Today, Americans observe the National Day of Prayer, a tradition that predates the country itself. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress declared July 20, 1775, a national day of “fasting & prayer.” As the Civil War raged in 1863, Abraham Lincoln renewed the tradition, which was finally codified as an annual occurrence in 1952 by Harry Truman. But it wasn’t until 1988 that Ronald Reagan signed a law setting the first Thursday of May as the official National Day of Prayer.
A deeply religious man, Reagan was not known for putting his religious beliefs out in public view, but he honored the National Day of Prayer every year during his presidency. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Reagan’s birth with various activities and reflections on his impact on the country and the world, it’s important to also remember his role in solidifying this important national tradition and the larger role faith played in his life.
In his first National Day of Prayer proclamation in 1981, Reagan noted that prayer is a “source of strength.” He saw the observance as an homage to the nation’s founding, observing that “while never willing to bow to a tyrant, our forefathers were always willing to get on their knees before God.” He called on all Americans to “join with me in giving thanks to Almighty God for the blessings He has bestowed on this land and the protection He affords us as a people. Let us as a Nation join together before God, fully aware of the trials that lie ahead and the need, yes, the necessity for divine guidance.”
Prayer held an especially important place in Reagan’s own life. In his first speech before Congress following his assassination attempt, Reagan made sure to thank the American people who had prayed for him and for the others who were shot. The ordeal of the assassination attempt and his recovery brought Reagan’s faith into sharper focus. He would later write that it led to a renewed sense of purpose that God had saved him so that he could continue his important work.
That National Day of Prayer wasn’t the only public display of faith Reagan promoted. He also pushed for more emphasis on prayer in public life. In a 1982 radio address defending prayer in public schools and in Congress, he said that “in nearly all our lives, there are moments when our prayers and the prayers of our friends and loved ones help to see us through and keep on the right path.”
Reagan certainly recognized the controversial nature of the observance, but stood firm in his support for the Day of Prayer. “And while recognizing that the freedom to choose a Godly path is the essence of liberty,” he said in his 1981 National Day of Prayer proclamation, “as a Nation we cannot but hope that more of our citizens would, through prayer, come into a closer relationship with their Maker.” He noted in the 1982 radio address that “prayer is one of the few things in this world that hurts no one and sustains the spirit of millions.”
My first job out of college, before I joined the Reagan reelection campaign, was organizing the 1983 National Day of Prayer. As a young man, I was humbled at the opportunity and also awed by the meaning this day held for President Reagan.
Reagan promoted the National Day of Prayer because he knew how important it was for the nation and for Americans of all faiths to set aside a day for collective reflection. He’d learned from Lincoln, who in reinstating the day of prayer in 1863, said, “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.”
May we remember Lincoln’s words and Reagan’s example and continue to celebrate this day every year.
— Stewart McLaurin is the executive director of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation in Simi Valley, Calif.