Two summers ago, at a seminary graduation, I had the opportunity to hear a speech given by Rev. Dr. Barry C. Black, the 62nd
Chaplain of the United States Senate. His address to the graduating seminarians was superb. This was one of those addresses that would justifiably take loads of superlative adjectives to describe it. Dr. Black's erudition extends to biblical studies, philosophy, literature, poetry, international relations, social sciences and oratorical skills.
This year, as I moved parts of my library from the church office to my seminary office, I picked up a book that I read a long time ago written by another Senate Chaplain, Rev. Dr. Peter Marshall. Marshall is one of the most poetical pastors and he delivered some of the best prayers in the Senate during his short tenure of two years (1947-1949). Marshall's prayers at the opening of the Senate were remarkably short, but to the point so that no one who heard them would forget them. For example - "Since we strain at gnats and swallow camels, give us a new standard of values and the ability to know a trifle when we see it and to deal with it as such." He was also able to appreciate the unwritten rule of Senate prayers, remarking one day, "I find that the Senators appreciate my prayers in inverse ratio to their length."
There have been 62 chaplains who served in the US Senate. The division of the chaplains that have served are: Episcopalian 19, Methodist 17, Presbyterian 14, Baptist 6, Unitarian 2, Congregationalist 1, Lutheran 1, Roman Catholic 1, Seventh Day Adventist 1. Today the United States Chaplain is considered the Pastor of the Senate. In addition to opening the Senate each day in prayer, the duties of the current Senate chaplain include the spiritual care and counseling of senators, their families and their staff - a combined constituency of over 6,000 people-- as well as discussion sessions, prayer meeting, and weekly Senators' Prayer Breakfast.
Senator Robert Byrd wrote a summative article on the US Senate chaplaincy in his book entitled: The Senate, 1789-1989: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate. Senator Byrd knows the intricacies of the Senate and its history. He demonstrates that the chaplains who have served in the Senate have had a distinguished impact on the thinking of this nation. A few times, there have been proposals to remove the chaplains from the Senate, but these have been short-lived. The majority of the US Senators, as Byrd remarks, have been appreciative of the work of the chaplains and of the blessings of God upon this country and therefore, are ready to hear prayers offered to the Almighty. Sometimes, people who were not known for their great reverence surprised everyone by asking that prayers be made. As Benjamin Franklin said at the Constitutional Convention on June 28, 1787, "I have lived, Sir a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth -that God governs in the affairs of men. And, if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? Therefore, Franklin suggested that the Founders seek the strength from their Creator, otherwise, "we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel."
While the Founders were careful not to have any particular denomination become the preferred denomination of the state (like the state church in nations like England), they always welcomed prayers on their behalf and on the behalf of the country from their particular churches and from the United States Senate chaplains.
As in 1854, so now we can agree with the following report from the Senate: "If there be a God who hears prayer - as we believe there is - we submit, that there never was a deliberative body that so eminently needed the fervent prayers of righteous men as the Congress of the United States."