The Founders And Public Religious Expressions

Recently, there have been objections to public religious
expressions by legislative chaplains supported through State budgets. These
objections to legislative chaplains are very similar to one lodged with the
U. S. Congress in 1852. In that challenge, the Committees on the Judiciary in
both the House and the Senate each delivered a report pertinent to this discussion.

For example, in the House Report on March 27, 1854, it noted:

There certainly can be no doubt as to the practice of employing chaplains
in deliberative bodies previous to the adoption of the Constitution. We are,
then, prepared to see if any change was made in that respect in the new order
of affairs. . . . On the 1st day of May [1789], Washington’s first
speech was read to the House, and the first business after that speech was
the appointment of Dr. Linn as chaplain. By whom was this plan made? Three
out of six of that joint committee were members of the Convention
that framed the Constitution.
Madison, Ellsworth, and Sherman passed directly from the hall of the [Constitutional]
Convention to the hall of Congress. Did they not know what was constitutional?
. . . It seems to us that the men who would raise the cry of danger in this
state of things would cry fire on the 39th day of a general deluge.
. . . But we beg leave to rescue ourselves from the imputation of asserting
that religion is not needed to the safety of civil society. It must be considered
as the foundation on which the whole structure rests. Laws will not have permanence
or power without the sanction of religious
—without a firm belief that there is a Power above us that will
reward our virtues and punish our vices. [1]

The House Judiciary Committee therefore concluded:

Whereas, the people of these United States, from their earliest history
to the present time, have been led by the hand of a kind Providence and are
indebted for the countless blessings of the past and present, and dependent
for continued prosperity in the future upon Almighty God; and whereas the
great vital and conservative element in our system is the belief of our people
in the pure doctrines and divine truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it
eminently becomes the representatives of a people so highly favored to acknowledge
in the most public manner their reverence for God: therefore, Resolved,
That the daily sessions of this body be opened with prayer and that the ministers
of the Gospel in this city are hereby requested to attend and alternately
perform this solemn duty. [2]

On January 19, 1853, the Senate Judiciary Committee
delivered its report:

The whole view of the petitioners seems founded upon mistaken conceptions
of the meaning of the Constitution.
. . . If [the use of chaplains] had been a violation of the Constitution,
why was not its character seen by the great and good men who were coeval with
the government, who were in Congress and in the Presidency when this constitutional
amendment was adopted? They, if any one did, understood the true purport of
the amendment, and were bound, by their duty and their oath, to resist the
introduction or continuance of chaplains, if the views of the petitioners
were correct. But they did no such thing; and therefore we have the strongest
reason to suppose the notion of the petitioner to be unfounded. . . . They
had no fear or jealousy of religion itself, nor did they wish to see us an
irreligious people; they did not intend to prohibit a just expression of religious
devotion by the legislators of the nation, even in their public character
as legislators; they did not intend to spread over all the public authorities
and the whole public action of the nation the dead and revolting spectacle
of atheistical apathy. [3]

Interestingly, a century later, the U. S. Supreme
Court reached a similar conclusion, declaring:

We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.
. . . When the State encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious
authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs,
it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious
nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual
needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement
that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That
would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.

Clearly, previous generations did not find difficulty
with paid chaplains. In fact, even Thomas
would disagree in several areas with those who often invoke him
as an authority for a secular public arena, for Jefferson himself regularly
violated the bland “civil religion” standards which many secularists promote.

    • Jefferson urged local governments to make land available specifically for
      purposes; [5]


    • In an 1803 federal Indian treaty, Jefferson willingly agreed to provide
      $300 to “assist the said Kaskaskia tribe in the erection of a church” and
      to provide “annually for seven years $100 towards the support of a Catholic
      priest.” He also signed three separate acts setting aside government lands
      for the sole use of religious groups and setting aside government lands so
      that Moravian missionaries might be assisted in “promoting Christianity.”


