Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Rodda on Mansfield, Part 3

Chris Rodda continues to eviscerate any credibility that Stephen Mansfield might have had with the third part of her review. In it, she debunks one of the most infamous of all the Christian Nation myths, the “Jefferson attended church in the Capitol building” story. There are two parts to the story, often conflated in the telling and retelling. The first involves an anecdote from the Rev. Ethan Allen. Here is how James Hutson of the Library of Congress tells the story:

Jefferson, according to Allen, was walking to church one Sunday “with his large red Prayer Book under his arm when a friend querying 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. J. You do not believe a word in it. Sir said Mr. J. No nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I as chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good morning Sir.”


Mansfield repeats this story in his book, as every religious right revisionist does, but leaves out lots of important details and adds in a few inaccurate ones. Here is Mansfield’s version:

There is an anecdote that captures better than any other on record the approach to religion that moved Thomas Jefferson to faithfully attend his church in the House of Representatives. He was walking to church one Sunday “with his large red Prayer Book under his arm” when a friend happened upon him. It was the reverend Ethan Allen.

“Which way are you walking Mr. Jefferson?” Allen asked.

“To Church Sir.”

“You? Going to church Mr. J? You do not believe a word in it!

“Sir,” said Mr. Jefferson, “no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I as chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good morning Sir.”

But as Rodda points out, this conflicts with the original statement from Rev. Allen, which says that Jefferson was on his way not to the Capitol but to a small church in a converted tobacco house. Here is the full statement from Rev. Allen:

“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.'”

More importantly, Rodda points out, the people involved in the story would have been young children at the time of this alleged conversation:

While others have asserted that this 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, however, 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. (Although Ingle’s later recollection was that Jefferson attended church in the tobacco shed in 1803, it was actually during 1801, before services at the Capitol began, that Jefferson was known to go there.) The Mr. Underwood mentioned by Ingle was almost certainly John Underwood, his 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 in 1801. 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 as his reason for going to church have become a popular Jefferson quote, found on countless religious right websites, in the revisionist history 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.

We have a third hand account of a conversation that allegedly took place in a happenstance meeting on the street half a century before between the president of the United States and two people who would have been under 10 years old at the time, and in which the sentiments allegedly expressed by the President are in stark contradiction to nearly everything he ever wrote or said on the subject. To say this strains credulity is to be too kind.

The second part of the story involves church services at the Capitol building. This is also found in nearly all of the religious right’s material on religion and the founding fathers, but as usual they quote very selectively from obscure sources in order to support their position. There are two constant and typical parts to the story: that the Capitol that housed Congress was used for church services on Sundays (true, but only half the story) and that Jefferson regularly attended (apparently true). There are two seemingly optional parts to the story, the claim that Jefferson was the one who approved having those services (false) and that Jefferson ordered the Marine Corps band to play at the church services, thus showing how dedicated he was to them (kind of true, but again only half the story). Rodda shows how selectively they quote from their sources by reproducing the full passage. Here is Mansfield’s version:

An early Washington insider reported that, “Jefferson during his whole administration, was a most regular attendant. The seat he chose the first day Sabbath, and the adjoining one, which his private secretary occupied, were ever afterwards by the courtesy of the congregation, left for him.”

And here is the full story from that “insider” (Margaret Bayard Smith):

“…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.”(3)

Mansfield also quotes from a British diplomat who attended these Sunday functions, but he again selectively takes out all the details that show that while this function may have had some speaking on religious matters, it was really just a big party, complete with gambling. Here’s what Mansfield quotes:

A British diplomat reported that during Jefferson’s administration, “A Presbyterian, sometimes a Methodist, a member of the Church of England, or a Quaker, or sometimes even a woman took the speaker’s chair,” which was used as a pulpit.

And here’s the full passage that Rodda provides:

In going to assemblies one had sometimes to drive three or four miles within the city bounds, and very often at the great risk of an overthrow, or of being what is termed ‘stalled,’ or stuck in the mud. …. Cards were a great resource during the evening, and gaming was all the fashion, at brag especially, for the men who frequented society were chiefly from Virginia or the Western States, and were very fond of this the worst gambling of all games, as being one of countenance as well as of cards. Loo was the innocent diversion of the ladies, who when they looed pronounced the word in a very mincing manner….

Church service can certainly never be called an amusement; but from the variety of persons who are allowed to preach in the House of Representatives, there was doubtless some alloy of curiosity in the motives which led one to go there. Though the regular Chaplain was a Presbyterian, sometimes a Methodist, a minister of the Church of England, or a Quaker, or sometimes even a woman took the speaker’s chair; and I don’t think that there was much devotion among the majority. The New Englanders, generally speaking, are very religious; though there are many exceptions, I cannot say so much for the Marylanders, and still less for the Virginians.(4)

As Rodda rightly points out:

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.”

This was basically a big weekly party held on Sundays in the Capitol building. That fact is clearly shown in the very documents that folks like Mansfield and Barton cite, yet they always conveniently leave out those little facts, just as they conveniently leave out the fact that the alleged conversation with Jefferson that they use as a quote was from a third hand source 50 years later and was recounting stories told by a 10 year old and a 5 year old. I’ll leave it to my readers to decide for themselves whether those details are left out intentionally or not, and for what purpose.