David Barton on Thomas Jefferson – Did Jefferson approve church in the Capitol?


UPDATE: For more information about Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President, go to GettingJeffersonRight.com.

David Barton claims that Thomas Jefferson approved the use of the Capitol building as a church in 1800. On his April 11 podcast, Barton claimed that Jefferson was so religious that he would look like a “Bible thumping  evangelical” with the following example given as evidence:

And I’ll give you a great example. We moved into the US Capitol in 1800, November of 1800. And when we moved in, one of the first acts of Congress was to approve the use of the Capitol as a church building. You can find that in the records of Congress, Dec 4 1800. Now, who did that? You had the head of the Senate and the head of the House, the speaker of the House was John Trumbull, the president of the Senate who approved that was Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson approves church in the Capitol? Yep, he went there as Vice President, he went to the church at the Capitol for 8 years as President, and as President of the US, he’s going to church, and this is recorded in all sorts of members of Congress, their records, their diaries, because they went to church at the Capitol too. And so, Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States, thinks, you know I think I can help the worship services at this new church at the Capitol, they met in the Hall of the House of Representatives, so Jefferson ordered the Marine Corp band to come play for the worship services, in the church services at the US Capitol. The worship band is the Marine Corp Band? Pretty good worship band. Thomas Jefferson did that. I thought he wanted separation of church and state. If you read his letter on separation of church and state, he said separation of church and state, he makes it very clear, separation of church and state will keep the government from stopping a public religious activity.

In fact, the records of Congress do note the request for use of the House of Representatives for church services. Here is the entry marking the occasion:

Note that the Speaker informed the assembled representatives that the Chaplains proposed to hold services in the Chamber.  Apparently, it was agreeable to the House of Representatives since there is no recorded objection or vote on the matter. The Senate chaplain was Dr. Thomas John Claggett, an Episcopalian, and the House chaplain was Rev. Thomas Lyell, a Methodist. Both had begun their appointments in November, 1800.

Barton said that John Trumbull was the Speaker of the House but it was Theodore Sedgwick who raised the matter to the House on December 4, 1800. Jefferson was indeed President pro tempore of the Senate. However, according to the records of the Senate that same day (general business and the executive committee), nothing was mentioned about use of the Capitol building as a church.

In fact, the Senate did not need to approve the matter since the request came to the House for their Chamber. I can find no vote, affirmation or acknowledgement by the Senate. Unless Barton can demonstrate otherwise, it is incorrect to say that Thomas Jefferson approved, in some official manner, church services in the Capitol.

Jefferson did indeed attend church in the chamber which is not too surprising given the lack of churches in the District of Columbia at the time, as well as the general lack of social life. About church in DC at the time, Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan wrote in his book, A History of the National Capitol:

It will be noted that the period of 1801-1813 in the case of the churches was one of development and expansion. For at the beginning there were three church organizations, only one of which owned the building which it occupied, while twelve years later there were seven churches and a chapel, all of which owned the buildings which were used for the services. While in most instances the congregations were small in numbers and limited in resources, yet on the whole the church expansion reflected the growth of the community as well as its material condition…

Then Bryan discusses the Capitol church and the social aspects of the events. Bryan describes the Capitol as “a forum” where many religious views were discussed. The event was apparently quite a social happening:

At the same time the speaker’s desk in the hall of the house of representatives Sunday after Sunday was a forum from which was presented a wide range of religious belief. The chaplains of congress officiated there, as did also ministers representing various denominations. Frequently the religious atmosphere was lacking, sometimes due to the audience turning the occasion into a social function and then again to the eccentric character and views of the preachers. Rev. Manasseh Cutler was not pleased with the discourse of Rev. John Leland, who arrived in the city January, 1802, with the mammoth cheese which was presented to President Jefferson. On the following day he officiated at the capitol. The president was in the congregation, as it was his custom to be in the early years of his administration.

Incidentally, John Leland was one of the fiercest proponents of religious freedom and personally lobbied James Madison for a religious liberty clause in the Bill of Rights. The whole thing sounds religious in the general sense but not doctrinaire.

Barton also claims that Jefferson ordered the Marine Band to play in order to aid the worship. I can find no proof of that. If Mr. Barton has documentation of that claim, he should offer it. According to the record of the House and Bryan’s observations, the Chaplains were in charge. I suspect they invited the band to play. Bryan comments about the Marine Band:

It was apparently a new feature of the capitol services when in February, 1805, the Marine Band was stationed in the gallery and “after the preaching . . . the marines . . . played Denmark. Were there next Sunday. Two pieces of psalmody by the band of the marine corps. They attended in their uniforms about eighty or one hundred.”

