National Prayer Day: The sixty-year-old holiday you’ve never heard of (VIDEO)

US President Barack Obama bows his head with others in prayer during a prayer breakfast in the East Room of the White House April 4, 2012 in Washington, DC. Obama proclaimed today the 61st National Day of Prayer.
Credit: Brendan Smialowski

On Tuesday, President Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation identifying today as the National Day of Prayer.

While a national day of prayer may seem odd and controversial to some, the observance has been held since 1952. It was created by a joint resolution of the United States Congress and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman. In 1988, President Reagan designated the 'holiday' as an annual observance to be held on the first Thursday of May — as it had been previously.

Each president since Truman has proclaimed at least one national day of prayer, and a total of 61 have been issued since 1952.

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But the holiday isn’t one most Americans know well. Who supports its observance? Why was it founded?

The privately funded “National Day of Prayer Task Force” is in charge of encouraging national participation in the observance. According to their website: “The mission of the National Day of Prayer Task Force is to mobilize prayer in America and to encourage personal repentance and righteousness in the culture.”

The task force notes that the first national call to prayer is even older than the United States itself; in 1775, the Continental Congress asked the colonies to "pray for wisdom in forming a nation. " They stress that the faith of the founding fathers has given public prayer "a long-standing and significant history in American tradition."

Their official website outlines their vision in greater detail. They seek to:

• Mobilize and encourage personal and corporate prayer on the first Thursday of May and throughout the year, regardless of current issues and positions (Colossians 4:2, Romans 12:12, Matthew 18:19-20, Joel 2:13-16, II Chronicles 7:14)
• Preserve America’s Christian heritage and defend the religious freedoms granted by the Constitution (Deuteronomy 6:6-8, Proverbs 14:34)
• Emphasize prayer for America and its leadership in the seven centers of power: Government, Military, Media, Business, Education, Church and Family (I Timothy 2:1-6)
• Foster unity within the Christian Church (Psalm 133:1, Ephesians 4:11-13)

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The task force has drawn criticism for appearing to conform to only Judeo-Christian beliefs. They support, “a Judeo-Christian expression of the national observance, based on our understanding that this country was birthed in prayer and in reverence for the God of the Bible.”

However, the group claims that, “The National Day of Prayer belongs to all Americans. It is a day that transcends differences, bringing together citizens from all backgrounds.”

Their official statement regarding the participation of non-Judeo-Christian groups can be found at the bottom of this page.

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The task force, and the observance, has angered secular activists as well.

Opponents of the observance claim it is in direct violation of the separation of church and state. In response, the American Humanist Association has organized a National Day of Reason,” to be held today as well. The celebration, now in its its ninth year, is observed in a myriad of ways; observers commonly hold blood drives, training on pro-secular policy lobbying and voter registration drives, as well as social events, according to the Huffington Post.

Dr. David Jeremiah, the NDP's honorary chairman, issued a promotional video for the cause, shown below:

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