President James Madison and the National Day of Prayer

For at least 200 years, Americans have had a national day of prayer.  Ironically, this “day of prayer” tradition seems to have been started by a man who is known as a bulwark of the separation of church and state.

Once again, President James Madison seems to be a man of contradiction.

 That is, when we try to oversimplify things.

To understand what Madison wanted, we can look at his time. It seems that the early 19th century was a time of religious awareness.  Deists and Atheists were given credit for the French Revolution.   A reaction against the revolutions of the time resulted in religious revivals, from mainstream Protestant missionaries to a midwife who called herself the mother of Shiloh.

Europe was rethinking about how it treated its religious minorities, and religious figures were politically active in all kinds of movements from abolitionism to vegetarianism.

War, economic disaster, uncertainty about the future, and attacks on faith from the outside created an atmosphere in which religious ideas flourished, much like that of the 1960s.  Some of those ideas were tradition, others were experimental and have since disappeared.

Along with war, sport, the economy, fashion and entertainment, religion seems to have occupied the minds of the peoples of Europe and throughout the English speaking world in the year 1812.  And religion seemed to enter most of the other fields, plays were made about religion, and religion was used to boost morale or spread propaganda against the enemy.

The religious question wasn’t only asked in Europe and the Americas.  The early ninetieth century saw great clashes of religion between traditionalists and “reformers” in Africa and Asia as well, and an abundance self-proclaimed prophets on a scale that must have seemed strange to people of the time.  Today, we might call some of these reformers fundamentalists, others cult leaders, and a few have simply been accepted as part of the status quo.

With all this religious agitation, was President Madison simply swept up in the spirit of his time?  He seems to smart for that.

James Madison didn’t have anything against religion in general.  He saw the separation of church and state, or the lack of an established church, as a good thing.

Looking at Europe, and at the views of visitors from Europe, it’s easy to see why.  As William Cobbett put it, “in America, no one cares what religion you are, or if you have no religion at all.”  This was a great contrast to his native England, where it seemed the government demanded to know.

Ok, so Cobbett kind of contradicted himself, in pointing out that the lazy gluttons of America disliked the Quakers because they were jealous of the Quaker’s well earned wealth.  And he also noticed that the hard working Irish in New York went to their Catholic churches on Sunday without a problem, and were well adjusted part of society.  (This was in relation to Cobbett’s Britain, where the Catholics didn’t yet have full privileges, and the Irish tended to be seen as a poor underclass.)

Cobbett had a great respect for certain religious groups, even if he opposed the establishment of religion on a national scale.  In his objection to the tithe laws, Cobbett wrote that “tithing is not religion.”  The tithe in England and elsewhere on the British realm was more of a tax that went to support the priests in the Church of England.  People had to pay this whether they agreed with those priests or not.

The government in Britain treated its citizens and residents differently depending on which religion those citizens and residents professed to have.  The Established church in Britain wasn’t Cobbett’s favorite.

In the ‘New World’, by contrast, the government had a tradition of dealing with religion to a lesser degree.  That doesn’t mean that there was no religious persecution in the United States or elsewhere, but that persecution was likely to be result of the acts of unruly mobs or unstable individuals.

After independence, some state and city governments did pay the salaries of local ministers, and they did pay to build church buildings.  The wall between church and state was not complete.

However, men like James Madison thought that, where it existed, that wall helped the church to thrive. Seven years after the National Day of Prayer, James Madison proclaimed that “The number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state.”

It seems to me pretty obvious that James Madison would not have funded faith-based groups through government money.  Government funding made religion dependent on government, and seemed to contribute to corruption in religious leadership.  The separation of church and state, that “wall”, helped to preserve religious freedom, and it helped to preserve religious integrity by keeping religion independent.  To quote a letter (former) President Madison wrote ten years after the National Day of Prayer, “religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

So, did the National Day of Prayer, which was delivered by his secretary of State James Monroe, allow a crack to be made in that wall?

Well, Madison was merely executing the will of congress here.   Still, he should have vetoed it if he thought it unconstitutional.  Did preparations for war overturn any concern for the constitution?  I don’t think so. Madison continually warned about how war was used as an instrument to destroy liberty.  “The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.”  I don’t think he’d make any constitutional exceptions just because there was a war going on.

The day of Prayer does not prefer any religion above another.  Like Thanksgiving, prayer goes across cultures.  But what about those people who don’t believe in prayer?  Are they excluded by such a day?  Was Madison, or the Congress he was presiding over,  not establishing religion by proclaiming a day of prayer?

Well, I don’t know yet what Madison or his congress was thinking then.  There are all kinds of national days that don’t ‘include’ everybody, some people are too grumpy to be thankful for anything on Thanksgiving for instance.

Still, I can’t help but think perhaps they were a bit like my high school football coaches.  Before a game, one coach used to say “everyone in his own way” and he’d bow on one knee, close his eyes, and perhaps say a silent prayer.  If I remember correctly, those of us who weren’t very religious just stood there, in respectful silence.

Later, another coach had a moment’s mediation in the locker room.  I didn’t think of it as a prayer at the time, but I remember at least one teammate dropping his head and putting his hands together.  Personally, I just used that time to try and see if I could go through the plays in my head.  I also tried to clear my mind a few times, so I could be more focused when the game started.

Since most everyone else seemed to be closing their eyes (and maybe the coach asked us to) I remember doing it as well.

I wonder what anybody who didn’t really pray did during Madison’s proclaimed National Day of Prayer.  Did they go to National Day of Prayer sales and get used vehicles and cheap clothes? Probably not.  Did they decide to give prayer a chance, to pray for their country as it entered a war (or in later national prayer days, as it continued in war)?  It seems that some might have, but these were probably people who had prayed before.

When they were surrounded by others who prayed, a few who didn’t pray could have just tried it for the first time, but did they?   I haven’t found any evidence that this National Day helped to increase religious awareness in America.

I think the day was similar to Thanksgiving is today, as other proclaimed days of prayer had Thanksgiving mentioned alongside prayer.  Those who were inclined to see prayer as a good thing, but perhaps didn’t take the time to do it, now had no excuse.   Those who didn’t see the point continued to chop wood, play the lute, or otherwise treat it as any other day.

Perhaps they just stayed quiet for a few moments, if not in respect to an outside being who they didn’t know, then in respect to those who were praying around them.


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