The Senate first convened on March 3, 1789. However, only eight members were present. Five weeks passed before 12 additional senators arrived at Federal Hall in New York City, and a quorum was established. You might be surprised by one of the first actions that was taken by the now functioning Senate. On the first day they elected John Langdon as the President Pro Tempore and oversaw the counting of electoral ballots. George Washington was unanimously elected as our first President on that day. While neither of those actions by the Senate were remarkable, it was on the second day when something occurred which would no doubt spark protests in present day Washington, D.C. First they selected a doorkeeper (because the early meetings of the Senate were limited to its members), and then formed a committee to establish procedures going forward. It was their next action that took me by surprise. The Journal of the 1st Congress recorded that another committee was formed “to take under consideration the manner of electing Chaplains.”
Of course, there was little controversy concerning the affiliation of a chaplain and the members of a governmental body at the time of the Founding. The attached image is of Reverend Jacob Duche leading a prayer for the First Continental Congress on September 7, 1774. He did upon the suggestion of Samuel Adams. Some members responded that a prayer should not be offered by a representative of any particular denomination. Samuel’s brother, John Adams, recalled in a letter to his wife, Abigail, that Samuel responded that “He was no bigot and could hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his country.” In 1980, Senator Robert Byrd published a series of works related to the history of the Senate (The Senate, 1789-1989: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate). He began the chapter concerning the Senate Chaplain by stating: “the Founding Fathers believed that God was the Ruler of the universe and that the destinies of nations were guided by His hand. Faith in God was their guiding light. We can see from the Mayflower Compact and the other great documents in our early history- the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States- a spiritual awareness on the part of the men and women who founded this nation. This spiritual sense runs throughout the nation’s history as an unbroken thread. In time of adversity, it has given strength to those who have built this great country.”
The Senate’s website states: “Throughout the years, the United States Senate has honored the historic separation of Church and State, but not the separation of God and State…During the past two hundred and seven years, all sessions of the Senate have been opened with prayer, strongly affirming the Senate’s faith in God as Sovereign Lord of our Nation.”
The first Chaplain, Samuel Provoost, was appointed on April 25, 1789. The Right Reverend Provoost was the Episcopalian Bishop of New York. A graduate of King’s College, Provoost, had been dismissed from his parish prior to the war because his views angered many loyalists in his congregation. He was nearly captured by British troops during the war but thankfully escaped and returned to his former parish after independence was secured. Since the first Chaplain was elected, a majority vote of the Senate is required for appointment. Although there has been some partisan bickering regarding who serves as the Chaplain from time to time, some have been nominated by bipartisan committees. The position is described as being nonpolitical and nonpartisan.
There have been a total of 62 Senate Chaplains. The Senate Chaplains have held the following affiliations: Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Unitarian, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Seventh-day Adventist. Although all of the Chaplains to date have been Christian, the holder of any religious faith could be elected by the Senate. The Senate’s website stated that guest chaplains, who offer the opening prayer in the Chaplain’s absence, have been “representative of all the world’s major religious faiths.”
Barry C. Black is the present Chaplain of the Senate. He is the former Chief of Navy Chaplains and a retired Rear Admiral of the United States Navy. He is both the first African-American and the first Seventh Day Adventist elected to the position.
What are the current duties of the Senate Chaplin? Aside from leading the opening prayer, he oversees a weekly prayer breakfast for members of the Senate and leads Senate Bible study groups. The Chaplain helps Senate staff members with research involving biblical or theological issues. He also serves as a spiritual advisor to members of the Senator, Senate staff, and all of the family members of those associated with the Senate.
As you might have guessed, there have been several court challenges to the constitutionality of the Senate having its own chaplain. In 1983, the Supreme Court’s decision in Marsh v. Chambers affirmed the constitutionality of chaplains on the grounds of traditions that were established during the Founding. In that decision the Court opined that “Clearly the men who wrote the First Amendment Religion Clauses did not view paid legislative chaplains and opening prayers as a violation of that Amendment, for the practice of opening sessions with prayer has continued without interruption ever since that early session of Congress.” In 2004, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia cited Marsh v. Chambers in its dismissal of a suit challenging the use of paid chaplains by Congress, as well as opening legislative sessions with prayer. The Court referenced the opinion in Marsh v. Chambers that prayer had become a part of the “fabric of our society” and could co-exist with the “principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.” You can read the entire text of this case at: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=3932615455276115963&hl=en&as_sdt=2&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr
It seems that despite the attempts of some to completely strip religion from all things related to the Federal Government, Faith is alive and well on the Hill. I look forward to posting about other interesting information I have found in future posts. I will be adding information and links regarding Faith and the Founding to this page on my website:http://www.bingoforpatriots.com/american-history/faith-and-the-founding/
On a side note, I have received several messages from folks trying to figure out what my name is. Just to be clear, my name is Susan, and my website is bingoforpatriots.com. So, from now on I’ll be adding sign-off to my post!
Take a moment today to remember what IS right with America!
Susan C Rempel, Ph.D.