John Adams recalls the first prayer service held by Congress, September 7th, 1774:
First Prayer in Congress.
The following beautiful reminiscence of the first Congress in Philadelphia is from the pen of old John Adams:—
WHEN the Congress met, Mr. Gushing made a motion that it should be opened with prayer. It was opposed by Mr. Jay of New York, and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, because we were divided in religious sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians, and some Congregationalists, so that we could not join in the same act of worship. Mr. Samuel Adams rose and said, that he was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from any gentleman of piety and virtue, and at the same time a friend to his country. He was a stranger in Philadelphia, but had heard that Mr. Duché (Dushay they pronounce it) deserved that character, and therefore he moved that Mr. Duché, an Episcopal clergyman, might be desired to read prayer to Congress to-morrow morning. The motion was carried in the affirmative. Mr. Randolph, our President, waited on Mr. D., and received for answer that if his health would permit he most certainly would. Accordingly he appeared with his clerk, and in his pontificals, and read several prayers in the established form, and then read the Collect for the 7th day of September, which was the 35th Psalm. You must remember this was the next morning after we had heard the rumor of the horrible cannonade of Boston. It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning.
After this, Mr. Duché, unexpectedly to everybody, struck out into extemporary prayer†, which filled the bosom of every man present. I must confess I never heard a better prayer, or one so well pronounced—Episcopalian as he is. Dr. Cooper himself never prayed with such fervor, such ardor, such correctness and pathos, and in language so elegant and sublime, for America, for Congress, for the province of the Massachusetts Bay, especially the town of Boston. It had excellent effect upon everybody here. I must beg you to read the psalm. If there is any faith in the sortes Virgilianæ, or Homericæ, or especially the sortes Bibliæ, it would have been thought providential.
Here was a scene worthy of the painter’s art. It was in Carpenter’s Hall, in Philadelphia, a building which we learn by a recent article still survives in its original condition, though sacrilegiously converted, we believe, into an auction mart for the sale of chairs and tables, that the forty-four individuals met to whom the services were read.
Washington was kneeling there, and Henry, and Randolph, and Rutledge, and Lee, and Jay; and by them stood, bowed in reverence, the Puritan patriots of New England, who, at that moment, had reason to believe that an armed soldiery was wasting their humble households. It was believed that Boston had been bombarded and destroyed. They prayed fervently for America, for the Congress, for the province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially for the town of Boston; and who can realize the emotions which they turned imploringly to Heaven for divine interposition and aid? “It was enough,” says Mr. Adams, “to melt the heart of stone. I saw the tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave, pacific Quakers of Philadelphia.”
—Alexander V. Blake, Anecdotes of the American Revolution (1845).
† The following is the form of prayer made use of by the Reverend Mr. Duché in the Congress after Independence was declared.
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 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 dependant 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 still persist in their sanguinary purposes, O! let the voice of thine 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 thy people; preserve the health of their bodies and the 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 Saviour. Amen.
—James Thacher, A Military Journal (1823).