By tradition Congress convenes its sessions with opening prayers, one each for the House and Senate. Most prayers are spiritual, reflective, and tend to focus on, for example, the need for heavenly guidance for the work Congress is about to tackle. Independence Day prayers are somewhat different in that they have included topical commentary and perspective-based sentiments regarding the Declaration of Independence and the country's patriots. These prayers are more colorful than others and tend to evoke a sense of patriotism and pride. When Congress is adjourned on the Fourth of July, holiday prayers are given by House and Senate chaplains either before July 4 or immediately upon reconvening.
Included below are a sampling of six House and Senate prayers arranged in chronological order. Certainly one of the most important prayers ever given was that of July 4, 1861; it was offered at the first and only time Congress ever convened on the Fourth of July in its long distinguished history. The prayer was significant in that it reflected the very troubled times the country faced at the onset of the Civil War.
1861 (July 4), Senate Prayer
The following prayer was offered by Rev. Byron Sunderland, D.D.
Almighty and everlasting God, be not angry with us for our sins, which we only confess and deplore; but pardon our offenses and extend to us Thy favor. We thank Thee for Thy goodness on this anniversary of the nation a day tenfold more precious by reason of our present troubles, and sacred to the heart for the ever memorable Declaration of our fathers, in which Thou didst begin more openly to give us a name among the nations of the earth. We thank Thee for all Thy manifold and abundant mercies hitherto to make our nation exceedingly great and glorious; but now disasters have befallen us and darkness broods in the land. And now we ask Thy mercy as the Senate is convening at a most momentous crisis of our history. Give to Thy servants all needed help. Add to their deliberations wisdom and unanimity, and profit and speed to their conclusion. Bless Thy servant, the President of the United States, our veteran Commander-in- Chief, and all that have functions in the civil and military power. May the angel of Thy presence walk in the Cabinet and in the Congress and in the camp, to go before, to purify, and to direct the now greatly and universally-awakened love of country. And we beseech Thee to guide us, to overrule and order all things, and so to cause that nothing shall fail, that the disorders of the land may be speedily healed, that peace and concord may prevail, that truth and righteousness may be established, and that Thy Church and Kingdom may flourish in a larger peace and prosperity, for Thy Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ's sake. Amen. (Source: Congressional Globe, 37th Congress, first session, new series, 1, 4 July 1861.)
1918 (July 4), House Prayer
The Chaplain, Rev. Henry N. Couden, D.D., offered the following prayer:
Our Father in Heaven, the inspiration of every generous impulse, every high and noble aspiration, we thank Thee from our heart of hearts for the "Spirit of '76," which gave to us the immortal Declaration of Independence, which led on to victory and the formation of our Glorious Republic, which has not only been the wonder but the admiration of the world. We thank Thee for the day which will be celebrated with more than usual interest throughout the length and breadth of the land. The native born and the naturalized citizen will vie with each other in making it memorable.
For the first time in its history it will be celebrated by our sister nations, who are engaged with us in fighting for the same principles for which our forefather fought, in a world-wide war for humanity, liberty, justice, and equal rights for all mankind.
May it furnish new inspiration to us and our allies, which will bring victory to their arms; then an everlasting peace; to the glory and honor of Thy Holy Name. Amen. (Source: Congressional Record-House, 65th Congress, second session, 56/9, July 4, 1918, 8668.)
1943 (July 5), Senate Prayer
The Chaplain, Rev. Frederick Brown Harris, D.D., offered the following prayer:
Our fathers' God and ours, on the birthday of national independence we confess our dependence upon Thee. Without Thee we are lost in spite of the overwhelming might of our national arms.
We thank Thee for those pilgrims of faith who came hither in their frail barque across mountainous seas and who stepped upon strange shores with the salutation to a new world, "In the Name of God. Amen." The Nation here established, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal has acknowledged that Name above every name and reverenced it, has built its altars, reared its temples, and raised its steeples, emblems of a faith that points to the skies and wings its sure and certain way to God. Make that faith of the fathers, we pray, real to us in these tempestuous days. Save us from a freedom of speech so empty that we have nothing worth saying, from a freedom of worship so futile that we have no God to adore, from freedom from want and fear with no creative idea as to how to use our plenty or our security for the redemption of our social order and for the salvation of our own souls. Let all that is low and unworthy in us sink to the depths. Let all that is high and fine in us rise to greet the morn of a new day confident that the best is yet to be. Amen. (Source: Congressional Record-Senate, 78th Congress, first session, 89/5, July 5, 1943, 7160.)
