Jefferson Comes to Washington, DC in 1800—A Practicing Christian by Outward Appearances

On November 27, 1800, Jefferson moved to Washington, D. C. where the new Capitol opened. In Margaret Bayard Smith’s First Forty Years of Washington Society, she wrote: “…During the first winter, Mr. Jefferson regularly attended service on the sabbath-day in the humble church. …The custom of preaching in the Hall of Representatives had not then been attempted, though after it was established Mr. Jefferson during his whole administration, was a most regular attendant.”

Dr. James Hutson of the Library of Congress notes that “Other anecdotes survive from that time consistent with [Smith’s] report.” On December 4, 1800, Congress approved that the Capitol building be used for worship services. The minutes of the House that day stated: “The Speaker informed the House that the Chaplains [both House and Senate] had proposed, if agreeable to the House, to hold Divine service every Sunday in their Chamber.” Episcopal Bishop and Senate Chaplain John Claggett’s letter of February 18, 1801, said that Jefferson “very constantly attended prayers every morning and…a course of Sermons which I have delivered in the Capitol.”69 On January 11, 1801, Jefferson heard a sermon of Episcopal Chaplain John Claggett.70 These services in the Capitol were to continue until the 1880s.

When I told a friend that Jefferson attended regular Christian worship services on Sundays at the U. S. capitol, he asked me, “What about the separation of church and state?” Obviously, Jefferson’s view at the time was different than the view that has been attributed to him much later.

Furthermore, Hutson writes, “Jefferson permitted executive branch employees under his direct control, members of the Marine Band, to participate in House church services…on Sundays, as they tried to help the congregation by providing instrumental accompaniment to its psalm singing;…[He also decided] to let executive branch buildings, the War Office and the Treasury, be used for church services. Episcopal services in the War Office [adjacent to the White House, and in]…the Treasury…a Baptist service.”

First Presbyterian Church meetings were also conducted by Rev. Ashbel Green and Rev. John Brackenridge and then Rev. Robert Elliott in the Capitol (and later in the public school, where Ford’s Theatre is now). Jefferson wrote a letter to Rev. Stephen B. Balch on December 18, 1800, pastor of the West Street Presbyterian Church in Georgetown (on today’s M Street), that included: “my contribution…I therefore inclose [$50]…which you will be so good as to apply to the object explained to me. I have the honor to be with great personal respect & esteem.” And his account book shows he gave Rev. Balch another donation of $75 in 1802.


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