U.S. Capitol, Once the Largest Church in Washington, D.C.

George Washington chose the first architect Dr. William Thornton to build the U.S. Capitol on top of Jenkins Hill in Washington, D.C. In 1793, Washington laid the U.S. Capitol’s cornerstone.

By 1800, the 6th Congress began meeting in the Capitol building. That December Congress authorized that the Capitol be used for church services.

Afterwards, John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and decades long member of the American Bible Society, noted that Congress authorized the largest room in the U.S. Capitol building to be used for church services. Oversight of Sunday services alternated between the Chaplains of the House and Senate; members of Congress and U.S. presidents attended.

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(On August 24, 1814 the British burned two wings of the U.S. Capitol building, badly damaging it during the War of 1812. By 1819 the Capitol had been restored by architect Charles Bullfinch. The original dome and rotunda was completed in 1824; the new dome in 1866.)

Despite fires, war, lack of funding, delays, and building and rebuilding of the Capitol, church services remained ongoing.

In 1840, John Quincy Adams noted that the Senate Chaplain Rev. George Cookman, preached on Acts 5:29-32. After hearing the sermon, Adams wrote that Cookman’s discourse “had drawn streams of tears from my eyes.” He also remarked that Cookman’s sermon captivated an audience of listeners who appeared like “marble statues, in silent and intense attention, five hundred pair of eyes beaming from the circumference to the center of the hall on one focal point, the preacher’s face.”

In 1844, the 28th Congress ordered that “the use of the Hall of this House” be permitted for the American Bible Society. In the U.S. Capitol, Adams spoke of the “unparalleled blessings of the Christian Gospel” to the Society’s members. He admonished:

“The hope of the Christian is inseparable from his faith. Whoever believes in the Divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures must hope that the religion of Jesus shall prevail throughout the earth. Never since the foundation of the world have the prospects of mankind been more encouraging to that hope than they appear to be at the present time.”

By 1867, the U.S. Capitol had become the largest church in Washington, D.C. and one of the largest in America. Roughly 2,000 people attended church services at the Capitol every Sunday. 

Of the eight large paintings in the Capitol’s Rotunda, several specifically reference Christianity.

The Landing of Columbus: Columbus had said, “it was the Lord who put it [sailing] to my mind … the Gospel must still be preached to so many lands.”

The Baptism of Pocahontas: Pocahontas became a Christian in Virginia, whose charter stated it purpose to bring the “Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God.”

The Departure of the Pilgrims from Holland: William Brewster depicted holding an open Bible on which is written “The New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

There are also carved reliefs adding to the paintings’ depictions. One relief is of William Penn, who founded the Pennsylvania colony, which he called his “holy experiment.” Penn said, “my God that has given it to me … will, I believe bless and make it the seed of a nation.” Another, is a relief of the Landing of the Pilgrims, whose stated goal was “for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith.”

imagesOver one century later a prayer room was opened in 1955, to the side of the Rotunda. Inside are prayer benches, chairs, plants, candles, and an American flag.

The focal point of the room is an altar, placed beneath a stained glass window of George Washington kneeling in prayer. A Bible (usually opened to Psalm 23) rests on the altar.

Above Washington’s image is etched “This nation under God.” Around him is inscribed a verse from Psalm 16, “Preserve me, O God, for in Thee do I put my trust.”


Bethany Blankley

Bethany Blankley is a political analyst for Fox News Radio and has appeared on television and radio programs nationwide. She writes about political, cultural, and religious issues in America from the perspective of an evangelical and former communications staffer. She was a communications strategist for four U.S. Senators, one U.S. Congressman, a former New York governor, and several non-profits. She earned her MA in Theology from The University of Edinburgh, Scotland and her BA in Political Science from the University of Maryland. Follow her @bethanyblankley facebook.com/BlankleyBethany/ & BethanyBlankley.com.

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