Prayer and the Fabric of America

Alan Sears

8/6/2011 12:01:00 AM - Alan Sears

Ours is nation built on liberty, the ideals of Western Civilization, and prayer. It is also a nation under assault by people who wish to erase prayer from the list: this much was evident in the vitriol hurled at Texas Gov. Rick Perry when he recently called his fellow governors and President Obama to join him for prayer for our nation.

The current backlash is due either to a genuine lack of knowledge concerning prayer’s place in American history or a seeming untamable desire, on the part of some, to usher in a secular state. For those who seek secularization, there’s probably not much that can be done here to change their mind, but for those whose animosity toward prayer in America is the result of a lack of historical proof, perhaps some good can be done in the next few paragraphs.

For starters, when the First Continental Congress met to decide how the colonies ought to respond to the ongoing tyranny of King George III, they opened their session with a prayer that began this way:

"O Lord our Heavenly Father, high and mighty King of kings, and Lord of lords, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers on earth and reignest with power supreme and uncontrolled over all the Kingdoms, Empires and Governments; look down in mercy, we beseech Thee, on these our American States, who have fled to Thee from the rod of the oppressor and thrown themselves on Thy gracious protection, desiring to be henceforth dependent only on Thee."

During the middle of the following year, and just three months after British forces attacked the colonies and ushered in the American Revolutionary War, “the Continental Congress declared July 20, 1775, a national day of ‘fasting & prayer.’” In none of these things did they go against the principles that would come to characterize America: rather, they epitomized them.

In 1784, three years after the United States of America had emerged victorious from the war, General George Washington sent a letter to every governor in the country to announcing the disbandment of the Continental Army. That letter contained these words:

"I now make it my earnest prayer that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection; that he would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow-citizens of the United States at large."

Five years later, after the United States had chosen George Washington as the first President under the U.S. Constitution, the schedule of events for the first inauguration day ran in the New York Daily Advertiser:

"[O]n the morning of the day on which our illustrious President will be invested with his office, the bells will ring at nine o'clock, when the people may go up to the house of God and in a solemn manner commit the new government, with its important train of consequences, to the holy protection and blessing of the most high. An early hour is prudently fixed for this peculiar act of devotion and . . . is designed wholly for prayer."

Just months after Washington had been sworn in as president, both the House and Senate passed a resolution asking him to declare a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer.” Concurring, on Oct. 3, 1789, Washington issued a proclamation which read in part:

"Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me "to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness"

"Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation.

These historical examples, drawn from the many that are extant and accessible, show the centrality of prayer in the earliest years of our Republic. And they demonstrate that Gov. Perry’s proclamation of “a Day of Prayer and Fasting for our Nation to seek God's guidance and wisdom in addressing the challenges that face our communities, states and nation,” epitomizes the way George Washington and the Founding Generation approached matters during our Republic’s earliest years.

Alan Sears, a former federal prosecutor who held various posts in the departments of Justice and Interior during the Reagan Administration, is president and CEO of the Alliance Defense Fund (www.telladf.org).