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In 1775, years before the Articles of Confederation were ratified, the Continental Congress called on the U.S. colonies to pray for the formation of a prosperous, equitable nation. Nearly two and a half centuries later, official calls for prayer still exist — and today, the year’s most notable day of prayer is still observed nationwide.
On the first Thursday of every May, the U.S. observes the National Day of Prayer. Calls for a national day of prayer have been renewed several times since that original call in 1775. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln called for a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer.” Almost nine full decades later, in 1952, Congress passed a joint resolution for a national day of prayer signed by President Harry S. Truman. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a new version of this resolution that formalized every first Thursday of May as the National Day of Prayer.
Many developments came about between President Truman’s original signing and President Reagan’s revisions. In 1974, at the International Congress on World Evangelization, the U.S. formed a subcommittee that would, in 1979, become the National Prayer Committee. From this event also emerged the Christian group Mission America, one of the most internationally-prominent American religious organizations.
In the early 1980s, the National Prayer Committee teamed with prominent businesspeople and White House contacts to devise a new vision for the National Day of Prayer. By 1983, the committee had organized its first formal National Day of Prayer Observance, held at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., with Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie and then-Vice President George H. W. Bush as featured speakers. Following the success of this occasion, the committee worked with Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) to draft a bill that would eventually become the new resolution that President Reagan signed in 1988.
Although National Prayer Day has its roots in Christian prayer, figures from other religions also expressed support for the occasion. Prior to President Reagan’s signing of the bill, two nationally prominent rabbis endorsed it, implicitly expanding National Prayer Day’s reach to the Jewish community. Currently, on the National Prayer Day website, the occasion is described as being held for “people of all faiths” to pray.
However, despite the appearance of this one inclusive phrase, most language regarding National Prayer Day is targeted at Christian audiences. National Prayer Day describes its task force as representing “a Judeo-Christian expression” of the occasion. As well, the National Prayer Day website regards the events of 1775 as founding the United States on reverence for the Bible and the version of God depicted in its text.
Nevertheless, people of all faiths will likely sympathize with this year’s National Prayer Day theme, “Love One Another.” This phrase is taken from the Bible verse John 13:34, in which Jesus says, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you.” In a time when religion-based hate is on the rise, this year’s National Day of Prayer theme feels vital, especially given that the original 1775 call for prayer hoped for a nation that would liberate people from the shackles of poor government representation.