Mixing Church and State: Thomas Jefferson and America’s First Megachurch (the U.S. Capitol)

America is known for its churches.

And despite declines in church attendance since the 1990s, every Sunday millions of Americans still go to church. A significant percentage will attend a “megachurch” over 1500 members. Megachurches have been a big part of the American landscape the past forty years, but in reality, they have existed for decades.

In fact, the first American megachurch was something rather unique. And few Americans have heard its story or the influence it carried in early America.

At its zenith, this congregation attracted over 2000 people every Sunday–including politicians, businessmen, professors, socialites, common folk. The congregants came to hear sermons by guys named Rev. Ralph, Leland and Boynton. Unlike today, the first American megachurch didn’t venerate their celebrity pastors with book deals and speaking tours.

The first American megachurch gathered as Christians inside our U.S. Capitol.

The U.S. Capitol had been holding church services nearly from its opening on September 18, 1793. In fact, a 1795 newspaper in Boston reported that in “our infant city” (Washington, DC)… Public worship is now regularly administered at the Capitol, every Sunday morning, at 11 o’clock by the Reverend Mr. Ralph.”  The reason for services at the Capitol was rather practical: The “infant” town of Washington had no churches yet. Consequently, a service was held in the only available space for public meetings: the U.S. Capitol.

Fast forward five years to 1800. The visionary Jefferson is vice president and his head is full of ideas (from exploring the West to civilizing the Indians to creating a Monticello paradise). He formulated a radical–at least to Americans today–proposal to Congress to approve weekly worship services in the U.S Capitol. Yes, that Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson that many of today’s historians frame as “agnostic” and even “anti-Christian.” The Jefferson who advocated for a “wall of separation” between Church and State.

Surprisingly, on December 4, 1800 Congress approved Jefferson’s proposal. Our national leaders agreed with Jefferson that our Capitol could be used as a church on Sundays. Can you imagine a similar proposal being submitted today…and approved? The secularists, atheists and irreligious would immediately issue lawsuits that such an idea is “unconstitutional.” But somehow in 1800, it was was acceptable.

What are we missing about Thomas Jefferson, early America and Christianity?

Let’s begin with the fact Jefferson was never anti-religion nor anti-Christian.

Yes, our third President was influenced by the secularism of the French Enlightenment, but Jefferson never embraced its atheism. In fact, if he embraced any religious identity it was Christianity. Jefferson penned: “I am a Christian in the only sense in which He wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to His doctrines in preference to all others.”  Additionally, Jefferson’s famous “separation of church and state”  clause is rooted to a correspondence that happened within less than a year of Congress approving the U.S. Capitol for church services.

In October 1801, Jefferson received a letter from several concerned Baptists in Connecticut. They were worried their new state constitution carried no protections for religious liberty (to be Baptist) and could possibly establish a state-sponsored religion (as many of the states had already done) that could lead to prosecution and persecution. Jefferson replied on January 1, 1802 to assure these Danbury Baptists to not worry:

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

Essentially, they should not be concerned, either by their state (nor the national legislature), as all of America was moving toward ending “state-sponsored religion” (no law to establish a religion) and “religious liberty” (no prohibition and free exercise of religion). And this was true. The new national Constitution (with its “Bill of Rights” that included religious freedom) was influencing state constitutions too.

In the early 1800s, as America morphed from colonies to states, state legislature began to take a second look at their “state religion” and began to reconstitute more “non-denominationally.” Nearly every colony/state was ruled by a particular denominational church. Massachusetts and Virginia were ruled by Anglican. Rhode Island by Baptists. Pennsylvania by Quakers. South Carolina by Methodists. Maryland by Catholics.

Consequently, each colony forced all who settled there to adopt or acquiesce to the preferred “state” religion. After the American Revolution, when colonies became states (with constitutions) they initially used denominational tests and dogma to elect their leaders, bias school curriculum and channel funding for pastors and missions.

The visionary Jefferson saw the new U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment as the gateway to ending denominationalism in America.

He envisioned a “united” states of America.  In fact, the greatest test for unity was religious. If Christians could worship together, regardless of denomination, then imagine what Americans could do? It’s likely why Jefferson not only proposed, but led the charge to use the U.S. Capitol as a church building.

The U.S. Capitol, after all, was the “people’s house.” It was for all Americans, regardless of race, gender, class or creed. Perhaps Jefferson saw the U.S. Capitol as the perfect “testing ground” for a new kind of “non-denominational” church in America. And his religious vision found root. Jefferson helped birthed one of the first, if not the first, non-denominational American churches. The American “way” was through unity. It’s no wonder the fastest growing church movements in the 1800s embraced nondenominational Christianity, most notably the Stone-Campbell Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

Throughout the 19th century, people in the D.C. area flocked to the Capitol building to hear sermons, worship, pray and fellowship. Attendances swelled into the thousands, particularly in the post-Civil War years.

