By federal law the first Thursday in May is the annual observance for the National Day of Prayer. Given the current state of our nation and last week’s hearing by SCOTUS on marriage, this seems almost surreal. The presidential proclamation for today is generalized pablum, so let’s step back to earlier times. Last week I quoted Dr. John S. Uebersax from his article, National Days of Prayer: A Historical Comparison on a glaring omission in our modern Days of Prayer:
Since 1952, the President of the United States has, by law, annually issued a proclamation recommending a National Day of Prayer. This seeks to revive a similar practice that emerged in Revolutionary times, and again in the Civil War. The modern proclamations, however, differ in important ways from the earlier ones. The main difference is evident in the change of titles — from the earlier ‘Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer’ to the modern ‘National Day of Prayer.’ The earlier proclamations emphasized humiliation — understood as including a deep conviction of God’s Providential sovereignty in all things, recognition that calamities may express God’s chastisements, expression of guilt, sorrow for sins, and earnest pledge for reformation.
Via Dr. Uebersax, this was written by Benjamin Franklin Morris in Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States. G. W. Childs, 1864. (pp. 526-7).
The fathers of the Republic, in the earliest period of the Revolution, adopted the custom of consecrating, by acts of legislation, days of thanksgiving and prayer for special religious worship; and thus the public mind received a higher religious culture through the civil authorities of the country.
At the beginning of the great conflict for liberty and an independent nationality and government, Mr. Jefferson, who, whatever were his peculiar views of the Christian system, always acknowledged the government and providence of God in national affairs—recommended in Virginia the appointment and observance of a day of public prayer and humiliation. In June, 1774, when the news of the Boston Port Bill reached Virginia, the Colonial Legislature, then in session, appointed such a fast-day for that colony. Mr. Jefferson’s account of it is as follows:—
We were under the conviction of the necessity of arousing our people from the lethargy into which they had fallen as to passing events, and thought that the appointment of a day of general fasting and prayer would be most likely to call up and alarm their attention. No example of such solemnities had existed since the days of our distresses in the war of ’55,—since which a new generation had grown up. With the help, therefore, of Rushworth, whom we rummaged over for the resolutionary precedents and forms of the Puritans of that day, preserved by him, we made up a resolution, somewhat modernizing their phrases, for appointing the 1st day of June, on which the Port Bill was to commence, for a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, to implore Heaven to avert from us the evils of civil war, to inspire us with firmness in support of our rights, and to turn the hearts of the king and Parliament to moderation and justice.
To give greater emphasis to our proposition, we agreed to wait the next morning on Mr. Nicholas, whose grave and religious character was more in unison with the tone of our resolution, and solicit him to move it. We accordingly went to him in the morning. He moved it the same day. The 1st of June was proposed, and it passed without opposition. The Governor dissolved us. We returned home, and in our several counties invited the clergy to meet the assemblies of the people on the 1st of June, to perform the ceremonies of the day and to address them in discourses suited to the occasion. The people met generally, with anxiety and alarm in their countenances; and the effect of the day through the whole colony was like a shock of electricity, arousing every man and placing him erect and solidly on his centre.
Washington, then a member of the House of Burgesses, sent a special message to his family and constituents to observe this day; and Mason, a distinguished patriot, also a member, “charged his household to keep the day strictly, and to attend church clad in mourning.”
Dr. Uebersax adds:
According to Jared Sparks (The Life of George Washington, 1839, p. 520), on the appointed day, Washington “writes in his diary: ‘Went to church, and fasted all day,’ thus conforming not only to the spirit, but to the strict letter of the order.”
TUESDAY, 24th of May, 14th George III., 1774.
This House, being deeply impressed with apprehension of the great dangers to be derived to British America from the hostile invasion of the city of Boston, in our sister colony of Massachusetts Bay, whose commerce and harbor are on the 1st day of June next to be stopped by an armed force, deem it highly necessary that the said 1st day of June be set apart by the members of this House as a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, devoutly to implore the Divine interposition for averting the heavy calamity which threatens destruction to our civil rights, and the evils of civil war, to give us one heart and one mind firmly to oppose, by all just and proper means, every injury to American rights, and that the minds of his Majesty and his Parliament may be inspired from above with wisdom, moderation, and justice, to remove from the loyal people of America all cause of danger from a continual pursuit of measures pregnant to their ruin.
Ordered, therefore, That the members of this House do attend in their places, at the hour of ten in the forenoon, on the said 1st day of June next, in order to proceed, with the Speaker and mace, to the church in the city, for the purpose aforesaid; and that the Reverend Mr. Price be appointed to read prayers and to preach a sermon suitable to the occasion.
Ordered, that this Order be forthwith printed and published.
By the House of Burgesses,
GEORGE WYTHE, C. H. B.
The National Day of Prayer Task Force emphasizes, “person repentance and righteousness in the culture.” Without neglecting that, I think we need prayers of national acknowledgement of sin and repentance. I suggest we read and model our prayers on Daniel’s prayer, who as a godly man yet identified with the sins of his people, and cried out, “O Lord, hear, O Lord, forgive!”
Reconstructed Chamber of the Virginia House of Burgesses in the Capitol at Williamsburg, Virginia.