From Eisenhower to Obama: A Look at 63 Years of the Prayers of Presidents

President John F. Kennedy and others at the head table bow their heads during the invocation at the annual “Presidential prayer breakfast” in a Washington hotel, Feb. 9, 1961. (PHOTO CREDIT: Henry Burroughs/AP Photo)
President John F. Kennedy and others at the head table bow their heads during the invocation at the annual “Presidential prayer breakfast” in a Washington hotel, Feb. 9, 1961. (PHOTO CREDIT: Henry Burroughs/AP Photo)

For 63 years, presidents have spent the morning of the first Thursday in February gathering with members of Congress and evangelical Christians for the National Prayer Breakfast. For President Obama, this Thursday marks his final time taking part in the tradition while in office.

Originally known as the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, the event was inaugurated in 1953 when President Eisenhower was invited to join an already-existing prayer circle. Since then, the annual event has provided an annual forum for a discussion of the role of faith in public life.

But the event also offers a rare opportunity for presidents to pray and ask for prayers, and talk in personal terms about their the role of prayer in their own lives.

Here are excerpts from some of the more memorable speeches, which are archived at the American Presidency Project:

Dwight Eisenhower, 1953
“As Benjamin Franklin said at one time during the course of the stormy consultation at the Constitutional Convention, because he sensed that the convention was on the point of breaking up: ‘Gentlemen, I suggest that we have a word of prayer.’ And strangely enough, after a bit of prayer the problems began to smooth out and the convention moved to the great triumph that we enjoy today–the writing of our Constitution.

“Today I think that prayer is just simply a necessity, because by prayer I believe we mean an effort to get in touch with the Infinite. We know that even our prayers are imperfect. Even our supplications are imperfect. Of course they are. We are imperfect human beings. But if we can back off from those problems and make the effort, then there is something that ties us all together. We have begun in our grasp of that basis of understanding, which is that all free government is firmly founded in a deeply-felt religious faith.”

John F. Kennedy, 1963
“These breakfasts are dedicated to prayer and all of us believe in and need prayer. Of all the thousands of letters that are received in the office of the President of the United States, letters of good will and wishes, none, I am sure, have moved any of the incumbents half so much as those that write that those of us who work here in behalf of the country are remembered in their prayers….

“This morning we pray together; this evening apart. But each morning and each evening, let us remember the advice of my fellow Bostonian, the Reverend Phillips Brooks: ‘Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks.'”

Lyndon Johnson, 1964
“No man could live in the house where I live now or work at the desk where I work now without needing and without seeking the strength and the support of earnest and frequent prayer.

“Since last we met, it has fallen to me to learn personally the truth Thomas Jefferson spoke so long ago, when he said: ‘The second office of the Government is honorable and easy; The first is but a splendid misery.’

“In these last 70 days, prayer has helped me to bear the burdens of this first office which are too great to be borne by anyone alone.

We who hold public office are enjoined by our Constitution against enacting laws to tell the people when or where or how to pray. All our experience and all our knowledge proves that injunction is good. for, if government could ordain the people’s prayers, government could also ordain its own worship–and that must never be. The separation of church and state has served our freedom well because men of state have not separated themselves from church and faith and prayer.”

Richard Nixon, 1969
“In talking to Billy Graham, who has spoken to us so eloquently today, he told me he had made a study of the presidents of the United States. He had reached an interesting conclusion. Some of them came to the presidency with a much deeper and more basic religious faith than others, but however they may have come to that awesome responsibility, all had left the presidency with a very deep religious faith….

“In these days in which religion is not supposed to be fashionable in many quarters, in these days when skepticism and even agnosticism seems to be on the upturn, over half of all the letters that have come into our office have indicated that people of all faiths and of all nations in a very simple way are saying: ‘We are praying for you, Mr. President. We are praying for this country. We are praying for the leadership that this Nation may be able to provide for this world.’

“As I read those letters I realized how great was my responsibility and how great was your responsibility, those who share with me these days in government.

“I realize that people whom we will never meet have this deep religious faith which has run through the destiny of this land from the beginning.

“I realize that we carry on our shoulders their hopes, but more important, we are sustained by their prayers.”

Gerald Ford, 1975
“Since we last met, I have discovered another aspect of the power of prayer: I have learned how important it is to have people pray for me. It is often said that the presidency is the loneliest job in the world. Yes, and in a certain sense, I suppose it is. Yet, in all honesty, I cannot say that I have suffered from loneliness these past six months.

“The reason, I am certain, has been that everywhere I go, among old friends or among strangers, people call out from the crowd or will say quietly to me, “We’re praying for you,” or “You are in our prayers,” and I read the same sentiments in my mail. Of course, there are some that are not so inspiring, but the great ground swell of good will that comes from the true spirit of America has been a wonderful source of strength to me as it was, I am sure, to other Presidents before me. Believe me, having counted the votes and knowing that you have them is a great satisfaction, but the satisfaction of knowing that uncounted numbers of good people are praying for you is infinitely more rewarding.

“Prayer is a very, very personal thing, at least for me. Yet, to me, as many of my predecessors, it is a terribly important source of strength and confidence.”

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SOURCE: USA Today, Gregory Korte

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