    • When Washington D. C. became the national capital in 1800, Congress voted
      that the Capitol
      would also serve as a church building. [7]
      chose to attend church each Sunday at the Capitol [8]
      and even provided the service with paid government musicians to assist in
      its worship. [9] Jefferson also
      began similar Christian services in his own Executive Branch, both at the
      Treasury Building and at the War Office. [10]


    • Jefferson praised the use of a local courthouse as a meeting place for Christian
      services; [11]


    • Jefferson assured a Christian religious school that it would receive “the
      patronage of the government”; [12]


    • Jefferson proposed that the Great Seal of the United States depict a story
      from the Bible
      and include the word “God” in its motto; [13]


    • While President, Jefferson
      closed his presidential documents with the phrase, “In the year of our Lord
      Christ; by the President; Thomas Jefferson.” [14]


Furthermore, Jefferson would especially disagree
with those who believe that public prayers should be non-sectarian and omit
specific references to Jesus. Jefferson believed that every individual should
pray according to his own beliefs. As Jefferson explained:

[The] liberty to worship our Creator in the way we think most agreeable
to His will
[is] a liberty deemed in other countries incompatible
with good government and yet proved by our
to be its best support. [15]
(emphasis added)

Critics, therefore, would be particularly troubled
by President Jefferson’s words that:

No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion.
Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given
to man and I, as Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the
sanction of my example. [16]

also encouraged public officials to declare openly and publicly
their Christian beliefs and testimony — as when he wrote to William Bradford
(who became Attorney General under President George

I have sometimes thought there could not be a stronger testimony in favor
of religion or against temporal enjoyments, even the most rational and manly,
than for men who occupy the most honorable and gainful departments and [who]
are rising in reputation and wealth, publicly to declare their unsatisfactoriness
by becoming fervent advocates in the cause of Christ; and I wish you may give
in your evidence in this way. [17]

Additionally, throughout
his Presidency, Madison
issued several proclamations
for public days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving, [18]
and like Jefferson, President Madison also attended church at the Capitol,
thus publicly endorsing religion in official arenas. [19]

So, not only did Jefferson
and Madison endorse religion in the public arena, they were even willing publicly
to endorse Christian prayers in the public arena rather than the bland politically-correct
civic prayers desired by critics of public prayers.

There are many additional
framers of our government who are also qualified to speak to the issue of religious
expressions in official and political arenas. For example:

· [W]e can only depend on the all powerful influence of the Spirit of God,
whose Divine aid and assistance it becomes us as a Christian people most devoutly
to implore. Therefore I move that some minister of the Gospel be requested
to attend this Congress every morning during the sessions in order to open
the meeting with prayer. [20]
Elias Boudinot, President of Congress, A Framer of the Bill
of Rights
in the First Congress

· We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings that except the Lord
build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this;
and I also believe that without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this
political building no better than the builders of Babel. . . . I therefore
beg leave to move that henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven
and its blessings on our deliberations be held in this assembly every morning
before we proceed to business, and that one or more clergy of the city be
requested to officiate in that service. [21]
of the Constitution,
of the Declaration,
Governor of Pennsylvania

· Sensible of the importance of Christian piety and virtue to the order and
happiness of a state, I cannot but earnestly commend to you every measure
for their support and encouragement. . . . [T]he very existence of the republics
. . . depend much upon the public institutions of religion. [22]
, Signer of Declaration
of Independence
, Governor of Massachusetts

· [It is] the duty of all wise, free, and virtuous governments to countenance
and encourage virtue and religion. [23]
I therefore recommend a general and public return of praise and thanksgiving
to Him from whose goodness these blessings descend. The most effectual means
of securing the continuance of our civil and religious liberties is always
to remember with reverence and gratitude the source from which they flow.
[24] John
Original Chief-Justice U. S. Supreme Court, An Author
of the Federalist Papers, Governor of New York

· I had the honor of being one among many who framed that Constitution. .
. . In order effectually to accomplish these great ends, it is incumbent upon
us to begin wisely and to proceed in the fear of God; . . . and it is especially
the duty of those who bear rule to promote and encourage piety [respect for
God]. [25] Henry Laurens,
President of Congress, Selected as Delegate to the Constitutional Convention

