July 4 bulletin inserts recount history of congressional chaplains

June 22, 2010

The custom of appointing clergy members to lead the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States in prayer has continued with few interruptions ever since the Senate elected Samuel Provoost, Episcopal bishop of New York, as its first chaplain in 1789. ENS Weekly bulletin inserts for July 4 outline the history of the Senate and House chaplains, many of whom have been Episcopalians.


 

Congress at Prayer

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? . . . 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 of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that Service.

--Benjamin Franklin, age 81, addressing General George Washington, president of the Constitutional Convention, on June 28, 1787

The custom of appointing clergy members to lead the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States in prayer has continued with few interruptions ever since Franklin prevailed in that 1787 argument. On April 25, 1789, the Senate elected Samuel Provoost, Episcopal bishop of New York, as its first chaplain, according to the website of the current Senate chaplain.

Provoost served for a year and was succeeded by William White, first bishop of Pennsylvania, who took the office in 1790 and held it for 10 years. The next chaplain was Thomas John Claggett, first bishop of Maryland.

All but one of the first nine Senate chaplains were Episcopalians (the exception was the eighth, a Presbyterian minister). In all, 19 Episcopal bishops and priests have been elected to the post, the most recent being ZeBarney Thorne Phillips, who served from 1927 until his death in 1942. His 15-year term was the longest to that date.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, most chaplains, of all denominations (including 17 Methodist, 14 Presbyterian, six Baptist, two Unitarian and one each Congregationalist, Lutheran and Catholic clergymen), served terms of one to four years, but in the 20th century, some chaplains have held terms of 10, 14 and even 20 years.

The current Senate chaplain, appointed in 2003, is Rear Adm. Barry C. Black, a retired Navy chaplain and the first Seventh-day Adventist elected to the post.

"In addition to opening the Senate each day in prayer, the current Senate chaplain's duties include spiritual care and counseling for senators, their families, and their staffs — a combined constituency of over 6,000 people — and discussion sessions, prayer meetings, and a weekly Senators' Prayer Breakfast," according to the website.

Similar duties are carried out by the chaplain to the House of Representatives, a post held since 2000 by Daniel P. Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest.

Only four Episcopalians have been House chaplains, the most recent being the Rev. John Summerfield Lindsay, who concluded his two-year term in 1885. Until the 20th century, most House chaplains served one- to two-year terms, but in recent years, much more extended tenure has been the norm. The longest to date was that of James Shera Montgomery, a Methodist minister who assumed the post in 1921 and served for 28 years. Methodists and Presbyterians have dominated the House chaplaincy; others have been Baptist, Congregationalist, Disciples of Christ, Lutheran, Unitarian and Universalist.

Congressional Prayer Room
In the 1950s, members of Congress asked for a small space where they might go for moments of meditation and prayer. The Congressional Prayer Room, located in the center of the U.S. Capitol building and designed to be accessible for people of all faiths, was completed in 1955. As it is reserved for Congress members for private prayer and study, it is little known to the public. According to the House chaplain's website, a prominent feature of the room is a large Bible, usually opened to Psalm 23, but available for use by any senator or representative. The room's stained-glass window, which was donated anonymously by a group of craftsmen in central California, depicts George Washington kneeling in prayer, surrounded by the names of the 50 states of the Union and the seal of the United States.

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