WASHINGTON – As the Rev. John Appel stood before Congress Wednesday afternoon, he noticed something unique about one of the 23 marble portraits of lawmakers around the House chamber walls.
“Moses was looking straight at the Speaker,” the Frederick pastor said, smiling, noting all the others were in profile. “It was like he was saying, ‘You better watch what you’re doing.'”
Appel, 60, led the opening prayer of the House session Wednesday as a guest chaplain invited by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick. Appel is the senior minister at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Frederick where Bartlett worships.
Appel’s wife Sally, Youth Minister Robert Quintana, Parish nurse Bonnie Horman and church board Chairman Russell Horman also attended.
Biblical lawman Moses may have been watching House Speaker Dennis Hastert, but it was Hastert’s opinion of Appel at a Bartlett campaign event that led to Wednesday’s honor.
“Hastert said he appreciated my words, and that he would like his associates to hear me,” Appel said.
Through Bartlett, Appel’s name was put on the list of potential guest chaplains. The minister learned three weeks ago that he would pray before Congress, a tradition he had only seen on television.
“It’s really an interesting process,” Appel said. “I really never suspected that I’d be the one doing it.”
The House has a staff chaplain, the Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, but Congress members may invite guest chaplains to open the session. The opening prayer has been a tradition since the Continental Congresses. The House started the tradition with its first chaplain, the Rev. William Linn, on May 1, 1789. About 15 to 40 guest chaplains open sessions each year, recent annual records show.
Prayer in government has created controversy, with groups citing separation of church and state or conflicting beliefs.
On Wednesday, Bartlett said opponents of prayer in Congress “don’t understand the beginnings of our nation.”
Bartlett quoted Benjamin Franklin during brief remarks after Appel’s prayer. Franklin broached the topic of prayer during “a moment of crisis” at the Constitutional Convention, Bartlett said.
Franklin asked his fellow Founding Fathers for prayer to “be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to any business,” Bartlett told Congress.
The chaplain’s job itself became the center of controversy in March 2000, when Hastert had to fend off accusations that he was anti-Catholic.
Hastert selected the Rev. Charles Parker Wright, a Presbyterian, over the Rev. Timothy O’Brien, a Roman Catholic priest, despite a congressional committee’s bias toward O’Brien.
Wright withdrew his candidacy, leading to the appointment of Coughlin, the first Roman Catholic priest to serve as House chaplain.
After a brief photo-op with Appel, the minister’s crew, and Hastert, Coughlin cited religious diversity as one of the advantages to hosting guest chaplains.
“It’s an honor, just for others to share in on it,” Coughlin said. “Because I know what it’s like.”
Bartlett noted there were not many people on the House floor during the prayer, but C-SPAN coverage would more than make up for the lack of a live audience.
“That might have been an empty chamber,” he said. “But a million and a half people watched that.”