· [A] free government. . . . can only be happy when the public principle
and opinions are properly directed. . . . by religion and education.
It should therefore be among the first objects of those who wish well to the
national prosperity to encourage and support the principles of religion
and morality
. [26] Abraham
Signer of the Constitution, A Framer of the Bill
of Rights
in the First Congress

· Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political
prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would
that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these
great pillars of human happiness. [27]
(emphasis added) George
Signer of the Constitution, First U. S. President

·[W]hatsoever State among us shall continue to make piety [respect for God]
and virtue the standard of public honor will enjoy the greatest inward peace,
the greatest national happiness, and in every outward conflict will discover
the greatest constitutional strength. [28]
of the Declaration of Independence

There are many additional framers of our documents with similarly pertinent
declarations—some more strongly worded, some less strongly worded, and some
the equivalent of those above.

However, just because so many framers
specifically endorsed Christianity did not mean that they excluded other religious
faiths, for such was not the case. In fact, evangelical Christian Benjamin
(a signer of the Declaration and a member of the presidential administrations
of Adams,
and Madison),
in discussing educational
in public schools, declared:

Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the
Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see
the opinions of Confucius or Mohamed
inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system
of religious principles. But the religion I mean to recommend in this place
is that of the New Testament. . . . [A]ll its doctrines and precepts are calculated
to promote the happiness of society and the safety and well-being of civil
government. [29]

However, while Dr. Rush
was outspoken about his personal Christian preferences, he was also gratified
with the religious tolerance exercised in America. In fact, in his description
of the federal parade in Philadelphia following the adoption of the Constitution,
happily declared:

The rabbi of the Jews locked in the arms of two ministers of the Gospel was
a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem! [30]

And as Constitution
signer Richard Dobbs Spaight similarly explained:

As to the subject of religion. . . . no power is given to the general government
to interfere with it at all. . . . No sect is preferred to another. Every
man has a right to worship the Supreme Being in the manner he thinks proper.

The “every man” protections mentioned not only by Jefferson and Spaight but
by so many other framers would include protections for those chaplains who wish
to offer prayers in whatever manner they may choose.

The historical evidence is clear: those who oppose legislative chaplaincies
(paid or unpaid), or who decry sectarian public prayers, lack any broad historical
basis for their arguments. Such opposition certainly cannot be justified in
the name the Founding




Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives Made During the
First Session of the Thirty-Third Congress
(Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson,


The Reports of the Committees of the Senate of the United States for the
Second Session of the Thirty-Second Congress, 1852-53
(Washington: Robert
Armstrong, 1853).

Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U. S. 306, 312-314 (1952).

Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Bishop Carroll on September 3, 1801 (in the
Library of Congress, #19966).

State Papers,
Walter Lowrie and Matthew St. Claire Clarke, editors (Washington,
D. C.: Gales and Seaton, 1832), Vol. IV, p. 687; see also Wallace
v. Jaffree, 472 U. S. 38, at 103 (1985), Rehnquist, J. (dissenting);
see also, The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America,
Richard Peters, editor (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1846),
Vol. VII, p. 79, Article III, “A Treaty Between the United States and the
Kaskaskia Tribe of Indians,” December 23, 1803; Vol. VII, p. 88, Article
IV, “Treaty with the Wyandots, etc.,” 1805; Vol. VII, p. 102, Article II,
“Treaty with the Cherokees,” 1806.

Debates and Proceedings of the Congress of the United States (Washington:
Gales and Seaton, 1853), Sixth Congress, p. 797, December 4, 1800.

See the records recently reprinted by James Hutson, Chief of the Manuscript
Division of the Library of Congress. Religion and the Founding of the
American Republic
(Washington, D. C.: Library of Congress, 1998), p.

Id. at 89.

Id. at 89; see also John Quincy Adams, Memoirs of John Quincy
, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott
& Co., 1874), Vol. I, p. 265, October 23, 1803.

Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Bergh,
editor (Washington, D. C: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904),
Vol. XV, p. 404, to Dr. Thomas Cooper on November 2, 1822.

