Even those Americans who already knew that the Senate has a chaplain tend to view his function as merely ceremonial. As the Rev. Peter Marshall, a former Senate chaplain, once put it, the office of the chaplain seems “a little like a bit of parsley garnishing the political platter.” Regardless of religious persuasion, we tend to expect from formal preliminaries nothing more than cliche, anodyne prayers with no fire in them — not bold remarks like those offered by Black.
But revisiting history suggests that Black’s directness should not be surprising. The Senate’s designated prayer time was long understood to be an occasion to exhort the consciences of members of Congress and to make them reflect on the moral standards that should guide their actions as they deliberated on the future of the nation.
On April 25, 1789, under the newly adopted Constitution, the First Congress appointed the office of the Senate chaplain and elected the Rev. Samuel Provoost of New York to the post. Central to the appointment was incorporating a moment of prayer to open legislative sessions. The purpose was to keep the nation accountable to God and to invoke divine guidance. Controversy over the constitutionality of the chaplaincy, in light of the separation of church and state, did not arise until several decades later.
Some of the chaplains that followed Provoost took the opportunity to confront government officials about their accountability to God. At times they were heavy-handed. John Brackenridge, the Senate’s 13th chaplain from 1811 to 1814, preached to members of Congress with “the boldest language of reprehension,” as one observer recalled. In one sermon, he lambasted them for the religious apathy in their personal lives and for passing legislation which, in his view, undermined religious piety: “It is not the people who will suffer for these enormities, you, the law-givers, who are the cause of this crime, will in your public capacity suffer for it.”
In the 1850s, several petitions were presented to Congress recommending the removal of the office of the chaplain based on the argument that, as a tax-supported role, it was at odds with the separation of church and state outlined in the Constitution.
In March 1854, after considering the matter carefully, a committee decided that the chaplain, prayers and all, should stay. Congress, the committee declared, had “so many and so widely different interests to protect and to harmonize, and so many local passions to subdue,” that if there was any wisdom from God at all, their legislative body could benefit from it. The committee insisted that senators needed “to have their views of personal importance daily chastened by the reflection that they are under the government of a Supreme Power.” God, they pressed on, subjects “all motives and acts to an omniscient scrutiny and holds all agents to their just rewards.”
The members of that committee expected chaplains to rouse senators’ consciences, challenge their natural inclinations for self-preservation, confront them with the reality that their actions were subject to God’s “omniscient scrutiny” and remind them that they would get “their just rewards,” whether for good or evil.
By the early 20th century, however, the chaplaincy descended into dullness, with observers complaining about a lack of substance in boredom-inducing prayers. Edward Everett Hale, the 51st chaplain of the Senate, who took over the role in 1903, brought new life into the prayer session, leading some to remark that “it was the difference between a mere ceremonialist and a believer, between a prayer by machinery or by rote and a prayer out of the soul.”
But the tendency toward mere ceremonialism has been a consistent challenge to the chaplaincy’s mission. Others have shared Hale’s determination to address this. In the late 1940s, Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall prayed before Congress: “Save this moment, O Lord, from being merely a gesture to custom or convention, and make it a real experience for each one of us in this place.” Marshall underscored the concern that the prayer session would become empty formalism, rather than a serious time for senators to reckon with their consciences and prepare their hearts to vote in the best interest of the nation.
In the decades after Marshall’s tenure, the chaplaincy transitioned from a part-time job to a full-time one, with the responsibilities expanding considerably compared with its earlier days. More than just offering prayers at official gatherings, the chaplain’s role now consists of providing spiritual care and counsel, not only for senators, but also for their staffs and families — a constituency of about 6,000 people.
Black took on the role in 2003, representing several firsts: He is the first African American and the first Seventh-day Adventist to hold that office. But he is not the first to sense the unique opportunity, and solemn responsibility, of using his platform to offer more than just platitudes.
Black’s rhetoric might be too much for some. Perhaps we’re uncomfortable seeing overt religion on the Senate floor. There should be an ongoing debate about the constitutionality of congressional chaplains in a nation that champions the separation of church and state.
But in the meantime, a spiritual force like Black could potentially bring some accountability into that chamber. He could inspire more senators to rise above partisan loyalties and resist the pressure to stand with their “teams” when truth and justice are at stake. Perhaps it would be healthy for senators to be confronted more often with the sobering reality that they will reap what they sow and that — as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) put it with his vote to convict Trump — taking an oath before God is “enormously consequential.”
The aftermath of this impeachment trial has left many Americans in dismay. They wonder whether the nation’s elected officials are doing their jobs. At least we know the Senate chaplain is doing his.