Thursday, May 2, 2013, is the National Day of Prayer. Yet things are not right in the land. We pray, “May God bless America.” But perhaps it should be, “May God have mercy on America.”
As we survey the modern American landscape, we see many examples that things are not right: more than 55 million abortions in America since 1973, rampant pornography, mass shootings, promotion of “gay marriage,” dissolution of marriage in general, runaway debt that will enslave our children and grandchildren, threats to our religious liberty like never before.
And yet our national motto is still “In God We Trust.” I always remember the sign in the ice cream shop (by the cash register) that said: “In God we trust. All others pay cash.”
Prayer is deep in the American tradition – even national prayer. We can see multiple examples of this in Bill Federer’s great book, “America’s God & Country.” During the days of the American War for Independence, the Continental Congress often put out the word for all the citizens to pray and fast, such as May 17, 1776 – a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer.
On that day, the Congress prayed, “that we may with united hearts confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and by a sincere repentance and amendment of life appease God’s righteous displeasure, and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ obtain His pardon and forgiveness.”
At Valley Forge, Gen. George Washington gave this order on April 12, 1778 (speaking of himself in the third person): “The General directs that the day [April 22, 1778] shall be most religiously observed in the Army; that no work shall be done thereon, and that the several chaplains do prepare discourses suitable to the occasion.”
Even some of the less religious Founding Fathers, like Ben Franklin, saw the importance of prayer. He made an impassioned plea during the constitutional convention that they pray, and a variation of his request was adopted. He once said, “Work as if you were to live 100 years; pray as if you were to die tomorrow.”
Samuel Adams, the lightning rod for American independence, later became the governor of Massachusetts. On Oct. 14, 1795, he declared a day of fasting and prayer, which included this petition: “That God would be pleased to guide and direct the administration of the Federal government, and those of the several states, in union, so that the whole people may continue to be safe and happy in the constitutional enjoyment of their rights, liberties and privileges, and our governments be greatly respected at home and abroad. …”
John Adams, signer of the Declaration of Independence and second president of the United States, in proclaiming a national day of prayer asked that God “would smile on our colleges, academies, schools, and seminaries of learning, and make them nurseries of sound science, morals, and religion …” (National Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer, March 6, 1799).
John Jay, co-author of the Federalist Papers and first Supreme Court chief justice, said, “The most effectual means of securing the continuance of our civil and religious liberties is, always to remember with reverence and gratitude the Source from which they flow” (June 29, 1826).
James Madison, co-author of the Federalist Papers, fourth president of the United States, who was a major player at the Constitutional Convention, issued a national day of prayer (July 9, 1812) during our second war with Great Britain (the War of 1812).
Madison proclaimed that a day “be set apart for the devout purpose of rendering the Sovereign of the Universe and the Benefactor of mankind the public homage due to His holy attributes; of acknowledging the transgressions which might justly provoke the manifestations of His divine displeasure; of seeking His merciful forgiveness, and His assistance in the great duties of repentance and amendment. …”
Various presidents have often declared national days of prayer and of thanksgiving to God. Abraham Lincoln said of prayer: “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”
Since the Truman administration, there has been a National Day of Prayer. Ronald Reagan made it the first Thursday of each May. President Reagan once said about our nation and prayer: “We can’t have it both ways. We can’t expect God to protect us in a crisis and just leave Him over there on the shelf in our day-to-day living.”
Of course, there are many today who scoff at the notion of prayer, corporate or individual. Some view it as accomplishing absolutely nothing. Liberal activist Saul Alinsky said as much.
But prayer can be very hard work. Besides, prayer is not nor should ever be an excuse for doing nothing. It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and.
Many times in many municipalities we find that at noon on the National Day of Prayer, right outside of city hall, various people of good will gather to pray. Sometimes the mayor will even join the participants. All are welcome.
Of course, we should pray without ceasing – not just on one day of the year. But it’s nice to have an annual reminder on the National Day of Prayer of our great need for God’s help, all year round.
My wife has a needlepoint she made hanging up in our front hall. It sums it all up: “Life is fragile. Handle with prayer.”
Jerry Newcombe, D.Min., is the co-host of "Truth That Transforms with D. James Kennedy" (formerly "The Coral Ridge Hour")