Our First Congressional Prayer

66.3 And Congress Prayed[1]

Psalm 35 (NKJV) begins with verses 1-4:

Plead  my cause, O Lord, with those who strive with me;
Fight against those who fight against me.
Take hold of shield and buckler,
And stand up for my help.
Also draw out the spear,
And stop those who pursue me.
Say to my soul,
“I am your salvation.”

Let those be put to shame and brought to dishonor
Who seek after my life;
Let those be turned back and brought to confusion
Who plot my hurt.

I want you to imagine what you would have been hearing if you had been present when the Anglican Minister, Jacob Duche, read this Psalm and prayed to open the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia on September 7, 1774. Can you sense those men identifying with the Psalm? As importantly, can we identify with it today?


By 1774, the thirteen independent American colonies decided to act together against British tyranny. The colonies sent delegates to Philadelphia, who began meeting on September 5, 1774. The men of this Congress understood the magnitude of their undertaking, and Thomas Cushing of Massachusetts motioned that Congress should open with prayer.


Most Christians, then and now, would have warranted prayer in this situation. John Jay of New York and John Rutledge of South Carolina disagreed. They objected to Cushing’s first motion not based on a separation of church and state but rather due to the number of church denominations present. They felt there might be friction between the groups.


Jay and Rutledge were Christian men. Jay eventually established the American Bible Society and served as its president. Jay also wrote various treatises on the scriptures.


The Great Awakening (1730-1770) helped change the various denominational perspectives. Instead of focusing on differences, many of the denominations concentrated on the significant biblical teachings they had in common. The English preacher George Whitefield helped in this shift through his preaching in the Great Awakening.


George Whitefield made seven missionary trips to America and preached approximately 18,000 sermons. Scholars estimate that 80% of Americans heard Whitefield at some point.


One of Whitefield’s most famous sermons was entitled, “Father Abraham.” Whitefield pretended to be at the gates of heaven, talking to Abraham about certain issues. John Adams recounted the essence of this sermon to Thomas Jefferson:

He [Whitefield] began: “Father Abraham,” with his hands and eyes gracefully directed to the heavens (as I have more than once seen him): “Father Abraham, who have you there with you? “Have you Catholics?” “No.” “Have you Protestants?” “No.” “Have you Churchmen [Anglicans]?” “No.” “Have you Dissenters [Congregationalists]?” “No.” “Have you Presbyterians?” “No.” “Quakers?” “No.” “Anabaptists [Baptist, Amish, Mennonites]?” “No.” “Whom have you there? Are you alone?” “No.” “My brethren you have the answer to all these questions in the words of my next text: ‘He who feareth God and worketh righteousness shall be accepted of Him [Acts 10:35].” God help us all to forget having names and to become Christians in deed and in truth.”


Samuel Adams, a Congregationalist, took this sentiment to heart and suggested the Anglican Minister, Jacob Duche, lead the prayers. FYI, these two denominations had become fierce enemies, yet Adams humbly suggested Duche to Congress.


At 9 AM on September 7, 1774, Jacob Duche, dressed in his clerical robes, and his entourage came into the congressional meeting to lead prayer and read scripture. Duche read Psalm 35 from the Anglican “Book of Common Prayer,” which was the Psalm for that day. He read the prayer associated with September 7 and then broke out in an unusual extemporaneous prayer emotionally moving the Congress.


Several delegates commented positively on the event. John Adams said that he had never heard a better prayer and that it “had an excellent effect upon everybody there.” Silas Deane noted that it was worth riding 100 miles to attend.


John Adams, Silas Deane, and others believed the use of Psalm 35 was a pre-ordained, providential occurrence. Consider first that the Church of England published the “Book of Common Prayer” in 1662 and designated Psalm 35 for September 7th every year. Then, think of the Continental Congress that invited an Anglican Pastor to read and pray on September 7th at the suggestion of Samuel Adams, a Congregationalist, who would have customarily opposed the use of a Church of England Pastor. The delegates chalked it up to the Providence of God.


We should mention that in 1775, Jacob Duche renounced his support of the American cause after numerous defeats at the hands of the British. He urged General George Washington to retract the Declaration of Independence, but Washington refused, and Congress branded Duche as a traitor. Duche then fled to England but requested permission from President George Washington to return to America late in life. Washington permitted him, and Duche spent his final years in America.


For the sake of time, let me urge you to read the entirety of Psalm 35, imagining how our Forefathers would have heard it. Then, reflect on its application today. We have a similar tyranny from a government that wants to rule us as a king. We have no King but King Jesus, and we need to serve Him in these bleak times.


Let’s Keep The Light of Prayerfully Trusting God’s Providence Burning!


[1] Cummings, Brad, and Lance Wubbels, editors. The Founders’ Bible. Newbury Park, CA, Shiloh Road Publishers, 2012, pp. 827-834.