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The National Day of Prayer is a day designated by the United States Congress as a day when people are asked to come together and pray, especially for their country. It was created as a floating holiday in 1952 and fixed on the first Thursday in May by Ronald Reagan.


There have been several national days of prayer in the U.S. before the day was made official in 1952. The Continental Congress issued a day of prayer in 1775 to designate "a time for prayer in forming a new nation." During the Quasi-War with France, President John Adams declared May 9, 1798 as "a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer," during which citizens of all faiths were asked to pray "that our country may be protected from all the dangers which threaten it".

On March 30, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the following proclamation:

By the President of the United States of America.
A Proclamation.

Whereas, the Senate of the United States, devoutly recognizing the Supreme Authority and just Government of Almighty God, in all the affairs of men and of nations, has, by a resolution, requested the President to designate and set apart a day for National prayer and humiliation.

And whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.

And, insomuch as we know that, by His divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, 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 been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven.
We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity.
We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown.
But we have forgotten God.
We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and 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 self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, 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, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do, by this my proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th. day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer.
And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.

All this being done, in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering Country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this thirtieth day of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty seventh.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H.
Seward, Secretary of State

More recently, the idea of an annual National Day of Prayer was introduced by the Rev. Billy Graham, who suggested it in the midst of a several-weeks crusade in the nation’s capitol. Members of the House and Senate introduced a joint resolution for an annual 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."

Senator Robertson called the resolution a measure against "the corrosive forces of communism which seek simultaneously to destroy our democratic way of life and the faith in an Almighty God on which it is based."

A Senate report mistakenly claims as part of the rationale for the law that prayers were conducted at the Constitutional Convention, which adopted the U.S. Constitution: “When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention encountered difficulties in the writing and formation of a Constitution for this Nation, prayer was suggested and became an established practice at succeeding sessions,” according to the report by the Committee on the Judiciary.

However, Benjamin Franklin suggested prayer, but in his own notes recorded that the convention, “except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.” His suggestion to pray was met politely but with some embarrassment, scholars note, and delegates quickly adjourned.

On April 17 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer must be declared by each following president at an appropriate date of his choice. In 1982 a National Prayer Committee formed to coordinate and implement a fixed commemorated day of prayer. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan amended the law decreeing that the National Day of Prayer should be held on the first Thursday of May. A claimed intention of the National Day of Prayer was that it would be a day when members of all faiths could pray together in their own way.

National Day of Prayer Task Force

The National Prayer Committee created a non-governmental organization called The National Day of Prayer Task Force, with the intended purpose of coordinating events specifically for evangelical Christians for the National Day of Prayer. Based in Colorado Springsmarker, Coloradomarker, they work out of facilities from Focus on the Familymarker, a Christian organization. Shirley Dobson (wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson) is currently at the head of the Task Force.

The Task force's website says in their FAQ section: "Americans of all faiths are encouraged to participate in the [National Day of Prayer] according to their own traditions. However, the [National Day of Prayer] Task Force provides promotional materials and sponsors several events in keeping with the Judeo-Christian tradition". The 2008 application requires giving statement affirming Biblical Inerrancy, and requires voluteers "commit that NDP activities I serve with will be conducted solely by Christians". A previous application for volunteer coordinators with the Task Force lists the following as a primary qualification, "Commitment to Christ. A volunteer must be an evangelical Christian who has a personal relationship with Christ. I acknowledge that I am working for the Lord Jesus Christ and the furthering of His Work on earth and agree to perform my work with the highest standard of Christian faith."


Issues of government involvement with religion are often disputed because of the Establishment clause in the First Amendment. While the free-exercise clause allows for this type of event to be organized by non-governmental bodies, the U.S. Congress may not pass any laws enforcing religious observances.

The contention was brought to attention by one of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. On January 23, 1808 he wrote on the topic:

In 1822, James Madison wrote:

George W. Bush made a point of holding events on the National Day of Prayer in each year of his presidency. However, Bill Clinton did not hold any such events during his time in office, and George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan each hosted special events for the day only once during their respective administrations.

Those opposed to a national day of prayer have established another observance that coincides with the National Day of Prayer called the National Day of Reason. Groups such as the NYC Atheists have organized blood donations on the same day.

In 2004, Mormons were barred from conducting services at gatherings organized by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, an evangelical grass roots organization.

In 2008, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, on October 3, 2008 sued President George W. Bush, Jim Doyle, Shirley Dobson, chair, National Day of Prayer Task Force, and White House Press Secretary Dana Perino at a Madisonmarker, Wisconsinmarker, federal court, challenging the federal law designating the National Day of Prayer. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a non-profit legal organization, is defending Shirley Dobson and the National Day of Prayer Task Force free of charge against the Freedom From Religion Foundation lawsuit. In February 2009, the website was launched for supporters of the National Day of Prayer to voice their opposition to the lawsuit. The Obama administration asked U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb to dismiss the case in March 2009. The administration argued the group has no legal standing to sue and that the tradition of the National Day of Prayer dated back to 1775. The suit was then amended to include President Obama and Press Secretary Gibbs. Subsequently, President Obama did not hold a formal event for the NDOP on May 7, 2009.

See also


  1. John Adams, "A Proclamation," March 23, 1798; printed in the Philadelphia Weekly Magazine, March 31, 1798.
  2. Expanded from the version sent by the US Senate: Journal of the Senate, March 2, 1863 A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875, The Library of Congress
  3. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University :America's National Day of Prayer (2006)
  4. Richard V. Pierard, "Standing the Founding Fathers on Their Heads", Christian Century, April 20, 1983, pp. 368-372 ( on-line text).
  5., retrieved October 4, 2008; quotes are only shown after the "Become a Coordinator" radio button is set to "Yes".
  8. Deseret News, Prayers without LDS hit a nerve, 5 May 2004 (accessed May 2009)
  9., Atheist group sues Bush over national prayer day
  10., Atheist group sues Bush over national prayer day

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