This Day in History: The first Continental Congress opens in prayer

On this day in 1774, the first Continental Congress convenes at Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia. Its goal was to coordinate a response to Britain’s Intolerable Acts. Delegates from every colony but Georgia would attend some portion of the proceedings.

Congress immediately tackled an issue that would crop up again and again during these years: How can large and small colonies work together in one union?

Patrick Henry of Virginia declared that “it would be great Injustice, if a little Colony should have the same Weight in the Councils of America, as a great one.” Not to be outdone, Major John Sullivan of New Hampshire “observed that a little Colony had its All at Stake as well as a great one.”

John Adams took a middle ground. “If We vote by Colonies,” he stated, “this Method will be liable to great Inequality and Injustice, for 5 small Colonies, with 100,000 People in each may outvote 4 large ones, each of which has 500,000 Inhabitants.” But voting by “Interests” seemed impossible, too. How would the delegates decide what weight to give to each colony? Do they look to population? Or should they look to the amount of exports/imports? And what tangible evidence did they have for any of these numbers anyway?

In the end, Congress resolved that each colony would have one vote. Little Rhode Island would have one vote, just like the bigger colonies of Virginia and New York.

As if that weren’t enough, another thorny issue confronted the delegates. Should Congress be opened with prayer?

Two delegates immediately opposed the motion, as John Adams later recounted, “because we were so divided in religious Sentiments . . . [and we] could not join in the same Act of Worship.” Fiery Patriot Samuel Adams jumped in with a solution. He arose and declared that he “was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his country.” It was agreed that the Reverend Jacob Duché, an Episcopal clergyman, should be asked to perform this service.

Duché opened Congress with prayer the next morning. He read the collect for that day, which happened to be Psalm 35. Adams later marveled to Abigail Adams that it “seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that Morning.” He begged her to read it. “I never saw a greater Effect upon an Audience,” he said. The Psalm was topped off with an “extemporary Prayer” from Duché “which filled the Bosom of every Man present.”

Have you read the Psalm recently? It opens:

“Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. . . . May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay.”

And with those words still echoing in their ears, the first Continental Congress got down to work.