The Historical Roots of Our National Day of Prayer
Thursday May 4 is The National Day of Prayer. This National Prayer Day, that was once proclaimed by presidents and the U.S. Congress, has its roots in America’s founding when national days of prayer and fasting were a part of the American culture.
The Praying Pilgrims
When the Pilgrims, who landed at Cape Cod, Massachusetts in November 1620, decided to relocate to the New World, they set aside “a day of solemn humiliation” to seek the Lord’s blessing and guidance before their departure on July 22, 1620.
They began the day with their pastor, John Robinson, exhorting them from Ezra 8:21, which reads, “Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones.”
After this exhortation, the rest of the day was spent, in the words of William Bradford, “In pouring our prayers to the Lord with great fervency, mixed with abundance of tears” (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 24).
The Pilgrims were a praying people and they met the challenges of their new wilderness home with constant prayer and by also setting aside special days for prayer and seeking God. Their practice of setting aside special days for prayer and fasting was carried on by their descendants who carried it throughout the Colonies.
Spreads to Pennsylvania
The power of this prayer tradition was demonstrated in 1741 when Benjamin Franklin proposed a day of prayer and fasting to pray for God’s protection over Pennsylvania during a time of crisis when Britain was at war with Spain and Philadelphia sat unprotected.
Franklin, who claimed to be a Deist in his early years, admitted that he had learned about such prayer as a result of being brought up in a Puritan home in New England where they had annual days of prayer and fasting. His proposal was approved and on the appointed day all of Pennsylvania, including government officials, filled the churches and spent the day in prayer and seeking God.
Prayer and a Great Awakening
Following on the heels of a spiritual decline, a new emphasis on prayer emerged in the early 18th century with many churches setting aside days for prayer and seeking the Lord. One pastor pointed out, that in addition to these special times of prayer set by the churches, “There were annual fast days appointed by the government” (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 75).
Out of this prayer awakening came the First Great Awakening, with entire towns repenting and turning to God. Prayer was once again heard in churches, homes and places of business. Benjamin Franklin described Philadelphia in 1739 as a place where the voice of prayer could be heard coming from houses on every street (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 102).
This meant that at the time of the American Revolution, the people of Colonial America were a praying people. The Continental Congress was a praying congress; the American Army was a praying army and its commander-in-chief was a praying man.
A Praying Congress and a Praying Army
When the First Continental Congress convened on September 5, 1774, its first order of business was an extended time of Bible reading and prayer. This was no formal prayer but a sincere time of lifting their hearts to God with many on their knees and many tears being shed. John Adams wrote, “Who can realize the emotions with which they turned imploringly to heaven for divine interposition and aid” (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 122).
This praying Congress asked George Washington to become commander-in-chief of the American army. Upon accepting this call, Washington issued a directive forbidding all profanity and drunkenness and ordering that each day begin with prayer led by the commander of each unit.
Washington also ordered that, unless their duties required them to be elsewhere, every soldier was to observe, “a punctual attendance of Divine services, to implore the blessing of heaven upon the means used for our safety and public defense” (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 128).
A Nation Prays
During the seven years of war, Congress issued no less than fifteen calls for prayer, repentance and fasting. The Proclamation of 1779 urged the nation “humbly to approach the throne of Almighty God” to ask “that He would establish the independence of these United States upon the basis of religion [Christianity] and virtue.”
They saw answers to their prayers. In fact, the Congress also issued a proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving in 1779, “because it hath pleased Almighty God . . . remarkably to assist and support the United States of America in her struggle for liberty.” The Congress then listed seven different accomplishments of God on behalf of the nation (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 124).
A Nation Birthed in Prayer Must be Sustained by Prayer
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787 Benjamin Franklin reminded the delegates how that during the war they had engaged in daily prayer in that same room. Addressing the convention president, George Washington, he then said, “Our prayers, sir, were heard and they were graciously answered” (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 144).
After the surrender of the British General Howe, Washington issued a letter of resignation as Commander-In-Chief to the Continental Congress. He then wrote what could be described as a pastoral letter, dated June 14, 1783, to the governors of the various states. This letter included his “earnest prayer” that is here quoted in part. He wrote,
I now make it my earnest prayer that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection; that he would incline the hearts of the citizens . . . to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another . . . and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without a humble imitation of His example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 133-34).
Yes, America was birthed in prayer! And a nation birthed in prayer cannot be sustained by government bureaucrats, slick politicians and an ego-centered Christianity.
America and the world are facing dire consequences and the only thing that will save us is a true turning to God and our roots of fervent, sincere prayer that is rooted in a deep and sincere faith in God.