughout the war. Congress was guided by "covenant theology," a Reformation doctrine especially dear to New England Puritans, which held that God bound himself in an agreement with a nation and its people. This agreement stipulated that they "should be prosperous or afflicted, according as their general Obedience or Disobedience thereto appears." Wars and revolutions were, accordingly, considered afflictions, as divine punishments for sin, from which a nation could rescue itself by repentance and reformation.
The first national government of the United States, was convinced that the "public prosperity" of a society depended on the vitality of its religion. Nothing less than a "spirit of universal reformation among all ranks and degrees of our citizens," Congress declared to the American people, would "make us a holy, that so we may be a happy people."
The Liberty Window
At its initial meeting in September 1774 Congress invited the Reverend Jacob Duché (1738-1798), rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia, to open its sessions with prayer. Duché ministered to Congress in an unofficial capacity until he was elected the body's first chaplain on July 9, 1776. He defected to the British the next year. Pictured here in the bottom stained-glass panel is the first prayer in Congress, delivered by Duché. The top part of this extraordinary stained glass window depicts the role of churchmen in compelling King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215.
The Prayer in the First Congress, A.D. 1774. Stained glass and lead, from The Liberty Window, Christ Church, Philadelphia, after a painting by Harrison Tompkins Matteson, c. 1848. Courtesy of the Rector, Church Wardens and Vestrymen of Christ Church, Philadelphia (101)
George Duffield, Congressional Chaplain
On October 1, 1777, after Jacob Duché, Congress's first chaplain, defected to the British, Congress appointed joint chaplains: William White (1748-1836), Duché's successor at Christ Church, Philadelphia, and George Duffield (1732-1790), pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. By appointing chaplains of different denominations, Congress expressed a revolutionary egalitarianism in religion and its desire to prevent any single 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 the practice be continued.
George Duffield. Oil on canvas by Charles Peale Polk, 1790. Independence National Historical Park Collection, Philadelphia (103)
Military Chaplains Pay
This resolution directed that military chaplains, appointed in abundance by Congress during the Revolutionary War, were paid at the rate of a major in the Continental Army.
Proposed Seal for the United States
On July 4, 1776, Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams "to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America." Franklin's proposal adapted the biblical story of the parting of the Red Sea (left). Jefferson first recommended the "Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by Day, and a Pillar of Fire by night. . . ." He then embraced Franklin's proposal and rewrote it (right). Jefferson's revision of Franklin's proposal was presented by the committee to Congress on August 20. Although not accepted these drafts reveal the religious temper of the Revolutionary period. Franklin and Jefferson were among the most theologically liberal of the Founders, yet they used biblical imagery for this important task.
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Legend for the Seal of the United States, August 1776. [left side] - [right side] Holograph notes, Benjamin Franklin (left) and Thomas Jefferson (right). Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (104-105)
Proposed Great Seal of the United States: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Drawing. by Benson Lossing, for Harper's New Monthly Magazine, July 1856. General Collections, Library of Congress (106)
Congressional Fast Day Proclamation
Congress proclaimed days of fasting and of thanksgiving annually throughout the Revolutionary War. This proclamation by Congress set May 17, 1776, as a "day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer" throughout the colonies. Congress urges its fellow citizens to "confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his [God's] righteous displeasure, and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness." Massachusetts ordered a "suitable Number" of these proclamations be printed so "that each of the religious Assemblies in this Colony, may be furnished with a Copy of the same" and added the motto "God Save This People" as a substitute for "God Save the King."
Congressional Thanksgiving Day Proclamation
Congress set December 18, 1777, as a day of thanksgiving on which the American people "may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor" and on which they might "join the penitent confession of their manifold sins . . . that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance." Congress also recommends that Americans petition God "to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.'"
The 1779 Fast Day Proclamation
Here is the most eloquent of the Fast and Thanksgiving Day Proclamations.
Another Thanksgiving Day Proclamation
Congress set November 28, 1782, as a day of thanksgiving on which Americans were "to testify their gratitude to God for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience to his laws, and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness."
