Monday, November 14, 2011

The Separation of Church and State Myth: Part 2 – Jefferson’s Church in the U.S. Capitol


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.

Garnet_HenryHighland_2x2Throughout 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.


Doug Indeap said...

Again with this "myth" nonsense? Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day, the founders' avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

Caution should be exercised in assessing the historical evidence, since some are motivated to make more of things than may be warranted or even stretch the truth about them. The commonly heard stories about religious ceremonies in the House chamber are illustrative. The Speaker of the House did indeed announce in 1800 that the chaplains had proposed holding religious ceremonies in the House chamber on Sundays, the reason initially being that at the time there simply were no churches or other suitable buildings in all the Capitol. Such ceremonies were held and Jefferson attended some of them, and they continued for decades after churches had been built and thus the need to use the House chamber had passed. Contrary to many accounts, neither the Senate nor President Jefferson had a hand in the Speaker's decision. Not mentioned in some accounts as well is that the ceremonies often were as much social as religious in nature (at a time when Washington otherwise lacked much social life). Chris Rodda does a good job setting these and other common misconceptions straight in Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History (2006) (available free on line; yeah, you have to get past the title, which puts off some, but it's worth it.

Anonymous said...

Doug - I just can't get over your cut and paste response that you just rehash each time.

You can't deny the facts. In 1800, there were no churches in Washington, within a couple years there were numerous. 60+ yrs later, when the House and other government buildings were still being used as churches there were countless.

Facts are facts and just because you want to believe something doesn't make it true.

The book your are promoting should have been called liars against jesus, more of the revisionist history we've been teaching you since the 70's.

Doug Indeap said...

Uh, did you not notice that I did not "deny the facts" you trumpet and, indeed, expressly acknowledged that religious ceremonies continued at the Capitol "for decades after churches had been built [in Washington] and thus the need to use the House chamber had passed." Rather, my points, which you overlooked and thus failed to address, are that (1) you stretched the truth about these events in some respects and (2) you made more of them than is warranted.

With your penchant to for accusations about agendas and playing fast and loose with the facts, you might look in the mirror. Really.

As for this "myth" stuff, I repeated the "facts" I noted before because you entirely failed to even acknowledge them, let alone actually address them with any response. They directly refute your "myth" assertion. I'll add that the further facts that during his presidency, Madison also vetoed two bills, neither of which would form a national religion or compel observance of any religion, on the ground that they were contrary to the establishment clause. While some in Congress expressed surprise that the Constitution prohibited Congress from incorporating a church in the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia or granting land to a church in the Mississippi Territory, Congress upheld both vetoes. He pocket vetoed a third bill that would have exempted from import duties plates to print Bibles. Separation of church and state is not a myth, nor a recent invention of the courts.

Anonymous said...

Doug - the series is far from done. By the end all the statements you make will be clearly contradicted by facts. The entire separation of church and state claims is taken from letters and comments made outside of any legal framework. Historical facts prove there is no legal ground for separation of church and state at the federal level. Some states have specifically passed laws or amendments to their own constitution, which they have a right to do. But there is absolutely no basis for the idea at the federal level.

Doug Indeap said...

"No basis for the idea at the federal level"? Should I repost my first comment yet again? It points out the very "basis" you claim not to see. You may well disagree that those features of the Constitution serve to separate government and religion, but you cannot--with intellectual honesty anyway--continue to assert there is "absolutely no basis" for that separation.

Really, this "myth" stuff is laughable. You may well have some points worth arguing, but at least dial the rhetoric back to within range of reality.