National Days of Prayer – American Minute with Bill Federer

Do you know America’s tradition of Days of Prayer?

In Alexander Young’s Chronicles of the Pilgrims, (Boston, 1841), Edward Winslow recounted:

“Drought and the like … moved not only every good man privately to enter into examination with his own estate between God and his conscience, and so to humiliation before Him, but also to humble ourselves together before the Lord by Fasting and Prayer.”

Connecticut colonists proclaimed a day in early spring for Fasting and Prayer, customarily Good Friday. 

In 1668, the Virginia House of Burgesses in Jamestown passed:

“The 27th of August appointed for a Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer, to implore God’s mercy: if any person be found upon that day gaming, drinking, or working, works of necessity excepted, upon presentment by church-wardens and proof, he shall be fined.”

In 1746, French Admiral d’Anville sailed for New England, commanding the most powerful fleet of the day, 70 ships with 13,000 troops. He intended to recapture Louisburg, Nova Scotia, and destroy from Boston to New York, down to Georgia.

Massachusetts Governor William Shirley declared a Day of Prayer and Fasting, October 16, 1746. In Boston’s Old South Meeting House, Rev. Thomas Prince prayed:

“Send Thy tempest, Lord, upon the water … scatter the ships of our tormentors!” Historian Catherine Drinker Bowen related that as he finished praying, the sky darkened, winds shrieked and church bells rang “a wild, uneven sound … though no man was in the steeple.”

A hurricane scattered the entire French fleet. With 4,000 sick and 2,000 dead, including Admiral d’Anville, French Vice-Admiral d’Estournelle threw himself on his sword.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his Ballad of the French Fleet:

“Admiral d’Anville had sworn by cross and crown, to ravage with fire and steel our helpless Boston Town …

From mouth to mouth spread tidings of dismay, I stood in the Old South saying humbly: ‘Let us pray!’ …

Like a potter’s vessel broke, the great ships of the line,

were carried away as smoke or sank in the brine.”

As French and Spanish raids increased, Ben Franklin proposed a General Fast, approved by Pennsylvania’s Council and published in the Pennsylvania Gazette, December 12, 1747:

“We have … thought fit … to appoint … a Day of Fasting and Prayer … to join with one accord in … fervent supplications that Almighty God would mercifully interpose and still the rage of war among the nations and put a stop to the effusion of Christian blood.”

On May 24, 1774, as British blockaded Boston’s Harbor, Jefferson drafted a Resolution for the Virginia House of Burgesses:

“With apprehension of the great dangers … from the hostile invasion of the City of Boston, in our sister Colony of Massachusetts … deem it highly necessary that the said first day of June be set apart … as a Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer … to implore the Divine interposition, for averting the heavy calamity which threatens destruction to our civil rights.”

Washington wrote in his diary, June 1, 1774: “Went to church, fasted all day.”

Virginia’s Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, viewed this prayer resolution as a protest against King George so he dissolved the House of Burgesses, resulting in legislators meeting down the street in Raleigh Tavern and planning the Continental Congress.

On April 15, 1775, just four days before the Battle of Lexington, John Hancock let Massachusetts Provincial Congress to declare:

“In circumstances dark as these, it becomes us, as men and Christians, to reflect that, whilst every prudent measure should be taken to ward off the impending judgments … the 11th of May … be set apart as a Day of Public Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer … to confess the sins … to implore the forgiveness.”

On April 19, 1775, in a Proclamation of a Day of Fasting and Prayer, Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull beseeched that:

“God would graciously pour out His Holy Spirit on us to bring us to a thorough repentance and effectual reformation that our iniquities may not be our ruin … and make the land a mountain of Holiness.”

On June 12, 1775, less than two months after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, where was fired “the shot heard ‘round the world,” John Hancock led the Continental Congress to declare:

“Congress … considering the present critical, alarming and calamitous state … do earnestly recommend … a Day of Public Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer … that we may with united hearts and voices, unfeignedly confess and deplore our many sins … It is recommended to Christians of all denominations to assemble for public worship and to abstain from servile labor and recreations of said day.”

On July 12, 1775, John Adams wrote to his wife:

“We have appointed a Continental fast. Millions will be upon their knees at once before their great Creator, imploring His forgiveness and blessing; His smiles on American Council and arms.”

From his Cambridge headquarters, Washington ordered, March 6, 1776:

“Thursday, the 7th … being set apart … as a Day of Fasting, Prayer and Humiliation, ‘to implore the Lord and Giver of all victory to pardon our manifold sins and wickedness, and that it would please Him to bless the Continental army with His divine favor and protection.’”