One of sources of information about Jefferson, the Capitol church forum and the Marine band is a book by Margaret Bayard Smith, wife of a newspaper publisher.  The book is a free ebook via Google and can be read there. I am producing a lengthy section titled Jefferson at Church from her book.

At this time the only place for public worship in our new-city was a small, a very small frame building at the bottom of Capitol-hill. It had been a tobacco-house belonging to Daniel Carrol1 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 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, with the exception of a little Catholic chapel 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. 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 sabbath day-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.

So Jefferson and the Marine Band were in the same church services. The Marine Band did play, but  there is no evidence that he ordered the Marine Band to play. Jefferson attended the services but there is no evidence that he approved them officially. If anything, it sounds like they were ecumenical events with all sects and groups allowed to speak.

This is a situation which generally supports the idea that religion in some general sense was supported by the politicians of the time. It seems unnecessary for Barton to embellish the narrative.

I should hasten to add that I would be happy to issue a correction if Mr. Barton or any reader has evidence that Jefferson had some role in approving the services or ordering the Marine band to play.


David Barton on Thomas Jefferson – Gnadenhutten and the Christian Indians

David Barton on Thomas Jefferson – United Brethren and the Christian Indians

David Barton on Thomas Jefferson – In the Year of Our Lord Christ

David Barton on Thomas Jefferson: The Kaskaskia Indians

Was the Jefferson Bible an evangelism tool?

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  • The Senate chaplain was Dr. Thomas John Claggett, an Episcopalian, and the House chaplain was Rev. Thomas Lyell, a Methodist.

    This is an amusing and fascinating observation about social status. Based on what I’ve read, denominational affiliation had as much to do with social standing and cultural strata as it did with theology. A city’s social and political leaders – the upper class, if you will – attended Episcopal services, while the Methodist church was ‘church for the people’. It’s amusing that this is reflected in the chaplaincy of the two bodies, the upper and lower houses of Congress.

  • …since the gay company who thronged the H. R. looked very little like a religious assembly.

    Using Barton’s logic, clearly this was a gathering of homosexuals.

  • oft

    Warren said

    So Jefferson and the Marine Band were in the same church services. The Marine Band did play, but there is no evidence that he ordered the Marine Band to play. Jefferson attended the services but there is no evidence that he approved them officially



    If Jefferson is personally in charge of the building–which he was–by allowing the band and the services, is he not approving them? It appears to be a principle of logic. By allowing tax money to pay for the services and the band, he is approving it.

  • Jayhuck


    If Jefferson is personally in charge of the building–which he was–by allowing the band and the services, is he not approving them? It appears to be a principle of logic. By allowing tax money to pay for the services and the band, he is approving it.

    That is an incredibly weak argument. Tax money goes to fund all sorts of things that people don’t often personally endorse. If the founding Fathers had wanted to specify Christianity as the official religion of the land, they easily could have, but they did not. Your best argument is that something along these lines was implied, but why imply when they could have made it perfectly clear if they had wanted to.

  • Jayhuck,

    You aren’t paying attention. The fact that Jefferson did not rip the tuba out of the hand of the marching band member and hit him over the head with it unequivocally proves that Jefferson was a Southern Baptist minister. That wall of separation was just to keep out the Jews and the Catholics.

  • oft – Initially Jefferson had nothing to do with it. The President protempore votes when there are ties. The Senate never voted on church in the House chamber.

    What makes you think Jefferson was in charge of the building? Separation of powers man.

    As noted here and by Chris Rodda, the services were more like religious socials with every type of religious view offered. If there had been a mosque in DC, I suspect Jefferson would have had the Imam in.

    As I noted, this story cuts in favor of relgion generally. THere is no need to embellish it as Barton does.

  • oft


    The point I made was TJ was the chief executive. Maybe you can find out, I am not sure, but I believe TJ was in charge events in the Capitol building. If that is the case, he endorsed tax money to be used for church. I’m not saying they weren’t social events. But, making an official proclamation is irrelevant. HIs actions are what matters.

  • Curtis R. Schofield

    When Thomas Jefferson wrote “I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” was he worshiping in the church in the capital building or the church in Willamsburg?

  • Christopher Valin

    Jefferson wasn’t the President pro tempore of the Senate (a job that goes to an actual senator); as vice-president, he was president of the Senate in 1800. Although technically that left him in charge, he wasn’t allowed to debate or vote on anything except to break a tie. I hardly think that put him in a position to “approve” the use of the Capitol as a church.


