The religion of the founding fathers is notoriously difficult to pin down, but their written records offer many insights. For example, when the Continental Congress met for the first time, in September 1774, John Adams described in a letter to his wife a remarkably familiar religious atmosphere:
“When the Congress met, Mr. Cushing 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 so divided in religious sentiments—some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians, and some Congregationalists—that we could not join in the same act of worship.
“Mr. Samuel Adams arose and said that he was no bigot and could hear a prayer from any gentleman of piety and virtue who was at the same time a friend to his country. He was a stranger in Philadelphia but had heard that Dr. Duche deserved that character, and therefore he moved that Mr. Duche, an Episcopal clergyman, might be desired to read prayers to Congress tomorrow morning. The motion was seconded and passed in the affirmative. … “
In this case, unlike many others in history, conflict apparently ended with the selection of a spiritual spokesman. Adams continues:
“Accordingly next morning he appeared with his clerk and his pontificals [vestments], and read the Psalter for the seventh day of September, which was the 85th Psalm. You must remember this was the next morning after we had heard the rumor of the horrible cannonade of Boston. I never saw greater effect produced upon an audience. It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning. After this, Mr. Duche, unexpectedly to everybody, struck out into extemporaneous prayer, which filled the bosom of every man present:
“‘Be Thou present, O God of Wisdom, and direct the counsel of this honorable assembly. Enable them to settle all things on the best and surest foundations, 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 among the people. Preserve the health of their bodies and the vigor of 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 Savior, Amen.’
“Washington was kneeling there, and Henry, Randolph, Rutledge, Lee, and Jay, and by their side there 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. … They prayed fervently for America, for Congress, for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially for the town of Boston [whose port had been closed and in which British troops were being quartered].
“And who can realize the emotions with which they turned imploringly to Heaven for divine interposition. It was enough to melt a heart of stone. I saw the tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave, pacifist Quakers of Philadelphia.”
If My People Will Pray