Note: On this National Day of Prayer, William Federer offers a list of similar national commemorations in America’s history.
Early colonists declared Days of Prayer during droughts and Indian attacks.
One notable Day of Prayer was in 1746, when French Adm. d’Anville sailed for New England, commanding the most powerful fleet of the time – 70 ships with 13,000 troops – intending to recapture Louisburg, Nova Scotia, and destroy from Boston to New York, all the way to Georgia.
Massachusetts Gov. William Shirley declared a Day of Prayer and Fasting, Oct. 16, 1746, to pray for deliverance.
In Boston’s Old South Meeting House, the Rev. Thomas Prince prayed: “Send Thy tempest, Lord, upon the water … scatter the ships of our tormentors!”
Historian Catherine Drinker Bowen related that as he finished praying, the sky darkened, winds shrieked and church bells rang “a wild, uneven sound … though no man was in the steeple.”
A hurricane subsequently struck the French fleet.
With 4,000 sick and 2,000 dead, including Adm. d’Anville, French Vice Adm. d’Estournelle threw himself on his sword.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his “Ballad of the French Fleet”:
“Admiral d’Anville had sworn by cross and crown, to ravage with fire and steel our helpless Boston Town. … From mouth to mouth spread tidings of dismay, I stood in the Old South saying humbly: ‘Let us pray!’ … Like a potter’s vessel broke, the great ships of the line, were carried away as smoke or sank in the brine.”
In 1774, Thomas Jefferson proposed a Day of Prayer when the British blockaded Boston’s Harbor:
“This House … from the hostile invasion of the city of Boston … deem it highly necessary that the first day of June be … a Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer, devoutly to implore the Divine interposition.”
George Washington wrote in his diary, June 1, 1774: “Went to church, fasted all day.”
A few years later, March 6, 1776, Gen. Washington ordered:
“A day of fasting, prayer and humiliation, ‘to implore the Lord and Giver of all victory to pardon our manifold sins and … bless the Continental Army with His divine favor and protection.'”
Ben Franklin stated during the 1787 Constitutional Convention:
“In the beginning of the Contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for Divine protection.”
In 1794, after the Whiskey Rebellion, President George Washington declared a Day of Prayer.
In 1799, during a threatened war with France, President John Adams declared a Day of Prayer, urging Americans to:
“Call to mind our numerous offenses against the Most High God, confess them before Him with the sincerest penitence, implore His pardoning mercy, through the Great Mediator and Redeemer … and that through the grace of His Holy Spirit, we may … yield a more suitable obedience to His righteous requisitions.”
During the War of 1812, President James Madison, who interestingly enough had introduced the First Amendment in the first session of Congress, proclaimed a Day of Prayer:
“I … recommend … rendering the Sovereign of the Universe … public homage … acknowledging the transgressions which might justly provoke the manifestations of His divine displeasure … seeking His merciful forgiveness … with a reverence for the unerring precept of our holy religion, to do to others as they would require that others should do to them.”
On Aug. 25, 1814, the British invaded Washington and burned the White House and Capitol building. Suddenly dark clouds rolled in and a tornado blew off roofs and knocked down chimneys on British troops. Cannons were lifted off the ground and thrown yards away. British troops fled.
A British historian wrote:
“More British soldiers were killed by this stroke of nature than from all the firearms the American troops had mustered.”
Madison proclaimed another Day of Prayer, stating:
“In the present time of public calamity and war a day may be recommended … [for] public humiliation and fasting and of prayer to Almighty God … confessing their sins and transgressions … that He would be graciously pleased to pardon all their offenses.”
When President William Henry Harrison died in 1841, John Tyler, the first vice president to assume the presidency, issued a Day of Prayer:
“When a Christian people feel themselves to be overtaken by a great public calamity, it becomes them to humble themselves under the dispensation of Divine Providence.”
President Zachary Taylor declared a Day of Prayer during a cholera epidemic, July 3, 1849, stating:
“A fearful pestilence … is spreading itself throughout the land. … It is … recommended … a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer … to abstain … from secular occupations … to implore the Almighty in His own good time to stay the destroying hand.”
Prior to the Civil War, President James Buchanan proclaimed a Day of Prayer to avert civil strife, as did Lincoln, March 30, 1863, stating:
“The awful calamity of civil war … may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins. … We have forgotten God. … We have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become … too proud to pray to the God that made us!”
President Andrew Johnson proclaimed a Day of Prayer when Lincoln was shot.
During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson declared a Day of Prayer, stating:
“I … hereby proclaim … a day of public humiliation, prayer and fasting, and do exhort my fellow-citizens … to assemble on that day in their several places of worship … to pray Almighty God that He may forgive our sins … and purify our hearts.”
During World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt prayed during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944:
“Almighty God, our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion and our civilization. … Help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.”
When World War II ended, President Truman declared in a Day of Prayer, Aug. 16, 1945:
“The warlords of Japan … have surrendered unconditionally. … Our global victory … has come with the help of God. … Let us … dedicate ourselves to follow in His ways.”
In 1952, President Truman made the National Day of Prayer an annual observance, stating:
“In times of national crisis when we are striving to strengthen the foundations of peace … we stand in special need of Divine support.”
In April of 1970, President Richard Nixon had a Day of Prayer for Apollo 13 astronauts.
On Jan. 27, 1983, declaring a National Day of Prayer, President Ronald Reagan stated:
“In 1783, the Treaty of Paris officially ended the long, weary Revolutionary War during which a National Day of Prayer had been proclaimed every spring for eight years.”
President Reagan made the National Day of Prayer the first Thursday in May, saying:
“Americans in every generation have turned to their Maker in prayer. … We have acknowledged … our dependence on Almighty God.”
President George W. Bush declared Days of Prayer after the Islamic terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and after Hurricane Katrina.
Facing today’s economic crisis and fundamentalist Muslim threat, it may be time for Americans to once again observe a Day of Prayer.
William J. Federer is a best-selling author of “Treasury of Presidential Quotations” and “America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations.” To schedule speaking, visit www.AmericanMinute.com.