The Capitol Church drew many congressmen and U.S. Presidents, including John and Abigail Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln.

Not surprisingly, one of its most faithful congregants was Thomas Jefferson. According to eyewitness testimony, America’s third president regularly attended the Capitol Church. Jefferson was known to ride his horse to church services at the Capitol (regardless of the weather).

In contrast, President Madison was more flamboyant. He arrived in a fancy carriage pulled by four white horses. One congregant journaled about her early 1800s Capitol Church experience that the hall was so crowded “the floor of the House offered insufficient space, [and] the platform behind the Speaker’s chair, and every spot where a chair could be wedged in” was occupied. Sometimes the U.S. Marine Band led the song service.

For most the 1800s (1800-1857), the Capitol Church met either in the North or South wing, then Statutory Hall. In 1857 the Church moved to the House chambers (where today we view the annual State of the Union address). The hymnals were purchased by Congress. Sometimes multiple church services (up to four) were scheduled by different denominations, particularly when a church building was being built elsewhere in town. The Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Unitarians all met there for a time. By the late 1800s, attendances dipped and eventually church services were moved out of the Capitol by the end of the century.

Today we think of our U.S. Capitol as a wholly secular facility and yet for its first 100 years a CHURCH, sometimes many churches, met in its hallowed halls.

It also confirms the intent of our Founding Fathers wasn’t to segregate religion or separate “church from state,” but rather to keep the state out of the churches. This was the real point of Jefferson’s assurance to that band of Baptists in Connecticut. They feared the STATE would control, limit, prohibit and cancel religious rights. They feared the STATE could persecute and prosecute religion.

Ironically, Jefferson penned those famous “separation of church and state” words and then two days later attended church services at the U.S. Capitol. If he truly believed that “church and state were to be separated” then his behavior was hypocritical.

Maybe it’s more reasonable to think we’ve missed Jefferson’s point.

It’s an inconvenient history that secularists want Americans to forget.

Thomas Jefferson was a religious enigma, much like his counterpart Benjamin Franklin. However, both Founding Fathers were as influenced by America’s Great Awakening revivalism as they were of France’s Enlightenment rationalism. Both Jefferson and Franklin supported missionaries and attended church. Jefferson was fascinated with Indian culture and, in particular, wanted to “civilize” them through western ideals, philosophy, values and thinking.

To aid that process, he collected stories from the life of Christ to show the “ethics and morals” of western civilization. Jefferson never called his collection a “Bible,” but later generations did. In fact, many Christians think Jefferson purposely edited and created his own Bible to suit his theology, but that’s not true. His purpose was to help the native Indian tribes to better understand western civilized culture, morals and ethics.

The truth? From the beginning, Christianity and religion were woven into the fabric of America. And the fact our U.S. Capitol was once a gathering place for Christians to worship and hear the Word of God proves how far we’ve wandered from our original national DNA.

Actually, a little religion in the U.S. Capitol might do some good.

Much of what they do nowadays hasn’t got a prayer.

 

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SOURCES:

1. BOSTON CHURCH NEWS ARTICLE: Federal Orrery, Boston, July 2, 1795, p. 2.

2. THOMAS JEFFERSON “I AM A CHRISTIAN” QUOTE: Thomas Jefferson, Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, editor (Boston: Grey & Bowen, 1830), Vol. III, p. 506, to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803.

3. THOMAS JEFFERSON’S CHURCH ATTENDANCE: Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (Margaret Bayard), The First Forty Years of Washington Society, Galliard Hunt, editor (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), p. 13.

4. JEFFERSON’S ATTENDANCE BY HORSE AND IN BAD WEATHER: Cutler and Cutler, Life, Journal, and Correspondence, Vol. II, p. 119, in a letter to Dr. Joseph Torrey on January 3, 1803; see also his entry of December 26, 1802 (Vol. II, p. 114).

5. JAMES MADISON’S ATTENDANCE: Abijah Bigelow to Hannah Bigleow, December 28, 1812. “Letters of Abijah Bigleow, Member of Congress, to his Wife,” Proceedings, 1810-1815, American Antiquarian Society (1930), p. 168.

6. CROWDED CAPITOL SERVICES: Smith, The First Forty Years, p. 14.

7. HISTORY OF CAPITOL SERVICES: James Hutson (Chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress), Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1998), p. 91.

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