1962 (July 5), House Prayer
The Chaplain, Rev. Bernard Braskamp, D.D., offered the following prayer: Psalm 11: 3: If the foundations be destroyed what can the righteous do?
O Thou Eternal God, may our minds and hearts be stirred with a deepening sense of patriotism and gratitude as we continue to think of that day of high and holy memory in our national history when a company of God-fearing men were guided by Thy divine wisdom to sign the Declaration of Independence
Grant that the blessings of freedom, which were purchased at a tremendous cost and which we prize so highly and are privileged to enjoy in such an abundant measure, may always be coordinated with the spirit of self-discipline.
Help us to cling with increasing tenacity of faith and fortitude to the great truth proclaimed by George Washington in his Farewell Address that religion and morality are indispensable and our national greatness if we allow them to be subverted and obliterated by secularism.
Hear us in the name of our blessed Lord. Amen. (Source: Congressional Record- House, 87th Congress, second session, 108/9, Thursday, July 5, 1962, 12703.)
1969 (July 2), Senate Prayer
The Chaplain, the Reverend Edward L. R. Elson, D.D., offered the following prayer:
We thank Thee, O God, that the freedom we celebrate in coming days is not an attainment, but an obtainment that it is Thy precious gift to man as part of his createdness. We thank Thee for the daring of our forefathers in reclaiming their "ancient rights." We thank Thee, too, for the heroes' valor, the patriots' devotion, the prophets' vision, and for all the blood and sweat and toil by which our freedom was purchased. As we commemorate our national independence accept again the declaration of our everlasting dependence upon Thee. In all our joy and thanksgiving enable us to remain a nation "under God," and give us grace and goodness to minister to mankind in His name. Amen. (Source: Congressional Record-Senate, 91st Congress, first session, 115/14, Wednesday, July 2, 1969, 18185.)
1974 (July 3), House Prayer
The Chaplain, Rev. Edward G. Latch, D.D., offered the following prayer:
Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord. Psalms 33: 12.
Eternal God, stir Thou our minds and stimulate our hearts with a high sense of patriotism as we approach the Fourth of July. May all that this day symbolizes renew our faith in freedom, our devotion to democracy, and redouble our efforts to keep a government of the people, by the people, and for the people truly alive in our world.
Grant that we may highly resolve on this great day to dedicate ourselves anew to the task of ushering in an era when good will shall live in the hearts of a free people, justice shall be the light to guide their feet, and peace shall be the goal of humankind: to the glory of Thy holy name and the good of our Nation and of all mankind. Amen. (Source: Congressional Record- House, 93d Congress, second session, 120/17, Wednesday July 3, 1974, 22130.)
1992 (July 7), House Prayer
The Reverend Norman A. Hjelm, director of faith and order, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States, New York, NY, offered the following prayer:
Lord God of hosts, God of the nations: By your grace and in Your patience You have allowed this our land once again to celebrate its birth, its primal guest for liberty, justice, and equity. And we are grateful.
And once again by Your grace and in Your patience You have called this House-- responsible men and women who are equally faithful and unfaithful, righteous and unrighteous before You, each other, and the people-- You have called this House to the exercise of its solemn task of the legislation of law and the formation of the Nation.
Remind these Your servants that liberty, justice, and equity remain ahead of this Nation as tasks yet to be fulfilled and not as goals already reached.
Maintain before us a clear dedication to the needs of those in our midst who are on the outside because of age, ill health, race, sex, poverty, and urban or rural degredation.
And consecrate anew this Nation to the exercise of imaginative and sacrificial leadership in a restless and violent world which still struggles for authentic justice, peace, and a safe home in Your creation.
Accept now, O God, the labors of this day and the frail lives of Your servants in this House. To You be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen. (Source: Congressional Record-House, 102d Congress, second session, 138/99, Wednesday July 7, 1992, H5981.)
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