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Leading up to this year’s National Day of
Prayer, the news reports peddled controversies about prayer–including Franklin
Graham being “disinvited” from one prayer event. The stories tell a common tale: a new sort of religious pluralism
has somehow undermined the American practice of harmonious prayer beseeching
the Supreme Being to bless the state.
However, no storyline could be further from historical reality. Americans have never been unified in
prayer. When it comes to prayer,
Americans love to fight–and our prayers have driven us apart. Arguing over prayer is American
In the 1600s, Puritans rejected the formalized
prayer of the Anglican Book of Common
Prayer and founded their own churches as a way of protesting state
supported prayer. For their
trouble, the Anglicans put them in jail.
When they got out, they left England and settled in the New World. But the Anglicans were already there
with their own colonies and outlawed Puritan prayers again. So, the Puritans
outlawed Anglican prayer in their own colonies. Quakers, disgusted by the
Puritan-Anglican quarrel, rejected verbal prayers altogether choosing to pray
In the 1740s, during the Great Awakening, the
new evangelical preachers practiced extemporaneous prayer. They rejected all written prayers in
favor of being “moved by the Spirit” and making up public prayers on the
spot. Many in traditional
churches–Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Congregationalists–found
extemporaneous prayer to be theologically shallow and “unlearned” and forbade
its exercise in their churches. These
groups didn’t imprison each other over prayer. Instead, they consigned each other to hell and set up rival
denominations to insure their own salvation. American churches split over prayer, leaving some to free
form prayer and others to written and ritualized prayers.
After the Revolutionary War, a puzzling question
arose: Whose prayer would
undergird the new nation? How
might prayer be practiced in the commons?
What words should bless state functions?
The political leaders (perhaps recognizing that
prayer was above their pay grade) came up with a unique and practical
answer: “Congress shall make no
law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise
thereof…” In other words, “We won’t touch that prayer-thing with a twenty
foot pole. You are on your own,
Of course, the Establishment and Free Exercise
clauses of the Constitution didn’t solve anything. Congress, despite trying to avoid the issue, had chaplains
who prayed for their work–most typically of the formal type. And Americans–even in the early period
when most of them were Protestants–kept arguing over whose prayer was
theologically accurate and most spiritually effective. Entire denominations were formed on the
basis of devotional style. And, as
Americans argued and denominations split over prayer, religious leaders and
politicians continued to proclaim days of prayer for national unity.
Some of the organizers of today’s National Day
of Prayer appeal to Abraham Lincoln as the example a political leader setting
aside a day for prayer and repentance.
Indeed, in 1863, Lincoln appointed a national day of prayer saying it
would result in unity. The proclamation read,
this being done, in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope
authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the Nation will be
heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our
national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering Country, to
its former happy condition of unity and peace.”
Weeks later, the North
and South bloodied and butchered each other in a place called Gettysburg. Two years after his prayer
proclamation, Lincoln remarked on prayer’s inadequacy to bring the nation together. In his Second Inaugural Address, he
wrote: “Both read the same Bible and pray
to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . The prayers of
both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The
Almighty has His own purposes.”
The sentiment of a National Day of
Prayer for communal forgiveness and social unity is nice, if not noble. It is also politically expedient. Honestly, what politician can vote
against prayer and hope to get re-elected? But whose prayer?
Which theology? What form
of devotion? National prayer
without a state church is utterly unrealistic and consistently raises knotty
theological and political questions, as our forebears discovered. American prayer has more often divided
us rather than uniting us. If
today’s news headlines are any indication, that is still the case. Maybe the Quakers had it right all
along: Next year we should try a
“National Day of Silence” instead.