by Scott Korb

Listen to Scott, contributing editor to The Revealer, talk about the National Day of Prayer on BBC4’s “Sunday.”

As defenders of the National Day of Prayer will tell you, George Washington called for our first day of prayer in 1789: “That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war.” These same people will also point out that Abraham Lincoln proclaimed three such days during the Civil War, most famously on April 30, 1863, to mark what he called a necessary “Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer,” because “we have forgotten God.” Victories in Gettysburg and Vicksburg the following summer occasioned the 1864 proclamation; 1865’s National Day of Prayer was held June 1, in Lincoln’s memory.

When such days were proclaimed by presidents over the next century – at least until the start of the Cold War – they seemed marked with an equally grand scope and national significance: following the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881, for instance, or in 1914, with President Wilson’s first national prayer for peace in foreign lands.

By 1918, Washington’s first day of national thanksgiving had become very much the holiday we know today, marked by turkey and football and shows, as The Stars and Stripes reported from Paris, under the headline “DAY OF PRAYER ALSO ASKED FOR UNDER PRESIDENT LINCOLN’S ORIGINAL PROCLAMATION.” No matter that Lincoln’s proclamation, and of course Washington’s for that matter, had an entirely different meaning.

Even so, our national day of prayer at the end of WWI still seemed focused on humility (if not fasting) and God’s “kind care and protection,” or in Lincoln’s words, a national need to “humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for … forgiveness.” Such sentiments persisted through the Great Depression, when national days of prayer were focused on the prosperity of the least among us, and the end of WWII, when Roosevelt prayed with the nation over the radio on D-Day.

The Cold War changed things: in 1948 the Catholic organization known as the Christophers urged Truman to declare a day of prayer “for Russia and others in Soviet-dominated lands.” By the time the National Day of Prayer became the law of the land in 1952, the nation was using prayer against Communist infiltration of our education and, in 1954, as a weapon that could work, as Eisenhower hoped, even behind the Iron Curtain. (It is no coincidence that “under God” found its way into the “Pledge of Allegiance” around this same time. Americans were godly; the Communists were not.) In 1965, President Johnson faced stern opposition from San Francisco ministers who claimed that his national prayer for anti-Communist forces ignored the Gospel message of praying for our enemies.

Since then national prayer has occasionally been invoked in the humble spirit of Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt – consider Kennedy in 1964, using the day to call for the end of discrimination in our land, or Nixon, in 1969, who sought divine help for our nation’s POWs in North Vietnam. Even Nixon’s 1970 prayer for the astronauts of Apollo 13 seemed in keeping with the tradition’s remarkable history.

Despite these examples, the day has come to feel very small – much smaller, indeed, than in the days before it was law: In the days when it marked the humble founding of a nation, its endurance during civil war, and the fall of presidents. When it acknowledged national sin and asked forgiveness. When it urged us to pray for the poorest of the poor.

And the day never seemed smaller than when, in 1982, President Reagan used the National Day of Prayer to announce a constitutional amendment allowing voluntary prayer in public school. The president was praying to pray. He was praying not for our sakes, not for the sake of peace or humility or even prosperity, but for the sake of politics. Reagan was praying for prayer’s sake. And Reagan’s vision of national prayer – a vision that shaped the 1988 law mandating we all pray together on a specific day, the first Thursday of May – is the one we’re left with today. A vision that puts us before God and, by its politicization, pits us against one another.

Scott Korb is co-author, with Peter Bebergal, of The Faith Between Us and associate editor of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, winner of the American Historical Association’s 2009 J. Franklin Jameson Prize. His latest book is Life In Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine (Riverhead, 2010). He currently teaches religion and food writing at the New School and New York University. Read his tumblr at lifeinyearone.tumblr.com.


For more on the National Day of Prayer, read Elizabeth Drescher at Religion Dispatches.