What The Heroes Of American History Prayed For

By Edwin Crayton/Opinion

“All we can do now is pray.”  A Sunday School teacher pointed out that those familiar words reflect a widespread misunderstanding about the power of prayer. He said, when we utter those words, we imply that prayer is the last resort and isn’t much.  As a society, I believe, we do indeed tend to devalue prayer. When facing a need, it’s often the last solution we try, when in fact it should be the first thing we do when facing a trial or when trying to achieve a goal.  Prayer is powerful because it connects us to God and gets him involved in helping us.  Those who realize this are able to make a difference in every situation because God cannot and will not fail.  Of course, he answers prayers as he sees fit. But he always answers prayers. When we add faith to our prayers, he delivers (Mark 11:22-24). Many great contributors to our nation throughout American History have known this and prayer was often an essential part of their lives and accomplishments.  They put prayer first, not last.  One memorable example involved the election night of November 8, 1932. That was the night Franklin Roosevelt became president of the United States. Remember, he was disabled by Polio and could not walk. He was physically as helpless as a baby.  Quite a handicap for a new president taking office in the early years of the brutal, Great Depression. Yet, according to his son James, Roosevelt had only one fear. He was afraid he would not have the strength to do the tremendously challenging job ahead. As he was being put to bed that night, he told his son, “I am going to pray that God will help me, that he will give me strength and the guidance to do the job and to do it right.” Then the new president added, “I hope that you will pray for me too.”

I have been blessed to stumble across an insightful book titled, 50 Powerful Prayers That Changed the World (Thomas Hill Publishers, 2009). It was compiled By Susan Hill and has been beautifully illustrated by Francesca Resta, Isabella Grott and Julianne St. Clair. Basically, it is a collection of prayers of American icons in politics, science, the arts and religion. The book displays their actual prayers and features bios of each person as well as stories that help the reader understand the context of the time period when the prayers were written.  What is most striking about the book is hearing the prayers of people you don’t usually associate with praying or religious experience. People like Harriet Tubman, the courageous African American woman who liberated many slaves in the 19th Century—continually placing her life at risk by going again and again into dangerous situations.  Obviously, she enraged slave owners. At one time there was a $40,000 reward for her capture.  Tubman regularly prayed this prayer to God, “I’m going to hold steady on to you. You’ve got to see me through.” According to the author, “She believed God is a deliverer and protector of the weak.” The author added that Tubman would listen for the voice of God to guide her. Thomas Garrett, an abolitionist who knew her said, “I never met any person of any color who had more confidence in God.”  That confidence was justified. Her prayers were answered. Many human beings were freed and started new lives in the North. Tubman was never caught.

W.E. B. Dubois was one of the founders of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). He was one of the early leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, particularly during the first decades of the 20th Century. But when historians speak of him, it’s usually only in political terms—as a black activist, writer and scholar. The book shows another side—a spiritual one. Dubois prayed, “Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of ease, or the words of men’s mouths, or our own lives. Mighty causes are calling us—the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty—all these and more. But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death. Mercifully grant us O God, the spirit of Esther, that we say: I will go unto the King and if I perish, I perish.”

Praying isn’t always about asking for things. Sometimes we should offer a simple thanks to God. Why wait for Thanksgiving Day, when we are being blessed every second by a benevolent God? Some of the icons in the book expressed simple gratitude. George Washington Carver rose from slavery to become one of the greatest scientists the nation has ever known. He invented more than 100 products from the peanut plant.  Washington was also known for possessing a humble spirit. He turned down big money in order to remain at Tuskegee University, one of the original HBCUs (Historically Black College or University). Washington offered up this prayer to God. “O God, I thank thee for such a direct manifestation of thy goodness, majesty, and power.” Helen Keller was blind. But with the help of a brilliant teacher named Anne Sullivan, she was able to learn to overcome barriers. Keller became the first deaf-blind student to earn a bachelor of arts degree. She spent her life advocating for the disabled. Keller expressed this devotion: “For three things I thank God every day of my life: that he has vouchsafed my knowledge of his works: deep thanks that he has set in my darkness the lamp of faith: deep, deepest thanks that I have another life to look forward to—a life joyous with light and flowers and heavenly song.” 

The story about Franklin Roosevelt is not in the book. It was taken from an article in Time magazine. However, there is a story in the book about the prayers of another president—the very first president—-George Washington.  I have always been impressed that Mr. Washington did not cling to power when his two terms were up. I have heard historians suggest he might have been made king if he had wanted to be one. But Washington believed in Democracy. He also expressed a belief in God. In 1796 as he was retiring, he prayed for the nation and urged Americans to follow the “Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without a humble imitation of whose example in the things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.” That prayer was written in 1796. Yet isn’t that a bit of advice America can still use today?  America was built by praying people. Not perfect people. To be sure. Their sins were many. But so are ours. Americans in the past however knew that God was the true strength of the nation. So, they relied on him. It worked. As we continue to unwisely remove God from public life, our nation runs the risk of offending our source of strength—the one who made America admired and respected the world over. Abraham Lincoln once quoted Matthew 12:25 from the Bible when he said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” I would paraphrase that and say: our nation cannot survive with half the people believing in God or respecting him and the other half not believing in him and disrespecting him by boldly disobeying his commands.  America needs to pray. Christians should lead the way (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Prayer works. Try it first. Not last. Believe when you pray, regardless. Then step back and watch what happens. And don’t forget to share what God has done for you with someone else so they too can discover the unmatched power of prayer.

 “You have not because you ask not.” -James 4:2

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