December 4, 1800: Worship begins in the U S Capitol

Life in the District of Columbia was still pretty rough in 1800. The federal government (all 125 employees) had transferred from Philadelphia over the summer, and President Adams had just moved into the unfinished executive mansion in November. Settling in to life in the new capital was a challenge for all. Abigail Adams wrote to a friend that she had to line-dry their clothes in the East Room of the White House.

Capitol_Prayer_Room_stained_glass_windowOnly one rough house of worship had yet been built in the District, so nobody was particularly surprised when the Speaker informed the assembled representatives on December 4th that the Chaplains proposed to hold services in the Chamber. Apparently, it was agreeable to the House of Representatives since there is no recorded objection or vote on the matter.

The services in the Capitol quickly became quite a social happening: As Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan recorded in his book, A History of the National Capitol:

“The speaker’s desk in the hall of the house of representatives Sunday after Sunday was a forum from which was presented a wide range of religious belief. The chaplains of congress officiated there, as did also ministers representing various denominations. Frequently the religious atmosphere was lacking, sometimes due to the audience turning the occasion into a social function and then again to the eccentric character and views of the preachers. Rev. Manasseh Cutler was not pleased with the discourse of Rev. John Leland, who arrived in the city January, 1802, with the mammoth cheese which was presented to President Jefferson.

Margaret Bayard Smith recorded the scene in her memoir The First Forty Years of Washington Society;

Mr. Jefferson during his whole administration, was a most regular attendant. The seat he chose the first sabbath, and the adjoining one, which his private secretary occupied, were ever afterwards by the courtesy of the congregation, left for him and his secretary. I have called these Sunday assemblies in the capitol, a congregation, but the almost exclusive appropriation of that word to religious assemblies, prevents its being a descriptive term as applied in the present case, since the gay company who thronged the H. R. looked very little like a religious assembly. The occasion presented for display was not only a novel, but a favourable one for the youth, beauty and fashion of the city, Georgetown and environs. The members of Congress, gladly gave up their seats for such fair auditors, and either lounged in the lobbies, or round the fire places, or stood beside the ladies of their acquaintance. This sabbath day-resort became so fashionable, that the floor of the house offered insufficient space, the platform behind the Speaker’s chair, and every spot where a chair could be wedged in was crowded with ladies in their gayest costume and their attendant beaux and who led them to their seats with the same gallantry as is exhibited in a ball room. Smiles, nods, whispers, nay sometimes tittering marked their recognition of each other, and beguiled the tedium of the service. Often, when cold, a lady would leave her seat and led by her attending beau would make her way through the crowd to one of the fire-places where she could laugh and talk at her ease. One of the officers of the house, followed by his attendant with a great bag over his shoulder, precisely at 12 o’clock, would make his way through the hall to the depository of letters to put them in the mail-bag, which sometimes had a most ludicrous effect, and always diverted attention from the preacher. The musick was as little in union with devotional feelings, as the place. The marine-band, were the performers. Their scarlet uniform, their various instruments, made quite a dazzling appearance in the gallery. The marches they played were good and inspiring, but in their attempts to accompany the psalm-singing of the congregation, they completely failed and after a while, the practice was discontinued,—it was too ridiculous.

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