Valley Forge is commonly known for one historical event: General George Washington seeking God’s help in prayer on his knees at Valley Forge, which occurred during the cold and long winter of 1777-1778. Washington’s prayer for his country has been seen as mythical because there have been concerns about how he prayed and if he was seen in prayer.
I was riding with him (Mr. Potts) near Valley Forge, where the army lay during the war of the Revolution. Mr. Potts was a Senator in our state and a Whig. I told him I was agreeably surprised to find him a friend to his country as the Quakers were mostly Tories. He said, “It was so and I was a rank Tory once, for I never believed that America could proceed against Great Britain whose fleets and armies covered the land and ocean. But something very extraordinary converted me to the good faith.
“What was that?” I inquired. “Do you see that woods, and that plain?” It was about a quarter of a mile from the place we were riding. “There,” said he, “laid the army of Washington. It was a most distressing time of ye war, and all were for giving up the ship but that one good man. In that woods,” pointing to a close in view, “I heard a plaintive sound, as of a man at prayer. I tied my horse to a sapling and went quietly into the woods and to my astonishment I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was ye Crisis and the cause of the country, of humanity, and of the world.
Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. I left him alone praying. I went home and told my wife, ‘I saw a sight and heard today what I never saw or heard before’, and just related to her what I had seen and heard and observed. We never thought a man could be a soldier and a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington. We thought it was the cause of God, and America could prevail.
And whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.
And, insomuch as we know that, by His divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!
It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.
Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do, by this my proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th. day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer. And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.
All 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.
The founders believed that faith played a role in our lives. As a result, it is the right of our society to decide the proper time(s) to exercise our faith in God. One of the prominent founders, Thomas Jefferson, stated that
[f]asting and prayer are religious excersizes; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these excercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.
Many of the framers faith is the reason public prayer and national days of prayer have such a long-standing and significant role in the American tradition.
The National Day of Prayer has been an important piece of the U.S. heritage since the first call for prayer in 1775 – the Continental Congress asked the colonies to pray for wisdom in forming a nation. A call to prayer has continued throughout U.S. history and has evolved into an annual tradition.
The historical milestones hereunder are adapted from the National Day of Prayer (NDP) websites Historical Timeline.
- On April 17, 1952, Mr. Conrad Hilton of Hilton Hotels and Senator Frank Carlson of Kansas initiated Public Law 82-324. Congress passed Joint Resolution 382, which sought an annual observance of a National Day of Prayer. In addition, President Truman signed Public Law 82-324 that required the U.S. President to set aside an appropriate day each year, other than a Sunday, as a National Day of Prayer.
- In 1974 a subcommittee, which later becomes the National Prayer Committee, on prayer, began at the International Congress on World Evangelization, which was held in Lausanne, Switzerland. The U.S. Lausanne Committee came out of the Lausanne gathering. It is now the Mission America and America’s National Prayer Committee.
- In 1976, Dr. Dick Eastman, Mr. Frank Insen (World Vision), Millie Dienert, Evelyn Christenson and Vonette Bright were appointed to the Prayer Advisory Committee. Dr. Harold Lindsell (Christianity Today) regularly met with the group at the Christian Embassy.
- In 1979, the National Prayer Committee was officially formed. There is currently 18 members on the Executive Board.
- In 1981 Joe Mays (Religious Heritage of America), David Bryant and the NPC meet to formulate the first vision for the National Day of Prayer. Contact was made with the White House Public Liaison Office to begin planning efforts.
- In 1983, the National Prayer Committee organized the first National Day of Prayer observance held at Constitution Hall and featured Vice President George H. Bush and Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie as speakers.
- In 1986, Vonette Bright and the National Prayer Committee contacted Senator Strom Thurmond to seek guidance on writing a bill, which would designate a day for the National Day of Prayer.
The official summary and status of the bill, hereunder, can be found at the Library of Congress here.
- In 1987, Senator Thurmond wrote Bill S.1378, which would amend public law 82-324 and introduces it to the Senate Judicial Committee. The bill designated the “first Thursday of May as the date on which the National Day of Prayer is celebrated.” The bill received bipartisan support. It was sponsored by Congressman Tony Hall (D-Ohio), Congressman Carols Moorhead (R-California), Senator Howard Heflin (D-Alabama), Senator Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina), Senator Bill Armstrong (R-Colorado), Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Virginia), and Congressman Bob Garcia (D-New York). The total of signed endorsements was 13 Senators and 90 Congressmen.
- In 1988, the bill gained support from Rabbi Habermann and Rabbi Tannenbaum. On May 5th, the Senate’s Judicial Committee and the House of Representatives Committee on the Post Office and Civil Service individually release the bill for a preliminary vote. On May 7th, confirmation is given that the bill passed unanimously in the Senate. The House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill a few days later. On May 8th, President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 100-307. Thus, designating the first Thursday in May as the annual observance for the National Day of Prayer.
These are the remaining historical milestones from the NDP Historical Timeline:
- In 1989, the National Prayer Committee forms an Official Task Force to organize events in observance of the National Day of Prayer across the U.S.
- In 1991, Shirley Dobson accepted the chairmanship of the National Day of Prayer Task Force.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The founders would be pleased that the First Amendment’s intention to allow people religious oriented liberties has lasted over two hundred years. However, the founders would be shocked by how much these liberties have been lost or limited due to our own personal negligence. The chairman, Mrs. Shirley Dobson, of the National Day of Prayer Task Forced stated that “[w]e have lost many of our freedoms in America because we have been asleep. I feel if we do not become involved and support the annual National Day of Prayer, we could end up forfeiting this freedom, too.”