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Exhibit Spotlights Religion's Key Role in America's Birth

Libraries: Art, artifacts and documents show how faith influenced settlement patterns, legal codes, social norms, the Revolution and formation of the Republic.

July 25, 1998|From Reuters

WASHINGTON — Nowadays, when a chaplain opens each day's session of the House or Senate, the blessing is over in a matter of seconds and few people give it much reverent attention.

In the time of the Founding Fathers, Congress was a far more worshipful place. Even Thomas Jefferson, who coined the resonant phrase "separation of church and state," rode over to Congress from the White House regularly to attend Sunday services, at which the Marine Band played psalms.

If that venue for prayer was not to their taste, early Washingtonians of various Christian denominations could opt to have their spiritual needs tended to at services at the Supreme Court or the Treasury or War departments.

"On Sundays in Washington during the Jefferson and Madison administrations, the state became the church," according to James Hutson, chief of the Library of Congress' manuscript division and curator of an exhibit there this summer called "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic."

The exhibit draws on artwork and artifacts, diaries and other documents, to trace the tremendous, often underestimated, role of religion in early America. It influenced early settlement patterns, legal codes, social norms, the American Revolution and the formation of the fledgling independent government.

"Religion was the salt that flavored life in 17th century British North America," Hutson wrote in the catalog accompanying the show, which traces the evolution of concepts like religious freedom and public morality.

Certainly the Founding Fathers were motivated by the exciting new philosophies and rational theories of the Enlightenment. But they also brought with them faith and a belief that, as George Washington said in his Farewell Address, displayed in this show, "national morality" cannot prevail without "religious principle."

Hutson calls it the "founding generation's syllogism." The reasoning was that a free, republican government required virtue and morality. Virtue and morality required religion. Therefore, religion was necessary for republican government.

Although some 16th century settlers came to British North America for economic opportunity--to "catch fish," as one early New Englander put it--the majority came in search of religious freedom. Communities they founded were sometimes called "holy experiments" or "plantations of religion."

Freedom for themselves, however, did not mean freedom for everybody else. The prevailing belief at the time was that a colony or community demanded "uniformity of religion." Dissenters were not well-tolerated, whether by the Puritans who dominated New England or the Anglicans in Virginia.

An exception was Pennsylvania, settled by William Penn and other members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. They guaranteed religious freedom in 1682, and Penn's famous charter of religious liberty is among the historic documents from the library's collection on display.

The 1700s saw new religious diversity as the "Great Awakening," a wave of revivalism, brought prominence and influence to new evangelical denominations. In those days, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists were considered radical.

By the time of the American Revolution in the late 18th century, there was far greater religious diversity, and many of the new denominations joined in the revolutionary fervor.

Since the Church of England was the official established church of the colonies, some clergy remained loyal to the crown. Even the Rev. Jacob Duche, whose offering of the first prayer in the Continental Congress on Sept. 7, 1774, is depicted in a magnificent stained-glass window on loan from Christ Church in Philadelphia, later defected to England.

But many religious leaders sanctified the cause of independence. In at least one case, a "fighting parson" concluded a sermon by tearing off his clerical garb to reveal the uniform of a rebel militiaman.

Without their approval, Hutson argues, there would have been no successful American Revolution.

"Had American clergymen of all denominations not assured their pious countrymen, from the beginning of the conflict with Britain, that the resistance movement was right on God's side and had his blessing, it could not have been sustained and independence could not have been achieved," Hutson wrote.

The exhibit will be on display in Washington through Aug. 22 and will tour several U.S. cities, still to be determined. It can also be seen on the Internet at

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