The National Day of Prayer is an annual event dedicated for Americans to pray for their country and government. National and local leaders have periodically called their people to pray since 1775. In the 1950s, evangelist Billy Graham challenged congress to pass a law for an annual day of prayer. Conrad Hilton of Hilton Hotels and Kansas Senator Frank Carlson initiated the bill, and it was passed in 1952. It requires the President to "set aside and proclaim a suitable day each year, other than a Sunday, as a National Day of Prayer, on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals."
The National Day of Prayer – What is it?
In 1983, the National Prayer Committee created an arm, the National Day of Prayer Task Force, to promote the National Day of Prayer with an evangelical emphasis. Their most significant task was to encourage congress to nail down a specific date instead of leaving it at the president's discretion. In 1988, the first Thursday in May was chosen and the law was amended.
The wording of the law states that the President must "proclaim" the day of prayer. These proclamations vary wildly, some referencing God strongly while others concentrate on the country's freedom of religion. In 1963, John F. Kennedy's proclamation invoked the country's reliance on "divine Providence" and called people to "according to his own custom and his own faith, give thanks to his Creator for the divine assistance which has nurtured the noble ideals in which this Nation was conceived." In 1970, Richard Nixon's proclamation referred to the country's willingness to pray for the crew of Apollo 13 and God's "infinite mercy to bring home in safety to our small planet three fellow human beings." Ronald Reagan acknowledged God's direct provision for the country in 1982. George H. W. Bush, in 1990, used the faithful prayers of Hannah as inspiration. The year after 9/11, George W. Bush noted the prayers that went up since the attack and called the people to pray for the preservation of our rights and liberties and to honor "the religious diversity our freedom permits."
The ecumenical nature of the National Day of Prayer has both caused and quelled controversy over the last few years. Both the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and the American Humanist Association (AHA) have led movements to revoke the National Day of Prayer. The FFRF lost a lawsuit after the court found that a generic call to prayer caused no one, not even atheists, real and measurable harm. The AHA is pushing for the creation of the National Day of Reason in an attempt to lessen the influence of conservative Christianity on government, science, education, and culture.
Is the National Day of Prayer biblical? It is absolutely biblical for Christians to gather to pray to the God of the Bible for the leaders of our nation, to thank God for His blessings, to seek forgiveness for national sins, and to pray for healing in our nation, not just on the National Day of Prayer, but other times as well. The ecumenical nature of the National Day of Prayer is crucial in a republic that esteems freedom of religion. No one should be forced to participate in the National Day of Prayer or to do something that would be at odds with his or her faith, or lack thereof. At the same time, the National Day of Prayer Task Force should be free to coordinate events for those who do wish to participate.
Whether a Christian should attend a National Day of Prayer event is a matter of discretion and contingent on the event. Ecumenical events may cause a particular challenge. Supporting the community is a positive thing to do, but we also want to be careful that our attendance does not give credence to the idea that there are multiple ways to God. Prayer and wisdom is needed in how to best participate in the National Day of Prayer in a way that will bring glory to God.
The fact that a secular nation does encourage people to pray is a good thing and something we should take advantage of not just on the National Day of Prayer, but every day. Not all nations enjoy such freedom. If we are permitted to publicly pray to the one true God for healing, forgiveness, and guidance, with thanksgiving, we should. Paul's instructions to Timothy are just as applicable to us today: "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:1–4).
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