On March 16, 1776, the Continental Congress passed a resolution presented by General William Livingston:

“Congress …. desirous … to have people … impressed with a solemn sense of God’s superintending providence … recommend … a Day of … Prayer; that we may, with united hearts, confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and, by sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease God’s righteous displeasure, and, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain this pardon and forgiveness.”

On November 11, 1779, Virginia Governor Jefferson proclaimed:

“Congress … hath thought proper … to recommend … a day of public and solemn Thanksgiving to Almighty God … That He would … crown our arms with victory; that He would grant to His church, the plentiful effusions of Divine Grace, and pour out His Holy Spirit on all ministers of the Gospel … and spread the light of Christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth.”

On February 21, 1786, New Hampshire Governor John Langdon proclaimed a Day of Public Fasting and Prayer:

“It having been the laudable practice of this State, at the opening of the Spring, to set apart a day … to … penitently confess their manifold sins and transgressions … that He would be pleased to bless the great Council of the United States of America and … that He would rain down righteousness upon the earth, revive religion, and spread abroad the knowledge of the true God, the Savior of man, throughout the world.”

Ben Franklin stated at the Constitutional Convention, 1787:

“In the beginning of the Contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for Divine protection.”

Ronald Reagan said January 27, 1983:

“In 1775, the Continental Congress proclaimed the first National Day of Prayer … In 1783, the Treaty of Paris officially ended the long, weary Revolutionary War during which a National Day of Prayer had been proclaimed every spring for eight years.”

Yale College had a requirement in 1787: “All the scholars are obliged to attend Divine worship in the College Chapel on the Lord’s Day and on Days of Fasting and Thanksgiving appointed by public authority.”

The same week Congress passed the Bill of Rights, President Washington declared, October 3, 1789:

“Whereas both Houses of Congress … requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a Day of Public Thanksgiving and Prayer … with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness’…

I do recommend … the 26th day of November … to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

After the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania, Washington proclaimed a Day of Prayer, January 1, 1796:

“All persons within the United States … fervently beseech the kind Author of these blessings … to establish habits of sobriety, order, and morality and piety.” 

During the Quasi-War with France, a second Great Awakening revival swept America. President Adams declared on March 23, 1798:

“The people of the United States are still held in jeopardy by … insidious acts of a foreign nation, as well as by the dissemination among them of those principles subversive to … all religious, moral, and social obligations …

I hereby recommend … a Day of Solemn Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer; That the citizens … call to mind our numerous offenses against the Most High God, confess them before Him with the sincerest penitence, implore His pardoning mercy, through the Great Mediator and Redeemer … and that through the grace of His Holy Spirit, we may be disposed and enabled to yield a more suitable obedience to His righteous requisitions … ‘Righteousness exalteth a nation but sin is a reproach to any people.’”

James Madison, known as the “Chief Architect of the Constitution,” wrote many of the Federalist Papers to convince the States to ratify the Constitution, and then introduced the First Amendment in the first session of Congress.

During the War of 1812, Madison proclaimed a Day of Prayer:

“Rendering the Sovereign of the Universe … public homage … acknowledging the transgressions which might justly provoke His divine displeasure … seeking His merciful forgiveness … and with a reverence for the unerring precept of our holy religion, to do to others as they would require that others should do to them.”

British soldiers invaded Washington, D.C., August 25, 1814, and burned the White House and Capitol. Suddenly dark clouds rolled in and a tornado touched down sending debris flying, blowing off roofs and knocking down chimneys on British troops. Horse and rider were thrown to the ground. Two cannons were lifted up and dropped yards away.

A British historian wrote: “More British soldiers were killed by this stroke of nature than from all the firearms the American troops had mustered.” British forces fled and rains extinguished the fires.

Madison proclaimed, November 16, 1814:

“In the present time of public calamity and war a day may be … observed by the people of the United States as a Day of Public Humiliation and Fasting and of Prayer to Almighty God.”

On April 13, 1841, President William Harrison died. President John Tyler issued a Day of Prayer and Fasting:

“When a Christian people feel themselves to be overtaken by a great public calamity, it becomes them to humble themselves under the dispensation of Divine Providence.”

During a cholera epidemic, President Zachary Taylor proclaimed, July 3, 1849:

“A fearful pestilence … is spreading itself throughout the land, it is fitting that a people whose reliance has ever been in His protection should humble themselves before His throne … acknowledging past transgressions, ask a continuance of the Divine mercy.

It is earnestly recommended that the first Friday in August be observed throughout the United States as a Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer.”

During tensions prior to the Civil War, President Buchanan declared a Day of Prayer and Fasting, December 14, 1860:

“In this the hour of our calamity and peril to whom shall we resort for relief but to the God of our fathers? Let us … unite in humbling ourselves before the Most High, confessing our individual and national sins … His omnipotent arm only can save us from the awful effects of our own crimes and follies …

Let me invoke every individual … to feel a personal responsibility to God and his country for keeping this day holy.”

