It comes to many as a great surprise when they discover that the U.S. Capitol doubled as a church each Sunday from the end of 1800 until after the Civil War. It’s a further shock to the system when they discover that it was Thomas Jefferson himself that gave approval to use the building as a church. He even attended church services there regularly during his administration.
On December 4, then Vice-President and President of the Senate Thomas Jefferson joined with Speaker of the House Theodore Sedgwick to give approval for the capitol building to be used as a church. At the time, Thomas Jefferson was also the President-Elect.
Thomas Jefferson road to church at the capitol on horse back. In fact, he arrived in the same manner to worship at the capitol church just two days after he wrote the now infamous letter that contained the “wall of separation of church and state” language that many anti-religious groups try and hold up as proof the founding fathers wanted a government free from any kind of religiosity.
Washington insider and social critic Margaret Bayard Smith wrote of Jefferson’s attendance at the Capitol Church, "Jefferson during his whole administration was a most regular attendant. The seat he chose the first day sabbath [sic], and the adjoining one, which his private secretary occupied, were ever afterwards by the courtesy of the congregation, left for him."
Other presidents also worshipped at the U.S. Capitol, including Madison, John Quincy Adams, and Abraham Lincoln. President James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights, during his administration would arrive at the Capitol to worship each Sunday via a horse drawn carriage.
Throughout the following decades the US Capitol was used as a church for many denominations. The first Catholic service was held on January 8, 1826. The first woman to preach in the church was Dorothy Ripley who did so on January 12, 1806. On February 12, 1865 Henry Highland Garnet became the first black person to preach a sermon at the Capitol.
Other federal buildings were also used at the time to hold services. The Treasury Building once housed a four hour communion service in 1804 and also served as the regular church for several denominations. In his diary, President John Quincy Adams wrote about a church service preached before an overflow audience in the Supreme Court Chamber. The First Congressional Church met in the Hall of Representatives from 1865 to 1868 where more than 2000 worshipers recognized the Sabbath each week, making it the largest Protestant audience in the United States at the time.