President’s Call for National Day of Prayer for Those Affected by COVID-19 Has Deep Roots in American History

March 20, 2020

On Saturday, March 14, President Trump announced a National Day of Prayer, to be observed the following day. With the headlines dominated by the coronavirus and Americans preoccupied with preparations for school closures and social distancing many missed the president’s statement calling for prayer.

In our times of greatest need, Americans have always turned to prayer to help guide us through trials and periods of uncertainty. As we continue to face the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans are unable to gather in their churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship. But in this time we must not cease asking God for added wisdom, comfort, and strength, and we must especially pray for those who have suffered harm or who have lost loved ones. I ask you to join me in a day of prayer for all people who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and to pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.

But is it appropriate for an American president to call for prayer? Is there precedent for this?

Calling the nation to unify in prayer is deeply rooted in American history. It even pre-dates the Republic. For instance, three months after the British attacks at Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress called for “A Day of Public Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer” with the following intention: “That we may with united hearts and voices, unfeignedly confess and deplore our many sins and offer up our joint supplications to the all-wise, omnipotent, and merciful Disposer of all events…” (July 20, 1775)

As Commander of the Continental Army, George Washington encouraged his troops to participate in a congressionally authorized day of prayer on Thursday, May 6, 1779. Similarly, various presidents – among them Washington, Adams, and Madison – called for days of prayer and thanksgiving, hearkening back to older, colonial thanksgiving traditions.

During the U.S. Civil War, the Senate requested that President Lincoln call for a national day of prayer:

Whereas, the Senate of the United States, devoutly recognizing the Supreme Authority and just Government of Almighty God, in all the affairs of men and of nations, has, by a resolution, requested the President to designate and set apart a day for National prayer and humiliation.

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…

It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

This Civil War-era proclamation makes some important points about the value of prayer and robust religion.  First, religion serves as a check on government tyranny. The state should be limited to its narrow sphere of influence. Lincoln and the Senate realized that religiously informed morality was the foundation for law and society. Otherwise, there was either anarchy or government-imposed duties.  They realized that we live in an objectively moral world and that individuals and societies could participate in “presumptuous sins,” such as slavery. The American people needed to repent. Finally, they recognized that true thanksgiving has as its proper object a person, in this case, a Divine Person. It is right to thank God for past blessings.

Over the years, there have been many national days of prayer, in part, because Americans are religious people: people compelled by their faith in God to worship, share, care, and educate the next generation in the faith. The establishment of the federal holiday of Thanksgiving came about on a similar basis. This does not apply only to Christians. The U.S. has long had free exercise equality: the right of all religious communities to practice their faith freely without government coercion.

Our most recent presidents have likewise participated in national prayer. In 2015, for example, President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast is widely recognized for his defense of religious freedom:

The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world – far more religious than most Western developed countries. And one of the reasons is that our founders wisely embraced the separation of church and state. Our government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith, or any faith at all. And the result is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship, without fear, or coercion – so that when you listen to Darrell [Waltrip] talk about his faith journey you know it’s real. You know he’s not saying it because it helps him advance, or because somebody told him to. It’s from the heart.   

That’s not the case in theocracies that restrict people’s choice of faith. It’s not the case in authoritarian governments that elevate an individual leader or a political party above the people, or in some cases, above the concept of God Himself. So the freedom of religion is a value we will continue to protect here at home and stand up for around the world, and is one that we guard vigilantly here in the United States.

Far more could be said about the history of public prayer in the United States, whether advanced by leaders who recognize man’s dependence on God or led by individual citizens and clerics on behalf of their fellow citizens. Prayer has been a part of our national discourse from the American War of Independence through the Civil Rights Movement.  Thus, it is fitting for President Trump at a time of national crisis to call for a National Day of Prayer and for American citizens to exercise their fundamental right to participate.

Proclamation on the National Day of Prayer for all Americans Affected by the Coronavirus Pandemic and for our National Response Efforts

March 14, 2020

In our times of greatest need, Americans have always turned to prayer to help guide us through trials and periods of uncertainty.  As we continue to face the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans are unable to gather in their churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship.  But in this time we must not cease asking God for added wisdom, comfort, and strength, and we must especially pray for those who have suffered harm or who have lost loved ones.  I ask you to join me in a day of prayer for all people who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and to pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.

As your President, I ask you to pray for the health and well-being of your fellow Americans and to remember that no problem is too big for God to handle.  We should all take to heart the holy words found in 1 Peter 5:7: “Casting all your care upon him, for he careth for you.”  Let us pray that all those affected by the virus will feel the presence of our Lord’s protection and love during this time.  With God’s help, we will overcome this threat.
On Friday, I declared a national emergency and took other bold actions to help deploy the full power of the Federal Government to assist with efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.  I now encourage all Americans to pray for those on the front lines of the response, especially our Nation’s outstanding medical professionals and public health officials who are working tirelessly to protect all of us from the coronavirus and treat patients who are infected; all of our courageous first responders, National Guard, and dedicated individuals who are working to ensure the health and safety of our communities; and our Federal, State, and local leaders.  We are confident that He will provide them with the wisdom they need to make difficult decisions and take decisive actions to protect Americans all across the country.  As we come to our Father in prayer, we remember the words found in Psalm 91: “He is my refuge and my fortress:  my God; in him will I trust.”
As we unite in prayer, we are reminded that there is no burden too heavy for God to lift or for this country to bear with His help.  Luke 1:37 promises that “For with God nothing shall be impossible,” and those words are just as true today as they have ever been.  As one Nation under God, we are greater than the hardships we face, and through prayer and acts of compassion and love, we will rise to this challenge and emerge stronger and more united than ever before.  May God bless each of you, and may God bless the United States of America.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim March 15, 2020, as a National Day of Prayer for All Americans Affected by the Coronavirus Pandemic and for our National Response Efforts.  I urge Americans of all faiths and religious traditions and backgrounds to offer prayers for all those affected, including people who have suffered harm or lost loved ones.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fourteenth day of March, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-fourth.