The Continental Congress Hears Psalm 35—John Adams (1735 - 1826)
Before accepting law as his vocation, John Adams, America’s second president, undertook pre-ministerial studies. His wife, Abigail, was a minister’s daughter, born into a distinguished line of New England Puritan pastors. Both were well tutored in Scripture, and their letters to one another were full of biblical references.
In this letter from Philadelphia, John recounts a poignant spiritual moment at the opening of the First Continental Congress, whose delegates included such luminaries as George Washington and John Hancock. Though the guest clergyman, Reverend Duché, would later prove to be a disappointment to the colonists’ cause,1 on this particular day in September of 1774, his ministry of the Word was most effectual. His reading of Psalm 35.2 and his fervent prayer bolstered the delegates’ resolve to accomplish the task before them, ever conscious of their accountability and debt to the Sovereign Lord.
When the Congress first met, Mr. Cushing made a motion that it should be opened with prayer. It was opposed by Mr. Jay, of New York, and Mr. Rutledge, of South Carolina, because we were so divided in religious sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians, and some Congregationalists, that we could not join in the same act of worship. Mr. Samuel Adams arose and said, 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. He was a stranger in Philadelphia, but had heard that Mr. Duché (Dushay they pronounce it) deserved that character, and therefore he moved that Mr. Duché, an Episcopal clergyman, might be desired to read prayers to the Congress, to-morrow morning. The motion was seconded and passed in the affirmative. Mr. Randolph, our president, waited on Mr. Duché, and received for answer that if his health would permit he certainly would. Accordingly, next morning he appeared with his clerk and in his pontificals, and read several prayers in the established form; and then read the collect for the seventh day of September, which was the thirty-fifth Psalm. You must remember, this was the next morning after we heard the horrible rumor of the cannonade of Boston. I never saw a greater effect upon an audience. It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning.
After this, Mr. Duché, unexpected to every body, struck out into an extemporary prayer, which filled the bosom of every man present. I must confess I never heard a better prayer, or one so well pronounced… It has had an excellent effect upon every body here. I must beg you to read that Psalm.3
John Adams, “Letter from Yorktown, 25 October 1777,” in The Letters of John and Abigail Adams, ed. Frank Shuffelton (New York: Penguin, 2004), 320. Adams wrote, “Mr. Duché, I am sorry to inform you, has turned out an apostate and a traitor. Poor man! I pity his weakness and detest his wickedness.”
It begins with the words, “Contend, O LORD, with those who content with me.”
John Adams, “John Adams to Mrs. Adams, Philadelphia, 16 September, 1774,” in Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, vol. 1, ed. Edmund C. Burnett (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institute of Washington, 1921), 32-33.