It is the 31st of January 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
As children in America, we often learn about our country's past with simple stories and distinctions about what led to our national independence and our particularities. This is meet, right, and appropriate, but as we grow older, we do well to develop a more historical and nuanced approach to our views of, to name a few things, the distinction between loyalists and patriots and the separation of church and state. It is not as easy as the redcoats and Paul revere or a simple separation of “church and state.” To underscore and illustrate this, we do well to look at the complicated life of America’s first congressional chaplain- the Anglican minister Jacob Duche.
Jacob Duche was born on this day, the 31st of January in 1737, in Philadelphia. His Grandfather was a Huguenot who immigrated to the colonies from France and eventually landed amongst the Pennsylvania Anglicans. Jacob’s father was a lawyer and served as both a colonel and secretary to Benjamin Franklin in the local militia.
Jacob was born into privilege in this prominent place. He attended the New London Academy and then the new University of Pennsylvania, where he was the valedictorian of its first graduating class in 1757. From there, he went to Cambridge and was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church. He would serve as an assistant minister at St. Peter’s church in 1759. He returned to London to be ordained by the Archbishop of Canterbury and then called to the prominent “Christ Church” in Philadelphia.
Here, he developed into a prominent member of society, serving as Franklin’s secretary like his Father and supporting the French and Indian War. Known for his preaching, he taught oratory at his alma mater and was a member of the American Philosophical Society.
Duche was an ecumenist supporting the revivals of Whitfield and attempting to bring together Philadelphia’s Presbyterians and Lutherans. He believed in the “Holy Experiment” of Philadelphia and thought the British colonial system was its great safeguard.
But as the 1770s went on, he became distressed with the abuses of local British officials. He would preach the famous sermon “The American Vine,” which was read by many as a defense of the colonies against the British when it is, in fact, more of a call for repentance to all sides.
Samuel Adams would invite Duche to give the opening prayer at the first Continental Congress- something debated amongst its members. Was this showing partiality to a particular branch of Christianity? The members decided that a chaplain and prayer was not an affront to their sensibilities (and there was yet no first Amendment). Adams wanted Duche to be the man to be chaplain as having an Anglican pray in the Continental would be a poke in the eye of their British overlords.
Jacob Duche was a national hero. His first prayer was lauded by John Adams as “as pertinent, as affectionate, as sublime, as devout, as I ever heard offered up to heaven. He filled every bosom present”. Lore about this prayer abounds, but be wary of anyone claiming to know exactly what was said- it was extemporaneous and not written out until well after the event.
In July of 1776, Duche allowed the Anglican Church to eliminate prayers to King George, and this would put him in the crosshairs of the crown.
But as the realities of what he called “fraternal slaughter” became real, he began to caution for a settled peace. Perhaps constitutional rights could be negotiated between the parties. When General Howe took Philadelphia in 1777, Duche stayed but was arrested by the British. His freedom was procured, but Duche then wrote a letter to George Washington, pleading for a cease-fire and settlement. Washington was outraged, sent the letter to Congress, and it was summarily leaked in the press.
He believed patriotism and a negotiated loyalty to the crown could coexist. He went to England to explain his position, and while he was gone, he was declared a traitor, and his land was confiscated. His family joined him in London until they were able to come back in 1793. He would reconcile with Washington and old friends once the heat of the war had dissipated. In wartime, nuanced positions are rarely honored, but we see this in a character like Duche, a man who blurs the simple categories we use and was happily integrated back into American society until his death in 1798. Born on this day in 1737, the Reverend Jacob Duche, America’s first Congressional Chaplain, was 60 years old.
The last word for today is from the daily lectionary- from the Prophet Jeremiah- a promise to the Israelites in Exile and, in Christ, to us as well.
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 31st of January 2024, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who thought the American Vine was the Vitis labrusca- used in cultivating the Concord Grape- he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man rooting for Taylor Swift at the Superbowl- anything to get my attention away from these two teams- I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.