More Historical Revisionism from The Christmas Wars: Religion in the American Public Square
Chris Rodda printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Feb 20, 2007 at 05:10:52 PM EST

In my last article here, I singled out the historical inaccuracies regarding James Madison and tax-supported chaplains used by Jon Meacham during The Christmas Wars: Religion in the American Public Square, a discussion presented in December by the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life. Now it's time to go after the other panelist, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute.

According to Novak:

"The largest church service in the United States during the Jefferson administration was in the U.S. Capitol building, and the second largest was in the Supreme Court building. Jefferson attended as often he could the one in the Capitol building, and he insisted the Marine band be there at government expense."

"One time he was challenged by a minister on his way over to church: 'There you are, J., with your red prayer book under your arm; where are you going?' 'To church, sir.' The minister said, 'But you don't believe a word in it.' Jefferson didn't deny that. He just said, 'Christianity is the best support for republican government that there ever was, and so long as I am magistrate of this land, I have to give it my full public support.'"

Novak is actually combining two separate stories here, implying that the alleged meeting between Jefferson and and unnamed man (that this man was a minister is a new addition to the story by Novak) occurred as Jefferson was on his way to a service at the Capitol. This meeting, however, according to the original version of the story, was said to have occurred when Jefferson was headed to the converted tobacco shed where Episcopal services had begun several years before there were services at the Capitol.

An interesting thing about the Liars for Jesus is that even in cases where a story is basically true, they manage to turn it into a lie by adding lies to it. More often than not, the lies are added to make Thomas Jefferson the center of the story. Church services being held in the Capitol building is a good example of this. Church services actually were held in the Capitol building, and Jefferson really was known to attend them. This true story, however, isn't good enough, so various lies and exaggerations are added to it to make Jefferson more involved. One of the most popular of these is that Jefferson "insisted the Marine band be there at government expense," as Novak puts it. In a similar version of the same lie, D. James Kennedy, in his book What If America Were A Christian Nation Again?, even comes up with a reason for Jefferson ordering the Marine band to play at these services - he wasn't pleased with the music.

According to Kennedy:

"[Jefferson] wasn't pleased with the music, so he ordered the marine band to come to church on Sunday. They were paid out of the federal treasury to support the singing of hymns and psalms in the church."

So, where does this story come from? James T. Hutson, Chief of the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress, who, unlike Novak and Kennedy, doesn't go as far as claiming that Jefferson insisted on the Marine band playing, provided the source in the companion book to the 1998 Religion and the Founding of the American Republic exhibit at the Library of Congress. (In spite of criticism by a number of historians, the internet version of this exhibit still remains on the library of Congress website.)

According to Hutson:

"As president, Jefferson put his rejuvenated faith into practice in the most conspicuous form of public witness possible, regularly attending worship services where the delegates of the entire nation could see him&emdash;in the 'hall' of the House of Representatives. According to the recollections of an early Washington insider, 'Jefferson during his whole administration, was a most regular attendant. The seat he chose the first sabbath day, and the adjoining one, which his private secretary occupied, were ever afterwords [sic] by the courtesy of the congregation, left for him.'"


"How did attending church services in Congress, which was, after all, public property, square with the constitutional scruples generally imputed to Jefferson about mixing religious and public spheres? Perhaps he reasoned that, since the House of Representatives, a member of a separate and independent branch of the government, was organizing and sponsoring the services, his principles would not be unduly compromised. This would not explain, however, why Jefferson permitted executive branch employees under his direct control, members of the Marine Band, to participate in House church services. Splendidly attired in their scarlet uniforms, the Marine musicians made a 'dazzling appearance' in the House on Sundays, as they tried to help the congregation by providing instrumental accompaniment to its psalm singing."

The "early Washington insider" referred to and quoted by Hutson was Margaret Bayard Smith, wife of Samuel Harrison Smith, a Philadelphia newspaper editor who moved to Washington in 1800 to establish a national newspaper, The National Intelligencer. By selectively quoting Mrs. Smith's description of Sundays at the Capitol, found in The First Forty Years of Washington Society, Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (Margaret Bayard) from the Collection of Her Grandson, J. Henley Smith, Hutson gives the impression that what took place there were serious religious services, which, most importantly, were attended by Thomas Jefferson. Judging by Mrs. Smith's entire description of these services, which appear to have been the weekly social event more than religious services, it's not surprising that Jefferson, who complained about the lack of any social life in Washington, was such a "regular attendant."

"...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 sabbathday-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."

The two sentences at the end of this passage from Mrs. Smith's book are the sole source for the claims that Jefferson ordered the Marine band to play at church. James T. Hutson's insinuation that Jefferson permitting these executive branch employees to participate in church services has some sort of great significance is as ridiculous as saying that a member of today's military who shows up in uniform to participate in a Sunday service at their church is doing so at the expense of the government.

More serious, and much more sparsely attended, religious services were held in other public buildings in the early days of Washington. These solemn, four hour long communion services, as Hutson points out, were held in buildings under the control of the executive branch. This is pointed out, of course, to make Jefferson responsible for these services, although there isn't one shred of evidence that the organizers of the services asked Jefferson for permission to hold them. Hutson, ignoring Mrs. Smith's description of the services at the Capitol, makes the following understatement about the difference between those services and the far more serious services in the other buildings.

"Church services in the executive branch buildings were more 'religious' than those in the Capitol, because the sacraments were celebrated in the former, but not, apparently, in the latter."

When the government moved to Washington in 1800, the only churches that existed in the city were a tobacco shed being used by the Episcopalians, and a small Catholic chapel built in 1794 for the Irish stone masons who had moved to the city to work on the federal buildings. As already mentioned, it was the tobacco shed that Jefferson was heading to in the story that spawned the dubious quote used by Michael Novak.