Morality in the Army
Congress was apprehensive about the moral condition of the American army and navy and took steps to see that Christian morality prevailed in both organizations. In the Articles of War, seen below, governing the conduct of the Continental Army (seen above) (adopted, June 30, 1775; revised, September 20, 1776), Congress devoted three of the four articles in the first section to the religious nurture of the troops. Article 2 "earnestly recommended to all officers and soldiers to attend divine services." Punishment was prescribed for those who behaved "indecently or irreverently" in churches, including courts-martial, fines and imprisonments. Chaplains who deserted their troops were to be court-martialed.
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Rules and Articles, for the better Government of the Troops . . . of the Twelve united English Colonies of North America. [page 4] - [page 5] Philadelphia: William and Thomas Bradford, 1775. Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (111)
To all brave, healthy, able bodied well disposed young men. . . . Recruiting poster for the Continental Army. Historical Society of Pennsylvania (112)
Morality in the Navy
Congress particularly feared the navy as a source of moral corruption and demanded that skippers of American ships make their men behave. The first article in Rules and Regulations of the Navy (below), adopted on November 28, 1775, ordered all commanders "to be very vigilant . . . to discountenance and suppress all dissolute, immoral and disorderly practices." The second article required those same commanders "to take care, that divine services be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays." Article 3 prescribed punishments for swearers and blasphemers: officers were to be fined and common sailors were to be forced "to wear a wooden collar or some other shameful badge of distinction."
Extracts from the Journals of Congress, relative to the Capture and Condemnation of Prizes, and filling out Privateers, together with the Rules and Regulations of the Navy, and Instructions to Private Ships of War. [page 16] - [page 17] Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1776. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (113)
Commander-in-Chief of the American Navy
Etched on this horn beaker is Esek Hopkins (1718-1802), a Rhode Islander, appointed by Congress, December 22, 1775, as the first commander-in-chief of the American Navy. Hopkins was dismissed, January 2, 1778, after a stormy tenure in which he achieved some notable successes in spite of almost insuperable problems in manning the tiny American fleet.
Horn beaker with scrimshaw portrait of Esek Hopkins. Horn, c. 1876. Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Virginia (114)
Aitken's Bible Endorsed by Congress
The war with Britain cut off the supply of Bibles to the United States with the result that on Sept. 11, 1777, Congress instructed its Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from "Scotland, Holland or elsewhere." On January 21, 1781, Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken (1734-1802) petitioned Congress to officially sanction a publication of the Old and New Testament which he was preparing at his own expense. Congress "highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion . . . in this country, and . . . they recommend this edition of the bible to the inhabitants of the United States." This resolution was a result of Aitken's successful accomplishment of his project.
Aitken published Congress's recommendation of September 1782 and related documents (Item 115) as an imprimatur on the two pages following his title page. Aitken's Bible, published under Congressional patronage, was the first English language Bible published on the North American continent.
Settling the West
In the spring of 1785 Congress debated regulations for settling the new western lands--stretching from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi--acquired from Great Britain in the Peace Treaty of 1783. It was proposed that the central section in each newly laid out township be reserved for the support of schools and "the Section immediately adjoining the same to the northward, for the support of religion. The profits arising there from in both instances, to be applied for ever according to the will of the majority." The proposal to establish religion in the traditional sense of granting state financial support to a church to be controlled by one denomination attracted support but was ultimately voted down.
In the summer of 1787 Congress revisited the issue of religion in the new western territories and passed, July 13, 1787, the famous Northwest Ordinance. Article 3 of the Ordinance contained the following language: "Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, Schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged." Scholars have been puzzled that, having declared religion and morality indispensable to good government, Congress did not, like some of the state governments that had written similar declarations into their constitutions, give financial assistance to the churches in the West.
Christianizing the Delawares
In this resolution, Congress makes public lands available to a group for religious purposes. Responding to a plea from Bishop John Ettwein (1721-1802), Congress voted that 10,000 acres on the Muskingum River in the present state of Ohio "be set apart and the property thereof be vested in the Moravian Brethren . . . or a society of the said Brethren for civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity." The Delaware Indians were the intended beneficiaries of this Congressional resolution.
A Delaware-English Spelling Book
David Zeisberger (1721-1802) was a famous Moravian missionary who spent much of his life working with the Delaware Indians. His Spelling Book contains a "Short History of the Bible," in the English and Delaware languages, on facing pages.