What Steadfast Looks Like in a Revolution

How in three years an evangelical pastor went from America’s first national hero to “the first of villains.” /

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 good.

But first let’s remember Duché the hero.

A Prayer Worth Riding a Hundred Miles to Hear

John Adams, writing to Abigail, wrote one of the most thorough, often-quoted accounts of the decision to ask Duché to pray (I’ve changed some of the capitalization and punctuation; the Massachusetts Historical Society has images and transcripts of the letter):

When the Congress first met, Mr. [Thomas] Cushing made a motion that it should be opened with prayer. It was opposed . . . because we were so divided in religious sentiments—some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians and some Congregationalists—so that we could not join in the same act of worship. Mr. [Samuel] Adams arose and said 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. He was a stranger in Philadelphia, but had heard that Mr. Duché (Dushay they pronounce it) deserved that character, and therefore he moved that Mr. Duché, an Episcopal clergyman, might be desired to read prayers to the Congress, tomorrow morning. The motion was seconded and passed in the affirmative.

Before that final passage, there had been some debate: An Anglican minister? Really? Could he find a “suitable form” of prayer for the occasion, when the Book of Common Prayer scarcely had a line that didn’t reference the king and his family? But Sam Adams, the most radical member of the Congress, knew what he was doing. Duché wasn’t merely a “gentleman of piety and virtue” but the city’s best preacher. He published a book of sermons and a book of letters that made clear he loved America, and Philadelphia in particular, for its beauty and its liberty. “The poorest laborer thinks himself entitled to deliver his sentiments in matters of religion or politics with as much freedom as the gentleman or the scholar,” he wrote. “There is less distinction among the citizens of Philadelphia than among those of any civilized city in the world.”

But more than that, Duché had become known as a passionate bridge builder. American Anglicans were divided over George Whitefield and the Great Awakening. Duché was firmly in the evangelical camp, strongly promoting both Whitefield and the revivals. But “what is so extraordinary about Duché is that he preached such strongly evangelical sermons while working closely and cooperatively with other Anglican leaders who did not share his perspective,” Dellape writes. And Duché was also “a leading force in the movement to develop better relations between Anglicans and other denominations, especially Presbyterians and Lutherans.” Duché loved that in Philadelphia “almost every sect in Christendom [has] here found [a] happy asylum.”

When Duché arrived at the Congress the next morning, the delegates were informally discussing rumors that the British had “cannonaded” Boston. The Anglican minister “read several prayers, in the established form; and then read the collect for the seventh day of September, which was the Thirty-fifth Psalm. You must remember this was the next morning after we heard the horrible rumor,” John Adams wrote.

“Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me,” the Psalm begins. “Fight against them that fight against me.”

“I never saw a greater effect upon an audience,” wrote Adams. “It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning.”

In general practice, an Anglican minister would have continued with liturgical readings. But “after this Mr. Duché, unexpected to everybody, struck out into an extemporary prayer, which filled the bosom of every man present,” Adams wrote. “I must confess I never heard a better prayer or one so well pronounced . . . with such fervor, such ardor, such earnestness and pathos, and in language so elegant and sublime—for America, for the Congress, for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially the Town of Boston. It has had an excellent effect upon everybody here.”

“It was worth riding one hundred miles to hear,” wrote Connecticut delegate Silas Deane. He prayed “so pertinently, with such fervency, purity, and sublimity of style and sentiment, and with such an apparent sensibility of the scenes and business before us, that even Quakers shed tears.”

(A supposed transcript of the prayer appears widely, including on the website of the U.S. House chaplain. But the 295-word prayer almost certainly isn’t a full account of what Duché said. Deane said the prayer went on for at least 10 minutes, and the delegates intentionally did not publish Duché’s words out of concern that he’d be punished for them.)

When the Second Continental Congress convened, there was no doubt how it would open: Duché would pray. But Congress made another request: would he preach two sermons, one to Congress and one to the newly formed Continental Army? He agreed, preaching from Galatians 5:1: “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” His sermon to the troops was largely about spiritual bondage and freedom, but had direct political messages as well. Humans can resist “the unrighteous ordinances of unrighteous men,” he argued. In fact, Scripture calls upon Christians to “stand fast” when rulers “abuse their sacred trust by unrighteous attempts to injure, oppress, and enslave those very persons from whom alone, under God, their power is derived.”

While Duché argued for armed resistance against the king’s unjust policies in his sermon, he directly and repeatedly opposed independence: “As to any pretentions to, or even desire of independency, have we not openly disavowed them?”

The “we” changed, of course. Independence was right around the corner.

The Hazards of Independence

And on the day the Declaration of Independence was publicly read, John Hancock asked Duché to become the official chaplain of the independent Congress.

The request, Duché later said in what would become his infamous letter to George Washington, was surprising and distressing.

“Obliged to give an immediate attendance, without the opportunity of consulting my friends, I easily accepted the appointment,” he wrote. “I could have but one motive for taking this step. I thought the churches in danger, and hoped, by this means, to have been instrumental in preventing those ills I had so much reason to apprehend.”

