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A Brief History of America’s National Day of Prayer

Set-aside times of prayer and fasting as a nation have been part of America’s history since her beginning. In the early days of the New England colonies, community days of prayer and fasting were common, often prompted by such calamities as disease, drought, and dangers from attack. State- or nation-wide days of prayer were called in times of great danger. 

Days of fasting, prayer, and repentance were called every spring during the American War for Independence. On these prayer days, all labor and recreation were set aside. American citizens were encouraged to attend special church services where sermons were preached and petitions were prayed. Such days of prayer were called also during the War of 1812, the War Between the States, and both World Wars. In our nation’s most desperate times in the past, the leadership of the country pointed the people to pray to God Almighty.

During the Korean War, Reverend Billy Graham issued a challenge for a yearly, set-aside National Day of Prayer. He stated: “What a thrilling, glorious thing it would be to see the leaders of our country today kneeling before Almighty God in prayer. What a thrill would sweep this country. What renewed hope and courage would grip the Americans at this hour of peril." A representative from Tennessee recognized the challenge issued by Billy Graham and began a campaign to have an official National Day of Prayer each year. On April 17, 1952, President Truman signed a bill requiring each successive president to declare a national day of prayer on a day the current in-office president deemed appropriate. In 1988, the law was amended to make the first Thursday in May the National Day of Prayer each year.

Since being officially recognized in 1952, the National Day of Prayer has developed into an organized event. Many churches and other religious groups call dedicated prayer meetings on the first Thursday in May. Some hold 24-hour prayer vigils. Christians across the nation join together in praying for the people and leaders of the United States.

Each year, the National Day of Prayer Task Force coordinates prayer events across the country, and a theme is chosen. For information on this year’s theme or to find an event near you, visit nationaldayofprayer.org

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