Did Thomas Jefferson go to Church?

A book housed in the Library of Congress Rare Book Collection discloses that, when President Thomas Jefferson first arrived in Washington in 1800, there were so few churches that he began a custom of Sunday preaching in the House of Representatives. Members of each denomination represented in Congress supplied distinguished clergy as guest speakers. The scarlet-uniformed Marine Band led the congregation in hymns and psalms. The Sabbath celebrations became so popular that gentlemen settled their ladies in every spot where a chair could be wedged. More formal services were held by a group of Scottish Presbyterians in a corridor of the Treasury Building. Other services were conducted at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and Christ Church, a converted tobacco warehouse.

“…At this time (1800) the only place for public worship in our new city was a small, very small frame building at the bottom of Capitol Hill. It had been a tobacco-house belonging to Daniel Carroll of Duddington Manor, and was purchased by a few Episcopalians for a mere trifle and fitted up as a church in the plainest and rudest manner. During the first winter, Mr. Jefferson regularly attended service on the Sabbath-day in the humble church. The congregation seldom exceeded 50 or 60, but generally consisted of about a score of hearers. He (Jefferson) could have had no motive for this regular attendance, but that of respect for public worship, choice of place or preacher he had not, as this was the only church in the new city.

The custom of preaching in the Hall of Representatives had not then been attempted, though after it was established, Mr. Jefferson during his whole administration, was a most regular attendant. The seat he chose the first Sabbath, and the adjoining one, which his private Secretary occupied, were ever afterwards by the courtesy of the congregation, left for him and his secretary…Not only the chaplains, but the most distinguished clergymen who visited the city, preached in the Capitol. I remember hearing Mr. E. Everet, afterwards a member of Congress, deliver an eloquent discourse to a most thronged and admiring audience…As Congress is composed of Christians of every persuasion, each denomination in its turn has supplied chaplains to the two houses of Congress, who preach alternately in the Hall of Representatives…Clergymen, who during the session of Congress visited the city, were invited by the chaplains to preach…”1

My research of Christ Church on Capitol Hill, revealed the following, “Christ Church was the first Episcopal Church in Washington Parish, created by the Maryland Vestry Act of 1794, ‘An Act to form a new parish by the name of Washington Parish to include the City of Washington, and Georgetown on the Potomac.’ Christ Church’s first building was a tobacco warehouse on the corner of New Jersey Avenue and D Street, S.E. Thomas Jefferson could often be seen, prayer book in hand, walking to Christ Church located a few blocks south of the site for the new Capitol building.”

While at Monticello, Jefferson worshipped at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, of which he was a vestryman. Captain Edmond Bacon, his overseer, records this eye-witness account in his book, “Monticello:”

“…Mr. Jefferson never debarred himself from hearing any preacher that came along. There was a Mr. Hiter, a Baptist preacher, that used to preach occasionally at the Charlottesville Courthouse. He had no regular church but was a kind of missionary – rode all over the country and preached. He wasn’t much of a preacher, was uneducated, but he was a good man. Everybody had confidence in him, and they went to hear him on that account. Mr. Jefferson’s nephews Peter Carr, Sam Carr, and Dabney Carr thought a great deal of him. I have often heard them talk about him. Mr. Jefferson nearly always went to hear him when he came around. I remember his being there one day in particular. His servant came with him and brought a seat – a kind of campstool – upon which he sat. After the sermon there was a proposition to pass around the hat and raise money to buy the preacher a horse. Mr. Jefferson did not wait for the hat. I saw him unbutton his overalls, and get his hand into his pocket, and take out a handful of silver, I don’t know how much. He then walked across the Courthouse to Mr. Hiter and gave it into his hand. He bowed very politely to Mr. Jefferson and seemed to be very much pleased…”

When in Philadelphia, Jefferson attended Christ Church, the founding fathers’ church – including George Washington’s – during the American Revolution. When in Williamsburg, Virginia, he worshipped at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church, together with founding fathers, George Washington, George Mason, Patrick Henry, George Wythe, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Peyton Randolph, and many others.

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Bibliography:

1

Smith, Samuel Harrison (Mrs.). The First Forty Years of Washington Society, portrayed by the family letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith. C. Scribner’s Sons, 1906. Library of Congress, Rare Book Collection.

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