While pastoral concerns drove him, he also had serious reservations about independence. He continued, “I can, however, with truth, declare, I then looked upon independency rather as an expedient, and hazardous, or, indeed, thrown out in terrorem, in order to procure some favorable terms, than a measure that was seriously persisted in at all events.”

Only later, he said, did he discover that “independency was the idol they had long wished to set up, and that, rather than sacrifice this, they would deluge their country with blood.”

Meanwhile, Duché was faced with a question at his church: would he continue to offer prayers for the king? He left it to his vestry, suggesting that the choice was either to omit the prayers or “for the peace and welfare of the congregation, to shut up the churches.” The vestry agreed that dropping the prayers would be the best they could do, considering the diversity of views in the congregation.

As the revolution became more radical—with loyalty oaths demanded of non-revolutionaries, and mobs attacking pacifists and others—Duché retreated from politics and became more convinced that America was in danger of losing itself altogether. As Adam was “surrounded by liberty until he lost his virtue,” so corruption and factionalism was destroying what had made America great.

Duché largely retreated from politics, resigning from Congress under the pretense of “the state of his health and his parochial duties.” But he could not escape. One of his assistant ministers—whose support for the Revolution was now withdrawn—was arrested for “a disposition inimical to the cause of America,” having refused to pledge a loyalty oath to Pennsylvania’s new government. Duché and others protested, saying that the arrest and deportation orders without so much as a hearing were “an infringement on religious as well as civil liberty.” The Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania turned down the request, saying the minister’s vocation was irrelevant since the case was “wholly political”—and then warned that the church’s legal charter might be revoked if they continued to press the case. Shortly thereafter, as the British prepared to invade Philadelphia, the council ordered that the church’s bells be removed. Duché was furious, appealing (unsuccessfully) to the Congress itself against the demand.

When the British invaded the capital, the American and Pennsylvania governments retreated but Duché stayed behind. After conducting a church service, he was arrested by British troops and imprisoned for a night. Ten days later Duché wrote his letter to Washington, saying that the Congress had failed, and was now overrun with “illiberal and violent men” unlike those he had met at that first invocation. He pleaded with Washington to convince the Congress to rescind independence. And if they could not be convinced, he said, “negotiate for your country at the head of your army.”

When Washington received the letter, he reportedly rose from his seat, paced for more than an hour without speaking, then forwarded the letter to Congress, suggesting that Duché had been “induced” by “the enemy” to write it.

Though many historians and writers have taken Washington’s suspicions as fact, Dellape argues convincingly that there is no evidence for Duché’s supposed treason and ample evidence against it. Duché regretted the letter and later asked Washington to “forgive what a weak judgment, but a very affectionate heart presumed to advise”; but he reiterated what he had said: he thought Washington, as the head of the army, should retract the Declaration of Independence and “negotiate with Britain for our Constitutional Rights.”But that’s not how anyone else read the letter, especially those in Congress whom Duché had castigated. The letter was immediately published and was the talk of “everybody’s mouth in the streets.”

“Mr. Duché, I am sorry to inform you, has turned out an apostate and a traitor,” John Adams wrote to Abigail. “Poor man! I pity his weakness and detest his wickedness.” John Penn agreed, calling Duché “first of villains.”

“Alas, the frailty of human nature!” said South Carolina’s Henry Laurens. “His name, wretched man, will be accursed by all generations.”

“I am perfectly disposed to attribute this unfortunate step to the timidity of your temper, the weakness of your nerves, and the undue influence of those about you,” Duché’s brother-in-law, New Jersey delegate Francis Hopkinson, wrote. “But will the world hold you so excused? . . . I tremble for you, for my good sister, and her little family. I tremble for your personal safety.”

In Exile and Back

Two months later Duché decided that it was a good time for him to journey to England. He said he needed to finally explain to his bishop his various actions, including why he’d dropped the king from the church’s prayers. He thought he’d be gone for a few months.

When he arrived in England, long delayed by storms and even a shipwreck, he discovered he had been charged with high treason. His wife and children had been thrown out of their home. (It would be two years before they were able to join him in England.) Eventually, he took a job as chaplain at an asylum for orphan girls. He wrote to Franklin, Washington, and others back home that he was done with politics: “I only wish to do good, to be made an humble instrument, in the hands of God, of converting sinners, or confirming the faithful.”

When Duché was finally allowed to sail back to America in 1793, things had changed. America had a new constitution that undercut the old verdicts like those against Duché. And the French Revolution was prompting a number of other American expatriates to return as well. Still, when Duché boarded the Pigeon he did not know if he would be welcomed or treated as a traitor who would be reluctantly granted only the briefest of stays under the Treaty of Peace. When he disembarked, however, he found that he had been pardoned and was welcomed with open arms. Four years later his wife was killed in a freak window accident. Six months after that Duché died as well.

“As an Anglican, Duché believed deeply in the concept of via media (or the middle way) which led him to become a political mediator,” concludes Dellape. As a Christian, he believed in free will and therefore political liberty, “but a liberty tempered by the responsibility of virtue.”

These ideas grounded his revolutionary prayers and sermons and his condemnation of rebellion. Duché’s views had actually never changed. His world moved around him.

Ted Olsen is editor of The Behemoth and Christianity Today’s managing editor of news and online journalism.

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