Public Worship at the U.S. Capitol

President George Washington laid the cornerstone of the Capitol in 1793, and while it was still under construction nearly 2 years later, church services were being held here.   The July 2, 1795, Federal Orrery newspaper of Boston reported:  “City of Washington, June 19. It is with much pleasure that we discover the rising consequence of our infant city. Public worship is now regularly administered at the Capitol, every Sunday morning, at 11 o’clock by the Reverend Mr. Ralph.”[i]

But it was not until November of 1800 that Congress actually moved into the building.  Then, on December 4, 1800, the House of Representatives officially approved the use of the Capitol building as a church building under the leadership of Speaker of the House, Theodore Sedgwick.[ii]  At the time, Thomas Jefferson was Vice-President and President of the Senate.

 

Interestingly, Jefferson’s had been elected President just weeks before this decision, following a bitter campaign against John Adams in which Jefferson had been labeled as an atheist, infidel, and at best, a Deist.[iii]  In fact, the campaign rhetoric was so over-the-top that when news of Jefferson’s election reached the countryside in Federalist New England, housewives “were seen burying their family Bibles in their gardens or hiding them in wells because they fully expected the Holy Scriptures to be confiscated and burned by the new administration in Washington.”[iv]

Yet the outcry was mostly noise without substance.  Thomas Jefferson was not an aggressive atheist or even a classical Deist, as many claim today.  Neither was he an orthodox Christian, since he did not believe in the divinity of Christ.  On April 21, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence, regarding his own personal view of Jesus and His teachings:

In some of the delightful conversations with you…, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you, that one day or other, I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others…

Here is Dr. Cureton on location in the U.S. Capitol talking about Worship at the U.S. Capitol:

 


[i] Federal Orrery, Boston, July 2, 1795, 2.

[ii] Joseph Gales, Sr. ed., Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States: With an Appendix containing important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature; with a Copious Index; Compiled from Authentic Materials; Sixth Congress, Comprising the Period between December 2, 1799 to March 3, 1801  (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1853), 797.

[iii] See Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (New York: New York Univerity Press, 2002), 18-20.

[iv] Ibid., 18.

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