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Intersection of Life and Faith

Why a National Day of Prayer?

  • Frank Wright Executive Director, Center for Christian Statesmanship
  • 2002 29 Apr
Why a National Day of Prayer?
The early morning attack on Manhattan in September stunned everyone. In the days and weeks that followed, Congress debated what military action should be taken. It became apparent that a long, drawn-out campaign was necessary.

At one point during the debates, one congressman turned to a friend and colleague and, in hushed tones, asked if he believed America would prevail.

"Yes," replied the second, "if we fear God and repent [of] our sins."
You probably are thinking I am describing events following 9/11. Actually, I am referring to the massive British naval bombardment of New York in September 1776, as retold by David McCullough in his best-seller, John Adams. The whispered conversation occurred between the American patriots Benjamin Rush and John Adams, as they were convened in Philadelphia.

These men recognized that the future of the young nation was more dependent on the providence of God than a powerful military force. It was only natural that they appeal to Him for protection and strength in days of uncertainty and crisis.

Now, more than two centuries later, our nation finds itself in a similar time of crisis. The question is, following the terrorist attack on New York and Washington, D.C., will America heed John Adams' advice to pray?
Certainly, in the weeks and months after 9/11, many in our nation did turn to prayer. However, as the threat of danger has lessened, pollsters tell us that our citizens have reverted to their pre-attack level of religious involvement.
Hopefully, on May 2, the National Day of Prayer will revive the call to pray. 
The National Day of Prayer encourages Americans to pray. It isn't sponsored by any church or ministry. It is simply a day set aside by the government to remind all citizens to pray for our nation, its people, and its civil leaders at all levels. As early as 1775, we have records that the Continental Congress specifically set aside time to pray. In 1863, during our nation's tumultuous Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called for such a day. 

Officially, the National Day of Prayer was established by Congress as an annual event in 1952, and President Truman signed it into law. Then, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan amended the law and established the first Thursday of May each year as the National Day of Prayer.
This year, President Bush and the governors from each state are signing official proclamations encouraging our citizens to pray on May 2. But as important as it is to see our government officials take part (and for that I am thankful!), it is more important to have millions of Americans participate - and the National Day of Prayer organizers expect nearly two million to do so in communities across our nation. 

Many people will take part in prayer breakfasts. Others will be part of Bible reading marathons, like the one I help organize on Capitol Hill, which culminates on the National Day of Prayer. At many schools, students will join together as well. Last year, volunteers organized 30,000 events - and people from all walks of life took time out of their busy schedules to pray.

The significance of such an event in our nation cannot be overestimated. It should remind us that our Founding Fathers sought the wisdom of God when faced with critical decisions. At this critical juncture in our nation's history, we should humbly come before God, pray for our leaders, and ask for His grace upon us as a people. 

So often, as Americans, we like to look at how far we've come. We live in the economic, military, cultural, and spiritual superpower of the entire world. The globe follows our lead. Yet, let us never forget why we have come so far.
We have come this far because of men like Benjamin Rush and John Adams, who staked their very lives and the future of this nation on ... a prayer. We have come this far because tens of millions of Americans are still saying those prayers today. That is why events like the National Day of Prayer are not peripheral; they are central to our nation's very survival.

Someday, not too long from today, another historian will sit down to chronicle the events of another September attack that threatened our nation. Perhaps that historian will turn to this day, the National Day of Prayer, as a crucial moment in which a nation once again turned heavenward and sought help from the One who providentially guided this nation and blessed it throughout its history.

Dr. Frank Wright is executive director of the D. James Kennedy Center for Christian Statesmanship and the Honorary President of the International Bible Reading Association.