Prayers are found throughout the Bible, and prayer was considered so important that the disciples asked Jesus how to pray correctly. It has also been a hallmark of United States history.
Thursday, May 4 marks the 66th National Day of Prayer, commemorating the importance prayer continues to play in our country. The day marks an occasion for the nation to humble itself before God and pray for wisdom for the country’s leaders.
The National Day of Prayer became official in 1952 with a proclamation during the Korean War. It was spurred by Billy Graham, who said, “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.”
“From General Washington’s struggle at Valley Forge to the present, this Nation has fervently sought and received divine guidance as it pursued the course of history.”—Ronald Reagan
Each president since Truman has reissued the pledge, with President Ronald Reagan establishing by law the National Day of Prayer to be the first Thursday of May. Reagan said, “From General Washington’s struggle at Valley Forge to the present, this Nation has fervently sought and received divine guidance as it pursued the course of history. This occasion provides our Nation with an opportunity to further recognize the source of our blessings, and to seek His help for the challenges we face today and in the future.”
But while it was made official in 1952, national days of prayer have been a common occurrence in the United States, starting before it became a country.
In 1775, the country’s leaders meeting as the Continental Congress, asked their fellow colonists to observe a day of humiliation, fasting and prayer on July 20 as they sought to obtain rights and justice from England. General George Washington called for the same in the springs of 1779 and 1780, and then again as President in 1789 in conjunction with Thanksgiving.
For the next 163 years, some presidents proclaimed a national day of prayer while others didn’t. In 1863, during the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln called for the first national day of prayer since 1815.
All told, there have been 145 calls for a national day of prayer issued by presidents. In addition, there have been more than 1,400 state proclamations for days of prayer.
Estimates are that more than 2 million people will gather in 30,000 locations on Thursday to observe the National Day of Prayer.
As expected, the National Day of Prayer faced a lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2008, claiming it violated the Constitution. A District Court ruled that the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional, but that decision was overturned by the Circuit Court of Appeals.
There is also a national student day of prayer, See You at the Pole, on the fourth Wednesday of September when students meet at their school’s flagpole before school to pray.