On March 27, 1854, Representative James Meacham of Vermont, who served as spokesman of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, spoke in favor of continuing the practice of appointing chaplains. His remarks were part of the debate during the Thirty-Third Congress as to whether or not to elect chaplains, as was customary from the beginning of the First Federal Congress in 1789. The so-called “memorialists” who voiced opposition to chaplains did so under the guise of claiming the practice was unconstitutional. Closer to the truth was the fact that so many northern pastors were abolitionists, and the slavery question was dividing the Congress and the nation. Rep. Meacham argued:
“We ask the memorialists to look at the facts… The first Congress under the Constitution began on the 4th of March 1789, but there was not a quorum for business till the 1st of April. On the 9th of that month, Oliver Ellsworth was appointed on the part of the Senate to confer with a committee of the House on rules and on the appointment of chaplains. The House chose five men: [Elias] Boudinot, [Theodorick] Bland, [Thomas] Tucker, [Roger] Sherman, and [James] Madison. The result of their consultation was a recommendation to appoint two chaplains of different denominations – one by the Senate and one by the House – to interchange weekly. The Senate appointed Dr. [Samuel] Provost [an Episcopal bishop from New York] on the 25th of April.
“On the 1st day of May Washington’s first speech was read to the House and the first business after that speech was the appointment of Dr. [William] Linn [a Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia] as chaplain. By whom was this plan made? Three out of six of that joint committee were members of the convention that framed the Constitution. Madison, Ellsworth, and Sherman passed directly from the hall of the convention to the hall of Congress. Did they not know what was constitutional? The law of 1789 was passed in compliance with their plan giving chaplains a salary of $500. It was re-enacted in 1816 and continues to the present time. Chaplains have been appointed from all the leading denominations: Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Catholic, Unitarian, and others…
“If there be a God who hears prayer – as we believe there is – we submit, that there never was a deliberative body that so eminently needed the fervent prayers of righteous men [James 5:16b] as the Congress of the United States.”*
After Rep. Meacham’s report, Congress continued the practice of appointing chaplains, and that is another lost episode in American history.
Read and Reflect: Read James 5:16-18 and compare that with Rep. Meacham’s plea for Chaplains.
Prayer: Father, we thank you that from the very beginnings of American government, our leaders sensed that they needed your wisdom, guidance and blessing and that they sought out ministers to serve alongside them, praying for our nation before deliberations. We are also grateful that this practice continues today, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.
*Source Citation: Lorenzo P. Johnson, Chaplains of the General Government, with Objections to their Employment Considered, also a List of All the Chaplains to Congress, in the Army and in the Navy from the Formation of the Government to This Time (New York: Sheldon, Blakeman, & Co., 1856), 9, 12, 15. See also: http://chaplain.house.gov/chaplaincy/ChaplainHistoryCRS.pdf for a brief history of Chaplains in Congress. Bracketed items added.