Congressional chaplain: Promising start, cowardly end

By Bill Federer

Jacob Duché praying
Jacob Duché praying

When British troops descended on Boston, the Continental Congress’ first official act was to request that Rev. Jacob Duché, pastor of Philadelphia’s Christ Church, open Congress in prayer: “Tuesday, September 6, 1774. Resolved, That the Rev. Mr. Duché be desired to open the Congress tomorrow morning with prayers, at the Carpenter’s Hall, at 9 o’clock.”

Born Jan. 31, 1738, Rev. Jacob Duché was a prominent leader in Pennsylvania, as his grandfather, Anthony Duché, had sailed to America with William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. His father, Jacob Duché, Sr., helped Ben Franklin in 1748 raise a volunteer militia of armed private citizens to defend the city during the French and Indian War.

On Sept. 7, 1774, Rev. Jacob Duché, Jr., arrived at Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia and read the 35th Psalm, which was the designated Anglican reading for that day: “Plead my cause, Oh, Lord, with them that strive with me, fight against them that fight against me. Take hold of buckler and shield, and rise up for my help. Draw also the spear and the battle-axe to meet those who pursue me; Say to my soul, ‘I am your salvation.’ Let those be ashamed and dishonored who seek my life; Let those be turned back and humiliated who devise evil against me.”

Rev. Duché then offered an extemporaneous prayer. John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail: “Mr. Duché appeared with his clerk and in his pontificals, and read several prayers in the established form, and read the collect for the 7th day of September, which was the 35th Psalm. You must remember, this was the next morning after we heard the horrible rumor of the cannonade of Boston. I never saw a greater effect upon an audience. It seem as if heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning. After this, Mr. Duché, unexpectedly to everybody, struck out into an extemporary prayer, which filled the bosom of every man present. 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.”

Congress voted: “Wednesday, September 7, 1774 … That the thanks of Congress be given to Mr. Duché … for performing divine Service, and for the excellent prayer, which he composed and delivered on the occasion.”

The next year, on July 7, 1775, Rev. Duché addressed the soldiers of First Battalion of the City of Philadelphia. Dedicating his sermon to General Washington, he published it with the title “The Duty of Standing Fast in Our Spiritual and Temporal Liberties”: “If spiritual liberty calls … to a glorious hereafter, civil liberty must at least be allowed to secure … our well-being here. … Civil liberty is as much the gift of God in Christ Jesus as the former, and consequently, that we are bound to stand fast in our civil as well as our spiritual freedom. … ‘Standing fast’ in that liberty, wherewith Christ, as the great providential Governor of the world, hath made us free. …”

Rev. Jacob Duché continued his stirring address to the soldiers of Philadelphia, July 7, 1775: “Considering myself under the twofold character of a minister of Jesus Christ, and a fellow-citizen … involved in the same public calamity with yourselves … I have made choice of a passage of Scripture … addressing myself to you as freemen, both in the spiritual and temporal sense … suggesting to you … under the blessing of Heaven, to … ‘Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty, wherewith Christ hath made us free’ (Galatians, chapter 5). …”

Duché concluded: “‘Stand Fast’ by an undaunted courage … a courage that will prove you to be good Christians, as well as soldiers, a firm invincible fortitude of soul, founded upon religion, and the glorious hope of a better world. … Courage, that will enable you not only to withstand an armed phalanx, to pierce a squadron, or force an entrenchment … but will support you … against the principalities and powers of darkness … pain and sickness, and…all the horrors of a death-bed scene. … Courage … will never degenerate into savage cruelty and barbarity. … Be prepared … for the worst. Suffer not your spirits to evaporate. … Though the worst should come – though we should be deprived of all the conveniences and elegancies of life … nevertheless, ‘Stand Fast’ as the guardians of liberty. … Now, therefore, be strong, O Zerubbabel, and be strong, O Joshua … for I am with you, saith the Lord of hosts. … Look ye unto me, and be saved, all ye ends of the earth!”

On July 4, 1776, after Congress passed the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Mr. Duché walked across the square to his church and convened a special meeting of his Vestry. He then took the large Anglican Book of Common Prayer from the pulpit and crossed out prayers for “the King of England,” replacing them with “the United States of America.”

This greatly affected the country, as his was the first church to stop praying for the King.

On July 8, 1776, John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, wrote to Rev. Mr. Jacob Duché: “Sir, It is with the greatest pleasure I inform you that the Congress have been indeed, from a consideration of your piety, as well as your uniform and zealous attachment to the rights of America, to appoint you their Chaplain. It is their request, which I am commanded to signify to you, that you will attend on them, every morning at nine o’clock.”

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Lorenzo Sabine’s “History of the Loyalists” (1864), recorded Rev. Mr. Jacob Duché first prayer after the Declaration of Independence was approved: “O Lord our Heavenly Father, High and Mighty, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers on earth, and reignest with power supreme and uncontrolled over all kingdoms, empires, and governments, look down with mercy, we beseech Thee, on these our American States, who have fled to Thee, from the rod of the oppressor … desiring to be henceforth dependent only on Thee.”

On Sept. 26, 1777, British General Howe invaded Philadelphia and imprisoned Rev. Duché, undoubtedly pressuring him. Ten days after his release, being discouraged from the Continental Army’s heavy losses at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown, after which they withdrew to Valley Forge, Rev. Jacob Duché disappointed the country. He penned a letter to General Washington urging surrender, then sailed for England.

Later, regretting his decision after the war, Rev. Duché returned to Philadelphia where he finished an uneventful ministry and died in 1798. He is best remembered for his role in the early years of the Revolution.

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