In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. John Ragosta of Hamilton College explores the historical roots of the National Day of Prayer.
John Ragosta is a visiting assistant professor of history at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. As a historian and lawyer, he has been widely published in both legal and historical journals in the areas of early American history, constitutional law and international relations. He is currently completing work on his latest book, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed.
Dr. John Ragosta – History of the National Day of Prayer
On May 2, Americans of every religion will join in the National Day of Prayer. The day has been an official holiday since 1952, but Americans have been called to days of prayer since the American Revolution.
Shortly after the battle of Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress called upon Americans to pray that God would “remove our present calamities.” George Washington called for a day of prayer in 1795 in thanksgiving for the peace that America enjoyed at a time of war in Europe, although Washington was always careful never to limit his invocation to Christians.
Thomas Jefferson, though, refused to issue such proclamations, insisting that they violated the First Amendment. He wrote: “Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these [religious] exercises, … and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.” James Madison, facing the War of 1812, issued Congressional prayer proclamations, but later regretted doing so, saying that such proclamations “seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”
The controversy has continued. In 2010, a federal judge ruled that “the government may not use its authority to try to influence an individual's decision whether and when to pray.” That decision was dismissed for lack of standing, leaving the question unanswered.
In 2012, President Obama’s proclamation of the National Day of Prayer asked Americans to “be humble in our convictions, and courageous in our virtue.”
Today, people of all denominations might well recall Jefferson’s private words of prayer during his first inaugural address: “lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for [our] peace and prosperity.”