A Brief History of Public Prayer

April 12, 2007

Author: Robert Schwaneberg

Source: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Wire Service: RNS


Legislative prayers and controversies about them go back to the founding of the republic. Here are some key developments:

1774: Over the objections of delegates John Jay and John Rutledge, the Continental Congress establishes a tradition of opening its sessions with a prayer by a paid chaplain.

1776: New Jersey's first constitution provides that no person "shall be compelled to attend any place of worship" or pay tithes to any church, but limits eligibility for public office to Protestants.

1789: The first Congress authorizes payment of its chaplains. Three days later, the same Congress agrees on the wording of the First Amendment, prohibiting "an establishment of religion."

1802: In a letter to Baptists in Danbury, Conn., President Thomas Jefferson says he reads the First Amendment as "building a wall of separation between Church and State."