What Was the First Official Act of Our 1st Congress?

In One Word: Prayer…

Anyone denying or minimizing the religious as well as faith (there is a difference!) of our founding fathers has either not studied their history very well or they were provided textbooks that avoided this topic altogether.

America’s first step to independence began in Philadelphia, but the First Continental Congress would not meet at the Pennsylvania State House (today known as Independence Hall) as there were too many loyal to the King in the Pennsylvania legislature.

In an act of generosity as well as recognizing a need the local carpenter’s guild offered their newly constructed building to the 1st Continental Congress — appropriately named Carpenter’s Hall.

Given there were more than 13 different churches represented by the members of the First Continental Congress, the agreed first act of the Congress turned out to be a bit of a pickle — today we might call it… tolerance.

Episcopalians, Quakers, Anabaptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists…

They would not join in the same act of worship — which meant the prayer had to be unifying of the spirit and not identifying of any church.

Samuel Adams spoke up and promoted his confidence and faith in one Reverend Jacob Duché, an Episcopal clergyman, a local minister from nearby Christ Church.

Many of the Founding Fathers worshipped there (7 signers of the Declaration of Independence were buried in Christ’s Church cemetery).

Reverend Jacob Duché (1737-98) was born in Pennsylvania, a descendant of Huguenots who immigrated to America with William Penn.

Given all this and Samuel Adams influence with the Congress, they agreed and the motion was seconded.

But this was not any ordinary prayer session — Reverend Duché opened the 2nd session the following day (September 7th, 1774) by reading the 35th Psalm, and then broke into extemporaneous prayer.

It seemed as if God and his angels ordained that Psalm to be read that morning as the Boston Massacre would happen the following day…

Psalm 35

1 Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me:
fight against them that fight against me.2 Take hold of shield and buckler,
and stand up for mine help.3 Draw out also the spear, and stop the way against them that persecute me:
say unto my soul, I am thy salvation.4 Let them be confounded and put to shame that seek after my soul:
let them be turned back and brought to confusion that devise my hurt.5 Let them be as chaff before the wind:
and let the angel of the Lord chase them.6 Let their way be dark and slippery:
and let the angel of the Lord persecute them.

7 For without cause have they hid for me their net in a pit,
which without cause they have digged for my soul.

8 Let destruction come upon him at unawares;
and let his net that he hath hid catch himself:
into that very destruction let him fall.

9 And my soul shall be joyful in the Lord:
it shall rejoice in his salvation.

10 All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee,
which deliverest the poor from him that is too strong for him,
yea, the poor and the needy from him that spoileth him?

11 False witnesses did rise up;
they laid to my charge things that I knew not.

12 They rewarded me evil for good
to the spoiling of my soul.

13 But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth:
I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom.

14 I behaved myself as though he had been my friend or brother:
I bowed down heavily, as one that mourneth for his mother.

15 But in mine adversity they rejoiced, and gathered themselves together:
yea, the abjects gathered themselves together against me, and I knew it not;
they did tear me, and ceased not:

16 with hypocritical mockers in feasts,
they gnashed upon me with their teeth.

17 Lord, how long wilt thou look on?
rescue my soul from their destructions,
my darling from the lions.

18 I will give thee thanks in the great congregation:
I will praise thee among much people.

19 Let not them that are mine enemies wrongfully rejoice over me:
neither let them wink with the eye that hate me without a cause.

20 For they speak not peace:
but they devise deceitful matters against them that are quiet in the land.

21 Yea, they opened their mouth wide against me,
and said, Aha, aha, our eye hath seen it.

22 This thou hast seen, O Lord: keep not silence:
O Lord, be not far from me.

23 Stir up thyself, and awake to my judgment,
even unto my cause, my God and my Lord.

24 Judge me, O Lord my God, according to thy righteousness;
and let them not rejoice over me.

25 Let them not say in their hearts, Ah, so would we have it:
let them not say, We have swallowed him up.

26 Let them be ashamed and brought to confusion together that rejoice at mine hurt:
let them be clothed with shame and dishonour that magnify themselves against me.

27 Let them shout for joy, and be glad, that favour my righteous cause:
yea, let them say continually, Let the Lord be magnified,
which hath pleasure in the prosperity of his servant.

28 And my tongue shall speak of thy righteousness
and of thy praise all the day long.

my note: the source of the balance of this posit is the American Christian Heritage blog

First Prayer of the Continental Congress, 1774

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 uncontrolled 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 hands 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.

Reverend Jacob Duché
Rector of Christ Church of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
September 7, 1774, 9 o’clock a.m. [2]

 

The Effect of A Powerful Prayer

The prayer had a profound effect on the delegates, as recounted by John Adams to his wife. Dr. Duché followed the psalm with ten minutes of spontaneous prayer asking God to support the American cause. Adams stated…

“[Rev] Duche, unexpectedly to everybody, struck out into extemporaneous prayer filled which filled the bosom of every man present.

I must confess I never heard a better prayer. . . .with such fervor, such ardor, earnestness and pathos, and in a language so elegant and sublime for America [and] for the Congress. . . .

It has had an excellent effect upon everybody here.”

He went on to say,

“I never saw a greater effect upon an audience.

It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on the morning. . . .

I must beg you to read that Psalm. . .

[Read] the 35th Psalm to [your friends].

Read it to your father.”

One other delegate said he was“worth riding 100 miles to hear.”

On July 4, 1776, Jacob Duché met with his Vestry to make a momentous decision.

Just 2 days after the Continental Congress voted to “dissolve the connection” with Great Britain in what became known as the Declaration of Independence, the decision at hand was whether or not to pray for the royal family in the upcoming Sunday service.

In the politically charged world of Philadelphia, the act of excluding prayers for King George was fraught with partisan labeling: are you a loyalist Tory or a rebel?

The vestry decided “for the peace and well-being of the churches, to omit the said petitions.”

To this day, you can visit Christ Church and see the 1776 Prayer Book where the prayer has an ink line literally crossing out those prayers for the King.[4]

The following year however, Reverend Duché defected to the British…

Sources

[1] Ferling, John. (2003). A Leap in the Dark. Oxford University Press. p. 112

[2] Office of the Chaplain, U.S. House of Representatives

[3] John Adams, Letters of John Adams, Addressed to His Wife, letter of September 16, 1774; Charles Francis Adams, Editor, Charles C. Little & James Brown 1841

[4] Why Remembering Matters sermon, The Rev. Walter Smedley, IV, The Church of the Holy Cross, Dunn Loring, Virginia, Sunday, July 2, 2006

The painting is “The First Prayer in Congress” by T.H. Matteson and was completed 74 years after the Congress was held, in the year 1848. It does not picture all of the 56 delegates (36 are in the painting) and the backdrop of the room was as it was in Carpenter Hall (next to Independence Hall) in the year 1848, not in 1774.

 

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