This Day in History: The origins of the National Day of Prayer

On this day in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signs a law designating the first Thursday in May as the National Day of Prayer.

Of course, Reagan had already issued a proclamation for a day of prayer that year. In classic Reagan style, his proclamation included a story.

“Americans in every generation have turned to their Maker in prayer,” Reagan began. “That was surely so at the very beginning of our Nation, in the earliest days of our quest for independence and liberty. It could only be thus, for a people who recognized God as the Author of freedom . . . . So did they believe, those who gathered in Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia in 1774, the members of the First Continental Congress.” 

The Congress described by Reagan was called to order on September 5, 1774. Early in the proceedings, a delegate moved that Congress be opened with a prayer. Two other delegates opposed the motion on the grounds that “we were so divided in religious sentiments.”  

At this juncture, one respected delegate from Massachusetts spoke up. Samuel Adams rose to his feet and declared that he “was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his country.” Reagan summarized Adams’s plea: “Because Sam Adams gave voice to all the goodness, the genius, and the generosity that make up the American spirit, the First Continental Congress made its first act a prayer—the beginning of a great tradition.” 

The Reverend Jacob Duché, a local Episcopal clergyman, was nominated to lead the Congress in prayer. He decided to read Psalm 35. Have you read the Psalm lately? Such an appropriate choice, under the circumstances. The Psalm begins: “Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me . . . .” 

Duché finished the Pslam, then prayed a prayer that “filled the bosom of every man present,” according to John Adams. 

Our nation began with the Boston Tea Party, the “shot heard round the world,” and other great moments. But perhaps we should remember that one of these great moments was a few quiet minutes in a hall in Philadelphia. Men of different religious persuasions agreed to spend a few moments praying together, because they knew that they needed divine assistance for the long struggle ahead. 

That long struggle is ahead of us today, too.