The U.S. Capitol: America’s First Megachurch
On this day millions of Americans will attend a church, and many will attend a “megachurch” over 2000 members. And yet most of Americans, regardless of religious interest, are unaware of the first megachurch.
At its zenith, this congregation attracted over 2000 people every Sunday–including politicians, businessmen, professors, socialites, common folk. They came to hear sermons by guys named Rev. Ralph, Leland and Boynton. Never heard of them? Me neither. The first megachurch wasn’t about a celebrity pastor.
It was a gathering of Christians inside our U.S. Capitol.
On DECEMBER 4, 1800 Congress approved the use of the Capitol for church services, following a proposal by Thomas Jefferson. Yes, THAT Thomas Jefferson. The “deist” or “agnostic” Jefferson. The “anti-Christian” Jefferson. The “separation of church and state” Jefferson. Which is why we need to be careful WHO we trust for our history. Thomas Jefferson was certainly no “giant” in his religiosity, but he still stood head and shoulders over most American Christians of our age. He was a religious man.
During the 1800s, people in the DC 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. But even before Jefferson’s proposal was approved, the U.S. Capitol building was being used for CHURCH SERVICES. 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 was simple: DC had no churches.
The Capitol Church drew many congressmen and U.S. Presidents, including John and Abigail Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln.
One of its most faithful congregants was, again, Thomas Jefferson, who religiously attended the Capitol Church. Jefferson rode to church services at the Capitol on his horse (regardless of the weather), while President Madison was notably 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. Now that’s a full house! Sometimes the 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 into the House chambers (where today we view the annual State of the Union address). The hymnals were purchased by Congress. Can you imagine any of this happening today? 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.
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,” as many believe today, but rather to keep the state out of the churches. This was the real point of Jefferson’s assurance to a band of Baptists concerned the new U.S. Constitution would allow a particular Christian denomination to gain control. He was saying the Constitution separated the STATE from the CHURCH, not vice verse. 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 believe that “church and state were to be separated” then his behavior is 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.
They don’t want you to know the REAL Thomas Jefferson. They don’t want you to know the man who supported missionaries, attended church, and even created a special “Jefferson Bible” to better evangelize the Indian (not cut out parts he didn’t agree with, as we’re taught today). This Jefferson doesn’t fit their secular narrative.
THE TRUTH? From the beginning, Christianity and religion was 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 off track we’ve gone.
Actually, a little RELIGION in the U.S. Capitol might do a lot of good. And you can’t spell “good” without G-O-D.
1. BOSTON CHURCH NEWS ARTICLE: Federal Orrery, Boston, July 2, 1795, p. 2.
2. 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.
3. 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).
4. 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.
5. CROWDED CAPITOL SERVICES: Smith, The First Forty Years, p. 14.
6. 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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