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Prayer and the Declaration of Independence

As we celebrate the Fourth of July this year, let us remember the important role that prayer played in the American struggle for independence. On that first day, when the First Continental Congress gathered on Sept. 5, 1774, the suggestion to start the Congress with prayer was met with opposition.

As John Adams reports in his letter to his wife: “We were so divided in religious sentiments—some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians and some Congregationalists—that we could not join in the same act of worship.”

The next morning, having agreed to start the Congress with prayer, they invited an Episcopalian priest to pray before they would begin Congressional deliberations, and he did, by reading Psalm 85.

John Adams reports: “I never saw a greater effect produced upon an audience … George Washington was kneeling there, alongside him Patrick Henry, James Madison and John Hancock. By their side there stood, bowed in reverence, the Puritan patriots of New England … They prayed fervently for America, for Congress … And who can realize the emotions with which they turned imploringly to heaven for divine help. It was enough to melt a heart of stone. I saw the tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave, pacifist Quakers of Philadelphia."

As we can see, the First Continental Congress is an inspiring example of what prayer can do; a fraternal unity was forged among a religiously diverse congress after they prayed together. This power of prayer is the same power we need today to heal our ethnically diverse, divided and hurting nation; a power that is also present to us if we can turn to God and seek His face upon our country.

As we know, the Fourth of July celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the birth of a nation that believes that all human beings are created equal, endowed with basic God-given rights, and points to democracy as a noble vehicle for the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness for all. The document propagates a notion of freedom that demands rights and respect for others, justice and fairness for all, integrity and responsibility and accountability on the part of government and citizens, and that no one is above the law. On this day, we celebrate a democracy that is based on right-heartedness and the sense of common good, demanding that we, as citizens, act in accordance with proper moral character and self-restraint.

In a year that has been marked by a pandemic, racial tensions, desperation and sorrow, it is good for us to remember the final line of the Declaration of Independence: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

In this statement, the Founding Fathers explain that we owe each other the fundamental responsibility of working together to eliminate all factors that are counter-productive to our national ideal. For us to do this, it is important that we consider prayer as our first weapon in the pursuit of racial and gender equality, and justice and fairness for all, just as our Founding Fathers did, by believing that “in God we trust.”

Therefore, as we celebrate this Independence Day, let us turn to God in prayer that all forms of systemic racism and bigotry may be eradicated from our country. Let us pray for courage and strength to stand and fight against structures that limit, inhibit, prohibit and hold people back from rising to their highest potentials and possibilities. Let us pray that justice and fairness may be for all, and that our judicial system will always hold those who perpetrate egregious acts accountable. Let us pray for courage to become the voice of the voiceless, the down-trodden, the forgotten and abandoned, the poor and the bullied, those on the margins of our society and the most vulnerable among us. Let us pray that this Independence Day celebration may be a true liberation in freedom, justice, fairness and happiness for all Americans. May the good Lord hear our prayers, Amen!

Msgr. Anselm Nwaorgu is pastor at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Union.