The National Day of Prayer each year is the first Thursday in May. As designated by Congress in 1952, the day is set aside for people “to turn to God in prayer and meditation.”
But prayer as part of the fabric of the United States goes back much further. The National Day of Prayer shares common roots with the celebration of Thanksgiving
“No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States,” George Washington declared in his first inaugural address, the first words uttered by a president of this country.
After Congress passed a resolution on Sept. 25, 1789, calling upon Washington to proclaim a National Day of Prayer, the president issued a proclamation to all Americans that Nov. 26, 1789, would be a day to “offer our prayers and supplications to the Great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.”
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful to his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor,” Washington’s proclamation begins, then encourages Americans to pray in their churches and homes on the designated day.
The national prayer tradition continued over the decades until Congress in 1952 enacted a statute calling upon the president to proclaim a National Day of Prayer once per year. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed amendments to the 1952 law, making the first Thursday of each May the National Day of Prayer for all Americans.
But prayer is not just for one day – and many presidents have proclaimed days of prayer in addition to the one in May, often in response to national tragedies.
President Donald Trump issued a proclamation on Sept. 1 declaring a national day of prayer following Hurricane Harvey and its devastating impact on Texas. In light of what has occurred since with hurricane-born disasters in Florida and Puerto Rico, and now the worst-ever U.S. mass killing taking place in Las Vegas, the need for prayer grows larger.
Claflin University President Dr. Henry N. Tisdale writes: “Our nation is once again numbed after another tragic act of violence that has claimed so many lives. … I am writing primarily to ask you to pray for the families of the victims. They are hurting because of this mindless act and most of us know all too well how devastating the loss of loved ones can be. Let us also pray that this and similar acts of violence will cease to occur as every life is indeed precious.”
Amid disasters, natural and man-made, the nation is due more soul-searching and sincerity – and godliness. And even those looking unfavorably on an official recognition of prayer should consider its merits.
For several decades, Dr. Benjamin Spock was the media expert for parents on how to rear their kids in America. In his 17 books and newspaper columns, he took a liberal approach along the lines of a "let them do their own thing."
Spock later pointed parents back toward religion, advising: "Spiritual values are the universal truths that define us as human beings." He knocked science for replacing religion and trying to explain the mysteries of the world and man's place in the world.
"Spiritual values may come wrapped in religious dogma. But the value systems of all religions are based on these universal human precepts: honesty, love of family, respect for others, and a sense of idealism that inspires us to strive for greatness in our chosen endeavors. Societies fall apart if they lose their fundamental beliefs. The signs of this loss are everywhere," Spock said.
In troubled and difficult times, we need prayer more than ever.