Anyone who has carried this awesome responsibility comes to realize, with an increasing sense of humility, that he is but an instrument in the hands of God.
- President Calvin Coolidge
Three decades ago, following his retirement from the pastoral ministry, Dr. John Sutherland Bonnell accepted the presidency of New York Theological Seminary, and embarked on a new project at the same time: researching the religious history of the presidents of the United States.
Bonnell was pleased at what he found. Without exception, he wrote in his 1971 book, Presidential Profiles, at one time or another, they all publicly avowed their trust in God. On this Presidents Day 2004, we, too, might be pleased to know that, behind their strengths and flaws, each of our chief executives realized human resources werent sufficient for the task they were called to do. Their words, religious practices, and especially their prayers tell us where they turned for help.
John Adams often read his Bible at sunrise, while Rutherford B. Hayes conducted family worship at the breakfast table and regular hymn-sings on Sunday nights. Many read the Bible daily, including Andrew Jackson who told his son-in-law, The joyful promises in the Scriptures will be a balsam to all your troubles.
Others, like Woodrow Wilson who grew up in Augusta, were sons of ministers, and five married ministers daughters. Several served as chaplains, or considered becoming ministers themselves.
During inauguration ceremonies, the Bible was often more than a place for a new president to lay his hand. Upon his elevation to the presidency following the death of James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur opened his Bible to the 31st Psalm and read words as reassuring to an anxious nation as to himself, In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust. In a similar show of faith, Grover Cleveland placed his hand - and his presidency - on Psalm 112, Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, and delights greatly in his commandments. William McKinley, whose faith had steadied him through the deaths of two children and the life-long illness of his wife, chose II Chronicles 1:10 as his inaugural Scripture: Give me now wisdom and knowledge, that I may go out and come in before this people.
They also shared their faith in speeches, official meetings and private conversations. When he learned his son was in financial difficulty, Deacon, Sunday school teacher and President Benjamin Harrison told him, Prayer steadies one when he is walking in slippery places. Because Theodore Roosevelt believed in being doers of the word and not hearers only (James 1:22), he was said to have practiced muscular Christianity. Appropriately, his inaugural verse came from Micah 6:8: What does the Lord require of you but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
Our presidents have also been men of prayer. Franklin Delano Roosevelt ended his first inaugural address with these words: We humbly ask the blessing of God. May he protect everyone of us and guide me in the days to come. Upon FDRs death 13 years later, another vice president would be thrust unexpectedly into the presidency. Rather than offer a prayer himself, Harry Truman looked earnestly at those who were congratulating him on his new role and said, If you believe in prayer, pray for me, for I need it badly. And a few days after Dwight Ike Eisenhower became our 34th president, he established what has become an annual observance, The Presidential Prayer Breakfast.
George Washington included this prayer in his and the nation's first inaugural address: It would be peculiarly improper to omit my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe and presides in the councils of nations, that his benediction (be upon) the people of the United States and (their) Government.
And at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln asked the Senate to join him in repentance, fasting and prayer for America, before issuing his National Proclamation of Prayer and Repentance to all Americans.
Today we have another man of faith and prayer in the White House, and George W. Bush often requests the prayers of his countrymen. Tomorrow, as we celebrate Presidents Day, nearly 3 million members of the newly established Presidential Prayer Team are conducting a Virtual Prayer Rally all across the country to pray for our nation and those, including the president, who lead us. To join, or sign up to pray at a specific time, go to www.presidentialprayerteam.org.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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