Letter of Thomas Jefferson to the Nuns of the Order of St. Ursula at New
Orleans on May 15, 1804, original in possession of the New Orleans Parish.

Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd,
editor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), Vol. I, pp. 494-497,
from “Report on a Seal for the United States, with Related Papers,” August
20, 1776.

For example, his presidential act of October 18, 1804, from an original
document in our possession.

Jefferson, Writings (1904), Vol. XVI, p. 291, to Captain John Thomas
on November 18, 1801.

Hutson (see n. 8) at p. 96, quoting from a handwritten history in possession
of the Library of Congress, “Washington Parish, Washington City,” by Rev.
Ethan Allen.

James Madison, The Papers of James Madison, William T. Hutchinson,
editor (Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1962), Vol. I, p. 66, to
William Bradford on September 25, 1773.

[18]A Compilation
of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents,
James D. Richardson, compiler
(Published by the Authority of Congress, 1899), Vol. I, p. 513 on July 9,
1812, pp. 532-533 on July 23, 1813, p. 558 on November 16, 1814, and pp.
560-561 on March 4, 1815.

Hutson (see n. 8) at p. 96. These were the actions of Madison while he was
a public official; yet, late in his life (The William & Mary Quarterly,
Third Series, October 1946, Vol. III, No. 4, Madison’s “Detached Memoranda,”
edited by Elizabeth Fleet, pp. 534-568), he apparently retreated from many
of these positions he long held. It may be that Mr. Pramenko only knows
this latter part of Mr. Madison’s life.

Elias Boudinot, The Life, Public Service, Addresses, and Letters of Elias
Boudinot, LL.D., President of the Continental Congress
, J. J. Boudinot,
editor (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1896), Vol. I, p. 21, to the First
Provincial Congress of New Jersey.

James Madison, The Papers of James Madison, Henry D. Gilpin, editor
(Washington: Langtree & O’Sullivan, 1840), Vol. II, p. 985, June 28, 1787.

Independent Chronicle (Boston), November 2, 1780, last page; see
also Abram English Brown, John Hancock, His Book (Boston: Lee and
Shepard, 1898), p. 269.

The Speeches of the Different Governors to the Legislature of the State
of New York, Commencing with those of George Clinton and Continued Down
to the Present Time
(Albany: J. B. Van Steenbergh, 1825), p. 66, Governor
John Jay on November 4, 1800.

William Jay, The Life of John Jay: With Selections From His Correspondence
and Miscellaneous Papers
(New York: J. & J. Harper, 1833), Vol. I, pp.
457-458, to the Committee of the Corporation of the City of New York on
June 29, 1826.

Henry Laurens, The Papers of Henry Laurens, George C. Rogers Jr.
and David R. Chestnutt, editors (Columbia: University of South Carolina
Press, 1988), Vol. XI, p. 200, in a letter to Oliver Hart and Elharon Winchester
on March 30, 1776.

Charles C. Jones, Biographical Sketches of the Delegates from Georgia
to the Continental Congress
(Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company,
1891), pp. 6-7.

George Washington, Address of George Washington, President of the United
States . . . Preparatory to his Declination
(Baltimore: George and Henry
S. Keatinge, 1796), pp. 22-23.

John Witherspoon, The Works of John Witherspoon (Edinburgh: J. Ogle,
1815), Vol. IV, p. 270, from his “Sermon Delivered at Public Thanksgiving
After Peace.”

Benjamin Rush, Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical (Philadelphia:
Thomas and Samuel F. Bradford, 1798), p. 8, “Of the Mode of Education Proper
in a Republic.”

Benjamin Rush, Letters of Benjamin Rush, L. H. Butterfield, editor
(Princeton: American Philosophical Society, 1951), Vol. I, p. 474, to Elias
Boudinot on July 9, 1788.

The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal
Jonathan Elliot, editor (Washington, D. C.: Jonathan Elliot,
1836), Vol. IV, p. 208, Richard Dobbs Spaight, July 30, 1788.

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