In May the Supreme Court ruled on one of the most frequently contentious church-state debates around the country: can government meetings start with prayer, even if those prayers are explicitly Christian?
In the court’s 5-4 decision that the prayers in the town of Greece, New York, were constitutionally okay, Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed to “the first prayer delivered to the Continental Congress by the Rev. Jacob Duché on Sept. 7, 1774.” It was the kind of ceremonial prayer that unites citizens of different beliefs, even though it was specifically Christian, Kennedy said.
As Kevin Dellape writes in his new biography of Duché, America's First Chaplain (Lehigh University Press), “It brought a moment of unity and assurance to a group of men who feared just the opposite. . . . Duché had performed a heroic service to the Congress, uniting them when they needed it the most, laying the foundation for the latter accomplishments of the American Congress, and in the process becoming the first national hero of the American Revolution.”
But three years later Duché was in exile in England. The revolutionary government of Pennsylvania had accused him of high treason and found him guilty without ever giving him a chance to answer the charge. He would not be allowed to return home for 15 years.
He was no spy. “I never communicated the least intelligence nor had I ever the least Intercourse with the British Army, whilst I was in America,” he protested in a letter to his lifelong friend Benjamin Franklin. He hadn’t even changed his mind about taking up arms against England or American independence. He just spoke his mind as a pastor who sought society’s ...
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