The U.S. has observed seasons of prayer throughout its history from log cabins to the White House and from family gatherings to crowded arenas.
The official setting aside of special observances of prayer to God is not a novel notion.
Colonies and settlements in “Ye Wilderness” from the early 1600s through 1815 proclaimed days for prayer both in peace and crisis.
The fall observances were usually for thanksgiving and prayer, and the spring days were for fasting and prayer.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the fall thanksgiving and prayer to be an annual observance, but the prayer day for the nation came much later.
Early in 1952, during the Korean conflict, Billy Graham challenged Americans to renew a day for prayer observance as a nation.
He said, “What a thrilling, glorious thing it would be 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.”
Members of the House and Senate responded by introducing a joint resolution for an annual National Day of Prayer, which became the bill that President Harry S. Truman signed into law on April 17 of the same year.
The proclamation encourages the people of the U.S. to turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups and as individuals.
The law was further amended in 1988 so that the National Day of Prayer would be held on the first Thursday of May of each year: a day when persons of all religious faiths could unite in prayer with the hope that one day it will bring respect for God to all peoples of the world.
This year, May 4 has been declared our National Day of Prayer.
As we Americans learn of the volatile events of our world, watching the results of evil unfold on our nightly news, we know that if there was ever a time for us as a nation to bow the heart and knees before God in prayer, it is now.
At least three significant reasons signal this urgency.
First, we pray for our country and its elected leaders because it is biblical to do so.
1 Timothy 2:1-2 says, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
The biblical mandate to pray for our leaders, whether one agrees with their policies, political views or personalities, stands above personal preference or party affiliations.
When we set aside our own agendas and seek God’s guidance, acknowledge his ultimate authority and implore his intervention on our own and others’ behalf, we submit to his control over the cosmos and all of its moving parts, its people and its systems.
We pray so that we may live in peace, seeking holiness together.
Next, we pray to combat the forces of evil.
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” Ephesians 6:1 says.
Across the globe, the enemy’s coin of trade is pride, greed, power, the countless atrocities of injustice, division, violence, fear and hopelessness.
Political, economic and social systems intersect in complex ways, ensuring that poverty, racism, shortages of food and water, the lack of proper education or medical attention, and the blatant disregard for the earth’s resources prevail.
When we pray against systemic evils, we acknowledge that there is a weighty and eternal battle waging, both seen and unseen, that calls for spiritual and powerful responses.
Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:4, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they [our weapons] have divine power to demolish strongholds.”
When we pray, we stand with the one who always keeps his promises, who restores, who brings good from what others intend for evil and who ultimately triumphs.
Third, we pray because the darkened hearts of men and women need redemption.
Praying for individuals engages us in the work of justice-seeking and peace-weaving. We pray for those who overlook, underserve, withhold much, give little, close doors and care less.
It connects us to God’s redemptive work of reconciling men and women to himself as he saves, rescues, heals, relieves pain and suffering, and brings hope.
How can we make this National Day of Prayer especially meaningful?
Here are four practical ways to engage with our families, friends, faith and civil communities on May 4:
- Set aside a special time on May 4 to engage in thoughtful prayer. Pray specifically for our elected leaders, police, fire and other officials.
- If possible, fast on that day, focusing your mind and heart upon our nation’s need for God’s guidance.
- Cross boundaries to invite others to pray. If your church, religious community, neighborhood or city has no service planned, be the one to do so.
- Believe in faith that God will move. He has promised to respond when we humbly turn to him.
As 2 Chronicles 7:14 reminds us, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Karen O’Dell Bullock is professor of Christian heritage and director of the doctoral program at B.H. Carroll Theological Institute in Irving, Texas.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series about the National Day of Prayer (May 4).
The first article in the series is: