Reflections From History And Faith
By Jeff Olson
As a nation rooted in Biblical principles and faith, America has a rich history of prayer. Its role in both private and public life of our nation is indisputable and has been crucial to Divine Providence in protecting and guiding our nation and in bestowing God’s blessings on our great land.
This has been reflected in set-aside times of prayer and fasting since our nation’s beginning. In the early days of the New England colonies, community days of prayer and fasting were common, often prompted by such calamities as disease, drought, and dangers from attack. Also, state – or nationwide days of prayer were called in times of great danger and even in times of relative peace and stability. To cite but just a few: On July 20, 1775, the Continental Congress issued a proclamation recommending “a day of public humiliation, fasting, and prayer” be observed. In 1795George Washington proclaimed a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. As governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson signed a proclamation for a day of thanksgiving and prayer to be held on December 9, 1779. On May 9, 1798, John Adams declared this day as “a day of solemn humility, fasting, and prayer.” On March 3, Abraham Lincoln signed a Congressional resolution during the Civil War, which called for April 30, 1863, as a day of fasting and prayer.
Having become such an inherent, ingrained part of our culture of faith, these proclamations continued well into the twentieth century, and by the early 1950s, when our nation was embroiled in the Korean War (1950-1953), Reverend Billy Graham (1918-2018) issued a challenge for a yearly, set-aside National Day of Prayer. He stated: “What a thrilling, glorious thing it would be to see the leaders of our country today kneeling before Almighty God in prayer. What a thrill would sweep this country. What renewed hope and courage would grip the Americans at this hour of peril.” A representative from Tennessee recognized the challenge issued by Billy Graham and began a campaign to have an official National Day of Prayer each year.
This campaign culminated in a joint resolution passed by Congress (Public Law 82-324) and signed by President Harry Truman on April 17, 1952. This law essentially stated that a National Day of Prayer must be declared by each successive president on a day he deemed appropriate.
Thirty-six years later and thirty-five years ago, on May 5, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed an amendment to it (Public Law 100-307), designating the first Thursday of May each year as the annual observance for the National Day of Prayer. As he stated: “On our National Day of Prayer, then, we join together as people of many faiths to petition God to show us His mercy and His love, to heal our weariness and uphold our hope, that we might live ever mindful of His justice and thankful for His blessing.”
The 2023 National Day of Prayer is this Thursday, May 4. The theme for this year‘s observance is Pray Fervently in Righteousness and Avail Much, which is based in James 5:16B: “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man vails much.” On this special day, people of different faiths are invited to pray for the United States of America and its leaders. For more information, you can visit the National Day of Prayer website at https://www.nationaldayofprayer.org/
There are some people and organizations who believe that the National Day of Prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Many interpret this to mean not only that the government must not favor one religion over the other but also should not favor the religious over the non-religious. However, consistent with the original intent of the drafters of the First Amendment, the courts ruled that since the National Day of Prayer does not force anyone to pray nor endorse any particular religion, it does not violate the Constitution.
While the U.S. government officially recognizes the day, it does not mandate or provide any guidelines as to how the day should be observed. Organizations and people from any tradition can create a National Day of Prayer observance, including interfaith groups. Anyone can organize an event, from a prayer breakfast to a food drive to a moment of silence. The National Day of Prayer is a tremendous and always timely opportunity to reflect on America’s Godly heritage and for Americans of various faiths to express thankfulness to God for His providence in our families, communities, and nation – and for the freedom we still have to openly express this beyond the four walls of the church building and home. Most important and fundamental, though is our nation’s desperate need for each of us to humbly submit ourselves before God’s throne, acknowledge His sovereignty, repent of our sins, and accept His offer of mercy and redemption (Romans 3:24-26). Only by starting here can the restoration of America become an enduring reality (II Chronicles 7:13-14).
I will close with an excerpt from one of many National Day of Prayer proclamations from our former presidents. This one, from President Ronald Reagan in 1986, seemed to me to hit home in a special and timely way.
In 1952 the Congress of the United States, resuming a tradition observed by the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1783 and followed intermittently thereafter, adopted a resolution calling on the President to set aside and proclaim a suitable day each year as a National Day of Prayer. At the time the resolution was adopted, Americans were dying on the battlefield in Korea. More than 125,000 of our young men had been killed or wounded in that conflict, the third major war in which our troops were involved in a century barely half over.
Members of Congress who spoke for the resolution made clear that they felt the Nation continued to face the very same challenges that preoccupied our Founders: the survival of freedom in a world frequently hostile to human ideals and the struggle for faith in an age that openly doubted or vehemently denied the existence of the Almighty. One Senator remarked that “it would be timely and appropriate for the people of our Nation to join in this service of prayer in the spirit of the founding fathers who believed that God governs in the affairs of men and who based their Declaration of Independence upon a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”
Human nature is such that times of distress, grief, and war — or their recent memory — impel us to acknowledgements we are often too proud to make, or too prone to forget, in periods of peace and prosperity. During the Civil War Lincoln said that he was driven to his knees in prayer because he was convinced that he had nowhere else to go.
During World War II, an unknown soldier in a trench in Tunisia left behind a scrap of paper with the verses:
Stay with me, God. The night is dark,
The night is cold: my little spark
Of courage dies. The night is long;
Be with me, God, and make me strong.
America has lived through many a cold, dark night, when the cupped hands of prayer were our only shield against the extinction of courage. Though that flame has flickered from time to time, it burns brightest when we are willing, as we ought to be now, to turn our faces and our hearts to God not only at moments of personal danger and civil strife, but in the full flower of the liberty, peace, and abundance that He has showered upon us.
Indeed, the true meaning of our entire history as a Nation can scarcely be glimpsed without some notion of the importance of prayer, our Declaration of Dependence on God’s favor on this unfinished enterprise we call America. Our land today is more diverse than ever, our citizens come from nearly every nation on Earth, and the variety of religious traditions that have found welcome here has never been greater. On our National Day of Prayer, then, we join together as people of many faiths to petition God to show us His mercy and His love, to heal our weariness and uphold our hope, that we might live ever mindful of His justice and thankful for His blessing.