National Day of Prayer: The push and pull of an American holiday

“Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day.”
1 Kings 8:28, Scripture for 2015 National Day of Prayer

THURSDAY, MAY 7: Days of fasting and prayer have been proclaimed since the earliest days of colonial America, and that tradition continues with the National Day of Prayer. The first Thursday in May each year, the National Day of Prayer is designated by the United States Congress and proclaimed by the President of the United States. The modern observance was made into law in 1952, to call Americans of a variety of religions to “turn to God in prayer and meditation.” Gatherings at houses of worship, artistic performances and shared meals are common on the National Day of Prayer.


Holidays often inspire unity, but many also spark long-running debates as they evolve. Our current observance of Mother’s Day runs counter to the simpler vision of its founder Anna Jarvis, for example.

These days, the National Day of Prayer is an annual occasion for as much controversy as unity. The national team that owns the holiday’s main website is closely associated with conservative Republican causes. They have defined the holiday, not as a religiously inclusive event, but as a day “to mobilize the Christian community to intercede for America’s leaders and its families.” The group also insists that America “was birthed in prayer and in reverence for the God of the Bible”—with no room for other religious perspectives.

Many National Day of Prayer events across the U.S. are exclusively Christian; many are held at evangelical churches. Local news stories scattered across the country, this year, also are reporting that key participants at some events represent conservative political causes. Nevertheless, each year, many groups who celebrate America’s religious diversity are trying to push back against this evangelical effort to corner the holiday.

In Michigan, a Sikh educator and peace activist, Raman Singh, has been named the new president of the nationally influential InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. This week, Raman Singh writes an open letter describing “An inclusive vision for National Day of Prayer.”


As was the first observance of Thanksgiving, collective days of prayer were not uncommon in the New England colonies. Traditionally, prayer conducted in autumn was undertaken with the intent of thanksgiving; in the spring or summer, prayer was combined with fasting.

The Continental Congress issued a proclamation for all colonists in 1775. Response to the proclamation of 1775 was, according to John Adams, “gratifying,” and he observed that more colonists paid tribute on the designated day than often attended Sunday church services. (Wikipedia has details.) Days of prayer and fasting continued to be proclaimed through the decades, and in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln established the first official Thanksgiving holiday. Eighty-nine years later, President Harry S. Truman established a National Day of Prayer, in 1952. (Read the proclamation here.)

The modern idea for a day of united prayer came during the Korean War, when the Rev. Billy Graham expressed a desire “to see the leaders of our country today kneeling before Almighty God in prayer. … What renewed hope and courage would grip the Americans at this hour of peril.” A joint resolution was introduced, and in 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed the bill.

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