Among the Believers

"The First Thanksgiving," by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (Jacket Art Burstein Collection/corbis)
Reviewed by Grant Wacker
Sunday, December 25, 2005


The History of Prayer in America

By James P. Moore Jr.

Doubleday. 519 pp. $29.95

One morning during the 1991 Gulf War, I opened a local newspaper to a photo of a U.S. sailor sitting at a mess-hall table in the Middle East, food tray before him, head bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped under his chin. The caption read: "Weary sailor rests head on hands before eating." Once again, I realized why religious leaders of all persuasions have long charged that journalists are out of touch with mainstream culture. When it comes to covering the story of prayer in American life, historians have not done much better. They have generally avoided the subject, presumably because the evidence is hard to pin down. But James P. Moore Jr.'s impressive One Nation Under God marks a fresh start. Perhaps it is because Moore -- a Commerce Department official during the Reagan administration who now teaches at Georgetown University's business school -- is neither a clergyman nor a professional historian that he has found the courage to march into this uncharted territory.

Moore's arguments are more implicit than explicit, but they're still clear enough. First, most Americans pray frequently -- three-fourths of us do so daily, by one recent Gallup poll -- and there are good reasons to suspect that they always have. As William James put it, people pray because they cannot help it, and they will probably do so "to the end of time." Second, the signs of prayer, hidden in plain sight, show up everywhere we look -- in steeples, mottoes, monuments, songs, public proclamations, daily habits, common slogans. Third, prayer has powerfully influenced both America's history and "the lives of individual Americans."

Moore marshals diverse materials to support those theses. Starting with Native American prayer or prayer-like practices before European settlement began, he sweeps through all of the succeeding centuries. The usual suspects appear: Puritans, Founding Fathers, Protestant revivalists, Catholic saints, academic theologians, denominational leaders and local pastors. Though Protestants predominate, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus and a variety of spiritual seekers join the drama. And that is just the beginning. We learn about the prayer practices of every U.S. president. We also learn about the role that prayer played in the lives of scores of people we rarely think about in this context, including just about every occupation one can imagine except perhaps robbers. Though white males play the leading role, women and ethnic minorities are rarely far from view.

Moore draws many kinds of prayer texts and prayer stories into his narrative. Contrite, bellicose, elegant, homespun, inspirational, platitudinous, ironic, sentimental, patriotic, sardonic, spontaneous, ancient, touching and funny ones pack the list. Among the last, my favorite is the time that President Lyndon B. Johnson asked one of his key aides, Bill Moyers, an ordained Baptist minister, to say grace before a dinner with the White House press corps at LBJ's Texas ranch. Soon after Moyers started, Johnson interrupted, "Louder, Bill, we can't hear you." Moyers retorted, "I wasn't talking to you, Mr. President."

Though Moore's tale is, on the whole, a luminous one, he notes prayer's dark side too. Fanatics have used it to legitimize violence, militarists to bless the shedding of blood and politicians to cloak the self-righteousness of faction. Some of the most bitterly divisive legal battles in American history have stemmed from disputes about when and where prayer is proper.

The volume also brims with surprises. Wall Street magnate J.P. Morgan, a notable womanizer who was effectively estranged from his wife, nonetheless proved a dedicated Episcopal layman who liked to invite friends on Sunday evenings to pray and sing hymns. And then there was President Rutherford B. Hayes -- best known, perhaps, for not serving alcohol at White House functions and for proclaiming six national days of prayer and thanksgiving, a peacetime record. But privately, he would say, "The mystery of our existence -- I have no faith in any attempted explanation of it. It is all a dark, unfathomed profound."

To be sure, the volume also presents problems. Minor factual errors pop up. Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, who built the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, disappeared for five weeks in 1926, not "a few days"; the African Methodist Episcopal Church posted a membership of almost half a million by the end of the 19th century, not the 18th. Sometimes Moore's treatment of complex intellectual developments like transcendentalism or Darwinism is too terse to help much. More troubling are the instances in which he appears to stretch beyond what the data show. To assert, for example, that "nothing in human experience compares to prayer" is pretty strong. What about war? Music? Love?

But these are forgivable flaws in a volume thoroughly researched, boldly conceived and earnestly argued. One does not have to worship the God of the Hebrew Bible or adhere to Christian traditions to appreciate the import for America's public life of Jimmy Carter setting aside "his own personal prayer space" off the Oval Office to seek "maturity and sound judgment"; or of Bill Clinton in his second inaugural asking God to "strengthen our hands for the good work ahead and always, always bless our America"; or of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Vice President Al Gore's running mate in the 2000 election, praying at their first campaign rally: "Dear Lord, Maker of all miracles, I thank You for bringing me to this extraordinary moment in my life."

In the end, Moore turns to his own theology, but he does so in a nonsectarian way. "True prayer," he writes, "challenges individuals to elevate their sights to a higher power to whom they are accountable and reminds them of their ties to the destinies of those around them." There may be good reasons for not talking too freely about prayer in the public square, including respect for its sacredness, as well as for nonbelievers' sensibilities. But Moore makes clear that "adolescent embarrassment" about such a perennial and fundamental feature of American life should not be one of them.

Grant Wacker is a professor of Christian history at Duke University's Divinity School, specializing in the history of evangelicalism. He is at work on a biography of Billy Graham.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company