This story originates with the following account from a handwritten manuscript by Rev. Ethan Allen called Historical Sketch of Washington Parish, Washington City.

"Mr. J.P. Ingle says in his note of July 6, 1857, 'Mr. Underwood and myself can both recollect that Mr. McCormick held service in a Tobacco House as early in 1803 when Mr. Jefferson attended there. The old Market which stood on the NW corner of the Virginia & New Jersey Avenues was often pointed out as the place also where Mr. McCormick officiated. Was the tobacco house near this? Here it was that Mr. Jefferson was coming one Sunday morning across the fields leading to it with his large red Prayer Book under his arm when a friend riding him after their mutual good morning said which way are you walking Mr. Jefferson - to which he replied to Church Sir - you going to church Mr. Jefferson? You do not believe a word in it - Sir said Mr. Jefferson no nation has yet existed or been governed without religion - nor can be - the Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man & I as the chief magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good morning Sir.'"

The first thing wrong with this account is the date 1803. If this encounter even occurred, it would have been in 1801. According to Margaret Bayard Smith, it was during Jefferson's first winter as president, before the services at the Capitol began, that he was known to attend Rev. McCormick's services at the tobacco shed. The dates in Mrs. Smith's first-hand account, written by an adult who was recording the events of early Washington as they happened, are obviously more credible than the recollections more than five decades later of two men who were children at the time, which brings us to the next problem with the story. While others have asserted that the story lacks credibility because Rev. Ethan Allen, who was born in 1796, would have been a child when Jefferson allegedly had this encounter, this really doesn't matter. Allen was merely recording the recollections of others, making his own age at the time irrelevant. What is relevant are the ages of the two men who were recalling the story, both of whom would also have been children at the time. John P. Ingle, who at various time in his life was the President of the Washington City Bible Society, Vice Chairman of the American Sunday School Union, and a lay delegate to the Annual Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, was born in 1791, making him ten years old in 1801. The Mr. Underwood mentioned was almost certainly John Underwood, Ingle's brother-in-law. John Underwood, the son of Robert Underwood, who came to Washington in the 1790s while the city was being built, was born in 1796, making him five years old at the time. So, what we have is the account of two men who heard a story about an encounter between Jefferson and a stranger that occurred when they were children, recalling this story over fifty years later - hardly a primary source. Nevertheless, the words allegedly uttered by Jefferson have become a popular Jefferson quote, misrepresented in various ways on religious right websites, in their books, and even in amicus briefs filed in several court cases - most recently the McCreary County, Kentucky ten commandments case, heard by the Supreme Court in 2005, in which the quote was claimed to be found not in Rev. Allen's third-hand account of an unsubstantiated story, but in a letter from Jefferson to Allen.

The following, as best as I can determine, is how the use of this story and quote evolved.

The account in Rev. Allen's manuscript surfaced in 1940, in an Inventory of Church Archives in the District of Columbia. This was part of the District of Columbia Historical Records Survey, one of the many projects that, under the depression era Works Project Administration, inventoried and indexed various historical records throughout the country. The story then fell back into obscurity until 1985, when it was resurrected by Bill Donohue in his book The Politics of the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to Donohue:

"Thomas Jefferson, an aticleric who accepted the ethics of Jesus, also gave recognition to the significance of religion in daily life. When Jefferson was seen carrying a red prayer book, a skeptical citizen asked where he was going. 'To church,' he replied. 'Why, Mr. President, you don't believe a word of it,' the citizen said. 'Sir, no nation has yet existed or been governed without religion,' Jefferson replied. 'I, as the chief magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example.'"

It next appeared, with a few added details, in the 1992 book So Help Me God: The Faith of America's Presidents by John C. McCollister:

"One Sunday morning, as Jefferson was crossing an open field near the Capitol, a large red prayer book under his left arm, a stranger stopped him and asked where he was going. 'To church,' Jefferson replied. The man burst out laughing and said, 'Why, Mr. President, you don't believe a word of it.' 'Sir,' Jefferson answered, 'no nation has yet existed or been governed without religion. I, as the Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good morning, sir.' And he marched off as the stranger, open-mouthed, gazed after him. It is ironic that the President, vilified variously during the scurrilous campaign of 1800 as a deist, atheist, and agnostic, should have taken such a strong stand regarding the importance of religion to our nation. For, in fact many constituents wrote him off as an atheist."

In 1998, the story appeared in James T. Hutson's Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, which has since become the source most often cited for the quote, using Hutson's position at the Library of Congress to lend credibility to the story. Hutson, however, while strongly implying that the story and quote were genuine, fell just short of stating this as fact, using phases such as "...this colloquy may not be a literal transcription..." But, Hutson also asserts that the verification of another of Rev. Allen's claims, that Jefferson donated money to Rev. McCormick's church,"lends plausibility" to the anecdote of Jefferson's encounter on his way to church.

Since the appearance of the story in Hutson's book, it has periodically shown up in places such as David Limbaugh's 2004 book Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity, and on David Barton's WallBuilders website, which is not surprising or significant. What is significant, however, was its appearance, and complete misrepresentation, in the amicus brief filed by ex-Judge Roy Moore and his Foundation for Moral Law in the 2005 Supreme Court ten commandments case McCreary County, Kentucky, et al. v. ACLU of Kentucky, et al. In a blatant lie, which even misrepresents Hutson by citing his book as the source of the lie, the dubious quote was claimed to be written by Jefferson himself to Rev. Allen.

"The primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, observed that, 'No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be.' T. Jefferson to Rev. Ethan Allen, quoted in James Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, 96 (1998)."


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