The National Day of Prayer is an annual observance in the United States that calls on people to turn to God in prayer and meditation. It is held on the first Thursday in May each year. The purpose is for people of all faiths to unite in prayer for the nation and its leaders. The theme and Bible verse for each year’s event is chosen by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private evangelical organization. While it is a national observance, the event is mainly marked by local ceremonies and gatherings across the country.
The National Day of Prayer has a long history in the United States. The Continental Congress first declared a national day of prayer in 1775, as the Revolutionary War was beginning. In 1952, Congress established an annual National Day of Prayer through a joint resolution signed by President Harry S. Truman. In 1988, that law was amended and signed by President Ronald Reagan, designating the National Day of Prayer as the first Thursday in May. Every president since 1952 has signed a National Day of Prayer proclamation.
The National Day of Prayer is primarily observed by Christians, but it is designed as an interfaith event. People of many faiths, or no faith, are encouraged to pray according to their own beliefs. In the United States, where the majority of citizens identify as Christian, most National Day of Prayer events have a Christian tone with prayers offered in Jesus’ name. However, invitations to participate are extended to all faiths, along with those who do not ascribe to any religion.
For Christians, prayer is vital to faith. Jesus taught his followers to pray both privately and corporately. The Bible exhorts believers to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and to pray “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18). Jesus modeled prayer, withdrawing to solitary places to pray (Luke 5:16). The book of Acts describes early believers gathering regularly for prayer, and the New Testament letters instruct churches to pray for each other. Prayer is one key way Christians develop intimacy with God.
The National Day of Prayer encourages Christians to follow biblical teachings on prayer. It provides an opportunity to join with other believers in interceding for our nation. The Bible instructs Christians to pray for those in authority over them, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Timothy 2:2). Throughout its history, prayer has been a hallmark of national observances in the United States. Setting aside a day for collective national prayer aligns with scriptural commands to pray for the nation.
The National Day of Prayer gives Christians a chance to join in focused prayer for America with fellow believers. Some of the prayer themes through the years have included praying for national unity and morality, for government leaders, for the military, for education, for the church, and more. The Bible calls Christians to pray for these very things. Christians can use the National Day of Prayer to specifically bring the needs of the nation before God and seek his will for America. As Psalm 33:12 says, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.”
Critics argue the National Day of Prayer violates the separation of church and state. Some believe observing it officially favors Christianity over other religions and imposes religious observance on citizens. Supporters say the National Day of Prayer promotes religious freedom, not endorses any specific faith. It accommodates diverse forms of prayers, upholding the First Amendment. The federal law establishing the day has been upheld multiple times in the courts. Presidents and state governors regularly issue proclamations each year honoring the National Day of Prayer.
The main debate seems to center on the National Day of Prayer as a federal observance, versus personal liberty of conscience. Supporters say it simply acknowledges the role of prayer in U.S. heritage. Critics counter that government should not promote religious rituals. Christians can thoughtfully contribute to this discussion. They might consider that the National Day of Prayer promotes religious freedom and pluralism. It does not mandate participation. Christians can exemplify tolerance and respect for other faith traditions that take part.
Christians who choose to participate in the National Day of Prayer have several options. Most attend organized events in their communities. These are usually ecumenical Christian gatherings open to all. Larger events may be held at seats of government, such as capitol buildings. Observers can also mark the occasion with private prayer alone or in groups. Many churches hold special prayer services. Families may use the National Day of Prayer to focus prayers together. Believers can pray however the Holy Spirit leads them.
There are several key ways Christians observing the National Day of Prayer can align with biblical teachings on prayer. Here are some examples:
- Pray scripture back to God, claiming his promises for America.
- Thank God for blessings he has poured out on our nation.
- Ask God to grant wisdom, courage and protection for national and local leaders.
- Plead for unity, peace and justice in our society.
- Petition God to heal divisions and mend broken relationships between citizens.
- Pray for cultural institutions like education, the arts, media and business to be aligned with biblical values.
- Ask God to mobilize his church in America for revival, service and evangelism.
- Request that God would raise up a new generation committed to following him.
In addition to praying for America overall, Christians observing the National Day of Prayer can focus prayers specific to their community. They can intercede for local schools, government, law enforcement, businesses, churches, ministries and more. The Bible commands believers to pray for the peace and prosperity of their communities.
Christians should pray with faith and sincerity on the National Day of Prayer. At the same time, they can remember that prayer is not about outward rituals. Jesus condemned praying just to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5). As with all prayer, God cares most about the state of people’s hearts. Christians observing the National Day of Prayer should examine their own hearts and motives. They should pray with humility, seeking God’s glory rather than their own. The day is not about promoting oneself as righteous, but humbly interceding for the nation.
The National Day of Prayer allows believers to apply biblical teachings on prayer for their nation. Christians can pray with informed discernment based on scriptural principles. Here are some key things the Bible says about prayer that can guide prayers on the National Day of Prayer:
- Prayer should be offered with faith in Christ (John 14:13)
- Ask God to act according to his will and glory (1 John 5:14)
- Humble yourself before God when praying (Psalm 51:17)
- Forgive others when praying (Mark 11:25)
- Pray persistently with gratitude (Colossians 4:2)
- Intercede for those in authority (1 Timothy 2:2)
- Pray for unity and peace in the nation (Jeremiah 29:7)
- Ask God to send revival and renewal (Habakkuk 3:2)
The National Day of Prayer enables believers to join their voices before God’s throne on behalf of the nation. Christians can pray for America with unity, sincerity and humility. Observing the day aligns with Scripture’s commands to continually pray for our leaders and those around us. We can ask the Lord for wisdom, courage, justice and morality in society. Most of all, followers of Jesus should pray that God’s glory and kingdom would advance across America.