On August 12, 1861, after the Union lost the Battle of Bull Run, President Lincoln proclaimed:

“It is fit … to … revere the Supreme Government of God; to bow in humble submission to His chastisement; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom …

I … appoint … a Day of Humiliation, Prayer and Fasting for all the people of the nation.”

On March 30, 1863, Lincoln proclaimed a Day of Fasting and Prayer:

“The awful calamity of civil war … may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people …

We have forgotten God … We have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.

Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become … too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins.”

After the War, President Andrew Johnson issued, April 29, 1865:

“The 25th day of next month was recommended as a Day for … Prayer in consequence of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln …

but whereas my attention has since been called to the fact that the day … is sacred to large numbers of Christians as one of rejoicing for the ascension of the Savior …

I … do suggest that the religious services recommended as aforesaid should be postponed until … the 1st day of June.”

In 1901, when President McKinley was assassinated, President Theodore Roosevelt declared a Day of Prayer:

“President McKinley crowned a life of largest love for his fellow men … by a death of Christian fortitude …

Now, therefore, I … appoint … a Day of Mourning and Prayer throughout the United States … to assemble .… in their respective places of divine worship … to bow down in submission to the will of Almighty God.”

When the U.S. entered World War One, President Wilson proclaimed May 11, 1918:

“‘In a time of war humbly and devoutly to acknowledge our dependence on Almighty God and to implore His aid and protection …

I … proclaim … a Day of Public Humiliation, Prayer and Fasting, and do exhort my fellow-citizens … to pray Almighty God that He may forgive our sins.”

When President Harding died, President Coolidge declared, August 24, 1923:

“I … appoint … a Day of Mourning and Prayer throughout the United States. I earnestly recommend the people to assemble on that day in their respective places of divine worship, there to bow down in submission to the will of Almighty God.”

During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed, November 12, 1935:

“Let us then on the day appointed offer our devotions and our humble thanks to Almighty God and pray that the people of America will be guided by Him in helping their fellow men.”

When the U.S. entered World War Two, Roosevelt stated December 21, 1941:

“The year 1941 has brought upon our Nation a war of aggression by powers dominated by arrogant rulers whose selfish purpose is to destroy free institutions …

Therefore, I … do hereby appoint … a Day of Prayer, of asking forgiveness for our shortcomings of the past, of consecration to the tasks of the present, of asking God’s help in days to come.'”

During the D-Day invasion, Roosevelt broadcast over radio, June 6, 1941:

“I ask you to join with me in prayer: Almighty God, Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization …

Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces … We know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph …

Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom …

Help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.”

After the War, President Truman declared in a Day of Prayer, August 16, 1945:

“This is the end of the … schemes of dictators to enslave the peoples of the world … Our global victory … has come with the help of God … Let us … dedicate ourselves to follow in His ways.”

In 1952, when the Cold War began with the Soviet Union, Truman made the National Day of Prayer an annual observance:

“In times of national crisis when we are striving to strengthen the foundations of peace … we stand in special need of Divine support.”

In 1954, President Eisenhower signed the bill to add “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1956, he signed the bill making “In God We Trust” the official National motto; and the bill adding “In God We Trust” to the Nation’s paper currency.

On February 7, 1954, President Eisenhower supported the American Legion “Back-to-God” Program, broadcasting from the White House:

“As a former soldier, I am delighted that our veterans are sponsoring a movement to increase our awareness of God in our daily lives. In battle, they learned a great truth — that there are no atheists in the foxholes. They know that in time of test and trial, we instinctively turn to God for new courage …

Whatever our individual church, whatever our personal creed, our common faith in God is a common bond among us.”

After Apollo 13 had an explosion, President Nixon statedApril 19, 1970:

“When we learned of the safe return of our astronauts, I asked that the Nation observe a National Day of Prayer …

In these days of growing materialism, deep down there is still a great religious faith in this Nation …

I think more people prayed last week than perhaps have prayed in many years in this country …

We pray for the assistance of God when … faced with … great potential tragedy.”

On May 5, 1988, President Reagan made the National Day of Prayer the first Thursday in May, saying:

“Americans in every generation have turned to their Maker in prayer … We have acknowledged … our dependence on Almighty God.”

President Bush declared Days of Prayer after the Islamic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina, 2005.

President Trump remarked on the National Day of Prayer, May 3, 2018:

“Today, we remember the words of Reverend Graham, ‘Prayer is the key that opens to us the treasures of God’s mercies and blessings’… Graham’s words remind us that prayer has always been at the center of American life, because America is a nation of believers.”