    Was the Capital used for Religious services Y/N. Did a band play Y/N

    did people attend Y/N Then it was used as a church/correct

    by someone in charge. Why don’t the left did up the floor maybe there are some envelopes left and we can prove by DNA who preached

  • JOHNL MURPHY – Did Jefferson approve church in the Capitol? Y/N


    No one denies that people attended religious services. The claim was about Jefferson’s involvement. He attended sometimes but there is no record he had any role in approving it.

  • Omar

    There is no record that I help with teaching at the children’s church every Sunday. I always noticed there was a lack of pens for registration so one day I brought two packs and put one one the registration table and the other pack with the rest of the pens. There is no proof I did this. There is very little proof that I am there (other than me signing in which is only proof I signed in)

    Now we look at at Jefferson his job, his actions. There is a lot more proof he did approve and brought the Marine Band in then there is of me purchasing the pens. At this point I believe the opponents desire something such as Jefferson writing several letters, publishing them in a few newspapers stating how he came up with the idea, approved it, and four witnesses testifying that he in fact did so.

    • Omar – What is the proof that he did approve and brought the Marine Band in? Actually, we do have evidence that you bought the pens. You just wrote it down. Jefferson did not do that. Nor did anybody else. We know that the band was there but that is what we know. We do know that the chaplains were in charge of the services so I suppose there is some circumstantial evidence that they asked the band to play. But we don’t know. What I do know is that it is misleading to tell an audience that Jefferson did something we don’t know that he did.

  • ken


    I’ve been reading Warren blog for many years and because of my expertise in Warren’s writing I know that he disapproves of you buying pens for the church. Warren felt that it should have been up the church administrators to decide if pens should have been made available, not you.

    Now SGM say: No, no. there is no evidence that Warren felt that way. He never said anything about the pens. And his own history shows he was very charitable and believed in helping others. Your claims have no basis. You are just projecting your own ideals onto Warren.

    So which of us is correct? Me, because I’ve read so much about Warren or SGM who is saying there is no direct evidence and plenty to suggest the contrary or that he probably wouldn’t care one way or the other. And what if I had a history of misrepresenting Warren actions/words to make him say things he never did?

    Of course, Warren can easily settle this because he is still here to comment, Jefferson isn’t which is why you have to be much more thorough providing evidence about his views.

  • Warren

    Next book: Getting Throckmorton Right: Fact Checking Claims about Pens and other Modes of Communication.

  • Ann

    “Next book: Getting Throckmorton Right: Fact Checking Claims about Pens and other Modes of Communication.”

    Funny 🙂

  • ken

    Warren says:

    January 30, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    “Next book: Getting Throckmorton Right: Fact Checking Claims about Pens and other Modes of Communication.”

    Only if you can manage to turn my post into a book. If I throw in a few negative comments about you I’m sure Wallbuilders will publish it 🙂

  • ken – I think you would get a guest appearance on Wallbuilders Live, leading to a feature on the Glenn Beck Show.

  • ken

    Oh yeah, won’t that look great on a CV.

  • Jon

    Nicely done with over-analysis. The facts are that worship of some sort was conducted in the Capitol, Jefferson present, as well as the Marine Band. The entire issue of by who’s permission and who’s role it was to invite them is entirely irrelevant, as is most 21st century speculation about a time that you people know nothing about, but would like to inject your pet doctrines into. I suppose that if an atheist were so offended, then he would have left.

    You people are strainin at a gnat and, quite frankly, have made CAPITAL asses of yourselves. Peace.

    Jon, M.A. History

    • Jon – Yes, those are the facts which I don’t dispute. You should be directing your “peace”ful comments to Mr. Barton who makes mountains out of molehills.

      You appear to have some history training, so it is surprising that you would consider a fact irrelevant. Barton claims Jefferson started the church and invited the Marine band. There is no evidence for either claim. Real historians care about matters like that.

      As an aside and as a psychologist, I have to laugh at a kind reaction formation that allows people to call you names and then sign off with noble sounding words like “peace.”

  • Tom Van Dyke

    The facts are that worship of some sort was conducted in the Capitol, Jefferson present, as well as the Marine Band.

    You hit the historical nail on the head here, Jon. The Marine Band part is trivia, often used to obviate the entire discussion.

    The key historical fact is that during the construction of Washington DC, US government buildings, including the Capitol itself [!] were lent to all sects for religious services–which President Jefferson of all people attended.

    This gives the lie to modern-day “strict separation” arguments, an “impenetrable wall” between church and state: the philosophy was always one of accommodation, neither an establishment of one religion nor an exile of all religion either. God was seen as a reality, not a theory.