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The National Day of Prayer in the USA (NDP)

History of the NDP

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bullet1775: The first day of prayer was declared when the Continental Congress "designated a time for prayer in forming a new nation."
bullet1783: "...the conclusion of the Revolutionary War marked a temporary end to the National Day of Prayer." 12
bullet1795-FEB-19: George Washington proclaimed a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.
bulletCirca 1813: President James Madison proclaimed a day of prayer. He later said such proclamations are not appropriate. "They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion." 2
bullet1808: Thomas Jefferson also opposed declarations of national days of prayer by the Federal government. He wrote "Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to  their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it." 3
bullet1863-MAR-30: Abraham Lincoln signed a Congressional resolution of MAR-3 which called for a day of fasting and prayer durin the Civil War (1860-1865). 4
bullet1952-APR-17: A bill proclaiming an annual National Day of Prayer (NDP) was unanimously passed by both houses of congress. President Truman signed it into law. It required the President to select a day for national prayer each year.
bullet 1972: The National Prayer Committee was created. It is an non-profit evangelical Christian organization. The National Day of Prayer Task Force is a project of that committee.
bullet1988: A bill was introduced to Congress which fixed the annual NDP at the first Thursday in May. The Senate bill, S 1378, was introduced by Stron Thurmond (R-SC); a matching House version was initiated by Tony Hall, (D-OH). It received broad bipartisan sponsorship and support, and became Public Law 100-307. It was signed into law by President Reagan on 1988-MAY-5. He commented: "On our National Day of Prayer, then, we join together as people of many faiths to petition God to show us His mercy and His love, to heal our weariness and uphold our hope, that we might live ever mindful of His justice and thankful for His blessing."
bullet1993 to 1998: The concept of the NDP as a multi-faith event which recognizes the extensive diversity of religious expression in the U.S. was echoed by subsequent presidents in their proclamations. President Clinton has written:
bullet1993: "Through prayer our people take a moment away from the concerns of everyday life to understand the greater power that gives us guidance.  We come together in an act common to all religions."
bullet1994: "I encourage the citizens of this great Nation to gather, each in his or her own manner, to recognize our blessings, acknowledge our wrongs, to remember the needy, to seek guidance for our challenging future, and to give thanks for the abundance we have enjoyed throughout our history."
bullet1995: "I call upon every citizen of this great Nation to gather together on that day to pray, each in his or her own manner, for God's continued guidance and blessing."
bullet1996: "And though our citizens come from every nation on Earth and observe an extraordinary variety of religious faith [sic] and traditions, prayer remains at the heart of the American spirit."
bullet1997: "...let us uphold the tradition of observing a day in which every American, in his or her own way, may come before God seeking increased peace, guidance, and wisdom for the challenges ahead." 5
bullet1998: "In every city, town, and rural community across our country, people of every religious denomination gather to worship according to their faith. In churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques, Americans come together to pray." 9
bullet1999: According to some reports, all 50 U.S. state governors and several governors of U.S. territories proclaimed the National Day of Prayer within their jurisdictions. Other sources of information indicate that a few state governors did not issue proclamations. An Evangelical Press News Service posting on 1999-MAY-14 mentioned that Jesse Ventura, governor of Minnesota refused to issue a proclamation for the NDP because of separation of church and state issues. He commented "There are people out there who are Atheists, who don't believe at all. They are all citizens of Minnesota, and I have to respect that." Ventura signed a statement of recognition instead; it acknowledged that the NDP existed, but did not offer state support for it. Minnesota Family Council President Tom Prichard criticized Ventura. "I'm perplexed to think the governor would refuse to issue a prayer proclamation, something President Clinton and many other governors have proclaimed this year, but would issue a proclamation for the Rolling Stones [on 1999-FEB-15]. In a time of school shootings and international turmoil, we should be encouraging prayer all the time. I would think the governor at the very least would give the same recognition to a day of prayer that he gave to Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones." There is, of course, no constitutional requirement for the separation of music and state, as there is between church and state.
bullet2000: Texas Metroplex Atheists announced that they would hold a peaceful demonstration at the NDP event in Bedford TX on 2000-MAY-4. The national headquarters of the Christian Coalition is located in this city. They are not protesting prayer itself; they are opposed to the use of tax money and public property to encourage religious devotion. 6 Similar demonstrations will be held in Dallas, TX; Orlando, FL; and Detroit, MI. "In Washington, D.C., NDOP organizers stage a prayer ceremony on capitol hill, and an afternoon rally on the steps of the capitol building.  The Nationally Broadcast Concert of Prayer (NBCOP) will air Thursday night [MAY-4] on radio stations from 8 - 11 p.m. from the Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas." 7
bullet2001: The 50th National Day of Prayer was held on MAY-3. Its organizers estimate that about 2.5 million people attended the approximately 40,000 events across the U.S. Several representatives of American Atheists protested at Andover, KS, city hall where one event took place. They objected to the apparent violation of the principle of church and state which occurred when the religious meeting was held in a government building. 

