The Rich History of American Prayer in Times of Calamity

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“O God, merciful and compassionate, who art ever ready to hear the prayers of those who put their trust in thee; Graciously hearken to us who call upon thee, and grant us thy help in this our need; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” – A Prayer in Time of Calamity

The Coronavirus crisis that is testing our form of government, the social and health infrastructure we have built, and the solidarity of individuals at the local level. It is in times such as these that the true mettle and spirit of a people is revealed. It is a time for prayer. Thankfully, the United States has a long history of appealing to Heaven in times of crisis, calamity, and COVID-19.

President Trump recognized this and the necessity of our times. Therefore, on March 13th he tweeted:

It is my great honor to declare Sunday, March 15th as a National Day of Prayer. We are a Country that, throughout our history, has looked to God for protection and strength in times like these…

This action is not an aberration in U.S. history but a reflection of the blessings of God upon America, which many previous presidents have done. The prominent influence of prayer is clear throughout U.S. history.

On 16 March, 1776, the Continental Congress issued a fast proclamation. Mr. William Livingston brought forward a resolution for a fast, asserting that in times of impending calamity men must recognize the sovereignty of God, confess their sins, and request His blessing. Colonials were called to a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer.” Congress agreed to this resolution.

George Washington also recognized the role of Providence in the birth of the nation, as well as the important role of religion and morality in American life. During the American War of Independence, when he served as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, he concurred with the call of Congress for another day of prayer and fasting. To encourage and allow his men to do so, he forbade all unnecessary labor and recreation.

This understanding of God and the universe can clearly be seen in the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation when Washington in his duties as president recognized Thursday, November 26, as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. His proclamation in part reads:

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord.

Here, we see a call to all Americans, commissioning them to eagerly ask the Lord to enable everyone, civil servant or citizen, to perform our duties to each other, to our states, and to the nation. We can do no more. We should do no less.

One of the best examples of a national day of prayer in the history of the nation came from President Lincoln, who signed “A Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day” on March 30, 1863. This proclamation recognized the sovereignty of God, the necessity of repentance, and the need to ask for forgiveness.

In 1952 President Harry S. Truman signed into law a joint resolution of Congress establishing an annual day of prayer for the “people to turn to God in prayer and meditation.”

We should remember that God governs in the affairs of men, from the time of the Israelites, when He answered many prayers for the tribes of Israel, to the American Revolution when our Forefathers fought the mightiest empire known to man and, despite losing many battles, won the war. When we thank God, we should also thank Him for a free country in which we can have a day of prayer. It is important to remember the constitutional point that a National Day of Prayer neither establishes a state religion nor impedes religious practice.

America has a strong Judeo-Christian heritage, and this is reflected in our history of appealing to God in times of strife and calamity. Let us do so now while not neglecting to do all the good we can. The time is now and it is our duty to do so. Here is “A Prayer for Congress”:

Most gracious God, we humbly beseech thee, as for the people of these United States in general, so especially for their Senate and Representatives in Congress assembled; that thou wouldest be pleased to direct and prosper all their consultations, to the advancement of thy glory, the good of thy Church, the safety, honour, and welfare of they people; that all things may be so ordered and settled by their endeavours, upon the best and surest foundations, that peace and happiness, truth and justice, religion and piety, may be established among us for all generations. These and all other necessaries, for them, for us, and thy whole Church, we humbly beg in the Name and mediation of Jesus Christ, our most blessed Lord and Saviour. Amen.

Zachary Rogers is a graduate of Hillsdale College and is a former intern of FRC, the Kirby Center, and the Claremont Institute. He is currently working in education in Northern Virginia.

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