On Nov. 1, 1800, John Adams became the first U.S. president to move into the White House. The following day he wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, in which he composed a beautiful prayer.
A portion of John Adams’ prayer was inscribed on the mantelpiece in the State Dining Room by President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
John Adams described himself in 1811: “I have been a church-going animal for seventy-six years from the cradle.”
Adams entered in his diary, July 26, 1796: “The Christian religion is, above all the Religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times.”
Beginning with Thomas Jefferson and continuing till after the Civil War, church services were held in the United States Capitol Building. These services were attended by sitting Presidents, being held each Sunday in the U.S. Capitol House Chamber. Attendance reached over 2,000, making it the largest Protestant Sabbath audience in the nation.
After the White House was finished being built, the next building constructed on Lafayette Square was St. John’s Episcopal Church. James Madison was the first president to worship at St. John’s Episcopal Church, referred to as “the Church of the Presidents.” His wife, Dolley Madison, was baptized and confirmed there. The church’s 1,000-pound bell was cast by Paul Revere’s son.
St. John’s Church website stated: “Beginning with James Madison, until the present, every person who has held the office of president of the United States has attended a service at St. John’s.”
President John Tyler paid to have pew 58 assigned to him, which was later renumbered pew 54. This pew had also been used by Presidents James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison, and afterwards permanently designated as “the President’s Pew” as nearly all subsequent presidents worship there at least once.
Other presidents who occasionally attended included: James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
President Abraham Lincoln joined evening prayer there throughout the Civil War, sitting in an inconspicuous pew near the rear.
President Chester Arthur installed a stained-glass window visible from the White House in honor of his deceased wife.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt prayed there on his two inauguration days.
There are other historic Washington, D.C. area churches attended by presidents: George Washington, who broke from cultural norms by freeing all his slaves in his will, attended Christ Church in Alexandria, a town founded in part by George’s older brother, Lawrence Washington. A plaque had previously been on the pew Washington sat in.
New York Avenue Presbyterian Church was attended by Presidents:
- John Quincy Adams
- Andrew Jackson
- William Henry Harrison
- James K. Polk
- Franklin Pierce
- James Buchanan
- Abraham Lincoln
- Andrew Johnson
- Benjamin Harrison
- Dwight Eisenhower
- Richard Nixon
The pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church from 1937-1949 was Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall. William Howard Taft laid the cornerstone for third All Soul’s Church building at 16th and R Street NW in 1913. Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church was attended by William McKinley. Harry S. Truman attended the National Presbyterian Church. Holy Trinity Catholic Church was where John F. Kennedy attended. Jimmy Carter taught Sunday School at First Baptist Church of D.C. Bill Clinton attended Foundry Methodist Church on 16th Street. President George W. Bush attended services at Lincoln Park United Methodist and at the Washington National Cathedral, where President Woodrow Wilson is buried.
James Monroe donated toward the church bell of All Souls Church, which was attended by John Quincy Adams. His mother, Abigail Adams, was the daughter of Congregational minister Rev. William Smith. Abigail wrote to her son John Quincy Adams, May 5, 1816: “I acknowledge myself to be a unitarian – believing that the Father alone is the Supreme God, and that Jesus Christ, derived his Being and all his powers and honors from his Father.”
John Quincy Adams, after negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, Dec. 24, 1814, wrote from London: “I perceive that the Trinitarians and the Unitarians in Boston are sparring together. … I never thought much of the eloquence or the theology of Priestly. His Socrates and Jesus Compared is a wretched performance. Socrates and Jesus! A farthing candle and the sun! I pray you to read Massilon’s sermon on the divinity of Christ, and then the whole New Testament, after which be a Socinian (Unitarian) if you can.”
Jean-Baptiste Massillon was Bishop of Clermont, France, from 1717-1742. He wrote in his sermon “The Divinity of Jesus Christ”: “The Unitarian and Deist have risen up in opposition to the Christ. … That Christ is God, I will prove from his ministry: and that he is descended from Heaven, and is equal to the Father. … He proclaims himself equal to the Father (Matt., xi. 127): he says, that he is descended from Heaven (John, vi. 51); that he proceeds from the bosom of God (John, xvi. 28); that eternal life depends on knowing the Son, as well as on knowing the Father (John, xvii. 3); that he was before Abraham (John, viii. 58); that he was before all things (John, xvii. 5); that he and the Father are one (John, x. 30); and that whatever is done by the Father, is done by the Son likewise (John, v. 19).”
President Theodore Roosevelt, who attended Grace Dutch Reformed Church, stated: “The churchgoer may not hear a good sermon at church, but unless he is very unfortunate, he will hear a sermon by a good man … and, besides, even if he does not hear a good sermon, the probabilities are that he will listen to and take part in reading some beautiful passages from the Bible. … Moreover, he will probably take part in singing some good hymns. He will meet and nod to or speak to good quiet neighbors. Church attendance and church work of some kind mean both the cultivation of the habit of feeling some responsibility for others and the sense of braced moral strength which prevents the relaxation of one’s fiber.”
In 1909, Theodore Roosevelt stated: “After a week on perplexing problems … it does so rest my soul to come into the house of The Lord and to sing and mean it, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.’ … (My) great joy and glory that, in occupying an exalted position in the nation, I am enabled, to preach the practical moralities of The Bible to my fellow-countrymen and to hold up Christ as the hope and Savior of the world.”
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