Chairperson Shirley Dobson stated that all of the state governors recognized the NDP this year. In the year 2000, Jesse Ventura of MN had refused to sign a declaration on constitutional grounds. He felt that it would have violated his oath of office which requires him to uphold the U.S. constitution. Pastor Phyllis Gregory stated that a prayer would be offered "the lost, those in sin, in need, living in lack and Cassadaga." The latter is a small town in Florida known for its Spiritualist camp. The camp president said that he didn't feel that they were lost souls, but welcomed the prayer anyway.

bullet2002: The National Day of Prayer Task Force reported that "...approximately 40,000 events were held nationwide. Local volunteers and coordinators held a variety of activities ranging from prayer breakfasts, Bible reading marathons, concerts of prayer, rallies, church prayer vigils, student flagpole gatherings and observances held in sports stadiums." 8 President George W. Bush stated in his proclamation that the two purposes of the NDP were: "...to reaffirm the role of prayer in our society and to honor the religious diversity our freedom permits..." 9
bullet2003: The National Day of Prayer was held on MAY-1. It coincided with three other celebrations:
bulletWiccans celebrate Beltane on this day. This is one of their four major Sabbats (seasonal days of celebration). Wicca is a Neopagan religion, patterned after the aboriginal religion of the ancient Celtic people. Other Neopagan religions also celebrated on this day.
bulletInternational Workers' Day, recognizes the contribution by workers throughout the world. It is recognized in almost every country except the United States, Canada, and South Africa.
bulletThis will be the first annual observance of the National Day of Reason. Future celebrations will also be scheduled the first Thursday in May. It is a response to the National Day of Prayer by various Humanist, Agnostic, Atheist, and other secular groups. It is intended to support those Americans who do not believe in a personal male deity who listens to prayer and responds to it.

Dr. Luis Palau, an internationally-known Fundamentalist pastor wrote a prayer for the NDP. The NDPTF encourages Americans to recite this prayer at noontime on MAY-1 local time.

Some interesting notes about NDP for 2003-MAY-01:
bulletAlmost all events were located at or sponsored by conservative Christian churches and/or are led by conservative Christian pastors. There are a few exceptions; most involve Presbyterian or Methodist pastors or churches.
bulletA few events emphasized that everyone in the community is welcome to attend.
bulletThere was at least one Jewish NDP event. It occured in Arizona.
bulletThere was at least one ecumenical Christian NDP event in Texas and three in Florida led by conservative Pastors, mainline Protestant ministers and Catholic priests.
bulletThe Montana NDP group prayed for God to "build a wall along the northern border" with Canada to "prevent the enemy, spiritual and natural from entering into the U.S." This will presumably be a spiritual wall; there was no obvious news items in the media about a physical wall being erected to keep Canadians out. The fear evidenced by this statement may be related to a growing expectation at the time that same-sex marriage might become available in Canada. If so, their prophecy came true a month and nine days later when same-sex couples started to buy marriage licenses, get married and register their marriages in Ontario. This right has since spread across Canada.
bulletIn some cities, including Munci IN, a pair of NDP events were held: one for conservative Christians, and the other for persons of all faiths, including conservative Christians. Pastor William Keller, president of the Delaware County Evangelistic Association organized the exclusively conservative Christian event in Munci. He expressed concern that "My people wouldn't come to a meeting that is an inter-faith event." 10

bullet2004: According to the NDPTF web site: "In 2004, approximately 40,000 events were held nationwide. Local volunteers and coordinators held a variety of activities ranging from prayer breakfasts, Bible reading marathons, concerts of prayer, rallies, church prayer vigils, student flagpole gatherings and observances held in sports stadiums." 11 It is not known whether this is an estimate of the NDP events that it coordinated, or whether it is an estimate of the total number of NDP events across the U.S.
bullet2005: Americans United for the Separation of Church and State organized a truly inclusive NDP event in Oklahoma City, OK, for Christians, followers of other religions, and persons who followed no religion. A similar inclusive event was scheduled in Troy, MI, and probably in other locations.
bullet2006-MAY-04: The theme is "America, Honor God."
bullet2007-MAY-03: According to Shirley Dobson, chairperson of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, the theme for the 56th annual National Day of Prayer is "America, united in prayer." It comes from 2 Chronicles 7:14 (NIV): "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 will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land."
bullet 2010-APR-15: A U.S. District Court judge ruled that the federal enabling legislation for the NDP was unconstitutional. That is, the right of individuals and groups to hold a NDP is very securely protected by the U.S. Constitution. The free exercise clause of the same amendment guarantees that. It is only the declaration of the NDP by the federal government that was found to be unconstitutional. More details

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. News release, "Americans United for Separation of Church and State," 1999-APR-28
  2. James Madison, "Detached Memoranda." Cited in reference 1.
  3. Thomas Jefferson, letter to the Rev. Samuel Miller. Cited in reference 1.
  4. "Proclamation appointing a national fast day," at: http://www.netins.net/
  5. "Documents," Prayer for America, at: http://www.lesea.com/
  6. "American Atheists: Texas State Director's Page," at: http://www.star-telegram.com/
  7. "National Day of Prayer -- Is government promoting religion?," AANEWS, news release, 2000-APR-28.
  8. "Frequently Asked Questions: National day of Prayer Fact Sheet," NDP Task Force, at: http://www.nationaldayofprayer.org/
  9. George W. Bush, "National Day of Prayer, 2002: A Proclamation," at: http://www.nationaldayofprayer.org/
  10. Kieth Roysdon, "Day of prayer divides faiths," The Star Press, 2003-APR-13, at: http://www.thestarpress.com/
  11. "Questions answered," NDP Task Force, at: http://www.ndptf.org/
  12. Olene Walker, National Day of Prayer proclamation for Utah, 2004-MAY, at: http://www.nationaldayofprayer.org/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1999-MAY-5
Most recent update: 2010-APR-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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