Since 1952, Congress has required the President to issue a proclamation designating “a National Day of Prayer, on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals” (emphasis added). On April 15, 2010, Federal District Court Judge Barbara B. Crabb declared this requirement to be an unconstitutional “establishment of religion.”
Crabb’s decision is problematic even under the Supreme Court’s muddled First Amendment jurisprudence, but her claim that America’s founders had “intense debate[s]” about the “role that prayer should play in public life” is, if not simply false, profoundly misleading.
When the First Continental Congress convened in 1774, Thomas Cushing encouraged the delegates to begin their proceedings with prayer. John Jay and John Rutledge questioned the practicality of doing so given the different denominations represented in Congress. The fiery Congregationalist Samuel Adams replied that “he was no Bigot, and could hear a Prayer from a Gentleman of Piety and Virtue” and suggested that they invite the Anglican minister Jacob Duché to open the body with prayer. Congress agreed.
The following day, Reverend Duché “arrived in his Pontificallibus, read several Prayers” and then, according to the Congregationalist John Adams, “struck out into an extemporary prayer, which filled the Bosom of every Man present.” Throughout the remainder of its existence, the Continental and Confederation Congresses employed chaplains and routinely issued calls for prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving.
But what about the new national government?
On September 24, 1789, the House of Representatives approved the final wording of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Among other things, it states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
The next day Representative Elias Boudinot, later president of the American Bible Society, proposed that Congress ask President Washington to recommend a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.
In response to objections by a few members of Congress that such proclamations mimicked European customs and are more properly issued by states, Roger Sherman, a Representative from Connecticut who was intimately involved in crafting the First Amendment, “justified the practice of thanksgiving, on any signal event, not only as a laudable one in itself, but as warranted by a number of precedents in holy writ.”
Members of the House of Representatives approved Boudinot’s resolution, the Senate quickly followed suit, and on October 3, 1789 George Washington issued a proclamation urging Americans to “most humbly offer our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations.”
Like Washington, presidents John Adams and James Madison issued calls for prayer and fasting, although after he left the presidency Madison recorded in private papers that he regretted doing so.
It is true that as president Thomas Jefferson refused to issue formal proclamations encouraging prayer (although he issued at least one as governor of Virginia), but in his second inaugural address he acknowledged that he would need “the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers as Israel of old” and asked his fellow citizens “to join with me in supplications, that he [God] will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures.”
For all of their disagreements, America’s founders found ways to pray together, and virtually all of them believed that the nation’s civic leaders should encourage prayer. We would do well to spend this year’s National Day of Prayer following Washington’s admonition to beseech God to “pardon our national and other transgressions” and to give thanks to “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”