America’s first chaplain and the humility that unites us

America’s first chaplain and the humility that unites us
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When it comes to guessing how Americans might disagree on political questions like immigration or national security, the safest predictors used to fall along the lines of race, gender, religion, or education. For the first time in its 20 years of research, however, the Pew Research Center discovered that the gap between Republicans and Democrats has now dwarfed all other gaps. Partisan scorn and ridicule has become our default response in social media and elsewhere. Have we reached a point where politics has gotten the better of us?

As we consider solutions for a divided America, consider the First Continental Congress that convened for the first time on Sept. 5, 1774 in Philadelphia. Among the fifty-six delegates were some remarkable statesmen: John Adams, Samuel Adams, George Washington, John Dickinson, and Patrick Henry. Sent by twelve colonies, they had to make a monumental decision: how to respond to Britain’s “Intolerable Acts,” an unprecedented exercise of power sparking outrage on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Given the success of the American Revolution that eventually followed, it is easy to imagine that the delegates were united. They were not. Though the American colonists had cooperated with Great Britain against common foes such as Spain or France, they had never before joined forces against their fellow Britons. Nine years of strife beginning with the Stamp Act had led to martial law, the Boston Tea Party, and wholesale changes to colonial government forced by London. There was no margin for error. The stress prompted by such impossible odds exacerbated sectional differences and revealed sharply contrasting styles of diplomacy. Some delegates favored gentle and eloquent protest while others demanded a forceful, even violent, response against Great Britain. Given our own national anxiety today, it is easy to imagine how estranged these delegates must have felt. We should be thankful they did not have Twitter accounts.

 

If one desired to bring civility and consensus to such a powder keg gathering, Americans today might suggest mindfulness or meditation. In 1774, however, the delegates found their solution in the Bible. While delegates agreed that the Bible was important, they did not agree on much more. Longstanding disagreements over the style and content of public devotion complicated existing denominational differences. Anglicans, representing mostly middle and southern colonies, practiced formal liturgy and prayer. Congregationalists from the New England states preferred informal, extemporaneous prayer. Their host city, Philadelphia, was rife with religious rivalries. When delegate Thomas Cushing suggested that sessions begin with prayer, his fellow delegates John Jay and Edward Routledge, both pious men, opposed the idea and emphasized the religious divisions among the delegates. It was not an ecumenical age.

Refusing to acknowledge yet one more reason for disunity, Samuel Adams found a cause for unity. Though Adams was a staunch Congregationalist with firm opinions of his own, he rose from his chair and announced to his colleagues, “I am no bigot. I can pray with any man who loves his God and loves his country." Reducing Adams to a beer shill has eclipsed his great act of statesmanship to find common ground and thereby save the most important gathering in American history.

The indulgence of Adams encouraged the enlistment of Jacob Duché, Anglican rector of Philadelphia’s Christ Church, to begin the work of the delegates with prayer on September 7. As America’s first chaplain, Duché began his work as any Anglican minister would: he read Psalm 35, the psalm for the seventh day in the Book of Common Prayer.

Duché then bridged the denominational divide with extemporaneous prayer for the colonies that stirred the hearts of those present. John Adams, a man not easily impressed by ministers, expressed his appreciation for Duché in a letter to Abigail. Such approval demonstrated that a New England Congregationalist could find merit in a Pennsylvania Anglican. Duché turned out to be, as Adams’s second cousin Samuel requested, a man who loved both God and his country. He was living proof that the colonists could move forward together.

Beginning with that first common devotion, and continuing through morning prayer and occasional sermons, Duché brought unity and civility to the Congress. Delegates Joseph Reed and Abraham Clark commented on the salutary effect that Duché’s work had on their proceedings. The appointment of a chaplain also told American colonists that although Congress did not have the blessing of king or Parliament, they desired the blessing of an even higher authority. This tradition continues today in the work of chaplains at all levels of government and in prayers opening and closing many public events. Our presidents do likewise when they end their speeches with a call for divine favor: “May God bless America.” It is encouraging when presidents and legislatures recognize that they are not rulers of the universe — however much they may act to the contrary.

In a divided and factious time, Americans should take an important lesson from Samuel Adams and the First Continental Congress. We can always find some point of agreement even in our most strident controversies. Prayer and scripture will help us to look past our differences and shortcomings, tempering our scorn and ridicule. By invoking God’s blessing on our nation, we become less focused on ourselves and instead see the great work to be accomplished together. When we are on our knees, it is much harder to look down on our neighbor.

Glenn Moots is an adviser to the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, a new museum planned by American Bible Society scheduled to open at Philadelphia's Independence Mall in 2020. He is also a professor at Northwood University in Midland, Mich. and co-editor of Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American Revolution.