A prayer for extraordinary times
Sixty-three years ago this week, as Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt led the nation in an extraordinary moment of mass prayer.
“Almighty God,” Roosevelt said as millions of Americans gathered around their radios June 6, 1944, “Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.”
It is not unusual for presidents to mention God, or to encourage Americans to offer up prayers for a cause. But experts on Roosevelt and the role of religion in politics note that the “D-day Prayer” is distinctive. Here was a president asking the public to join him in a prayer of his own composition.
The day after D-day, which set the stage for the liberation of Europe, the New York Times reported that the prayer “had been sent out throughout the country and printed in newspapers so that the millions who listened to the broadcast could recite the words with the president as he spoke.”
According to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., the White House released the text in the afternoon and Roosevelt delivered the prayer at 10 p.m. Eastern time.
“You have a president who was going on national radio and bringing the entire nation together in a six-minute prayer that is very direct and very powerful,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, who last month launched a campaign to encourage radio stations to broadcast the prayer on the D-day anniversary. His staff said about 70 radio stations agreed.
“When you read the prayer, Roosevelt is sending a clear message with almost every sentence,” Gingrich said. “He warns that the road will be hard.”
The language is unflinching. “Some will never return,” he said. “Embrace these, Father, and receive them, thy heroic servants, into thy kingdom.”
The president drafted the prayer with the help of his daughter, Anna, said biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, who won the Pulitzer Prize for history for “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.”
Roosevelt understood the nation’s mood, Goodwin said. “Indeed, it’s been shown that on that day of D-day, everybody flocked to churches, feeling the need somehow to pray for the safety of the soldiers,” she said.
“Beyond his own faith,” she added, “he was expressing, so perfectly, exactly the right tone for what his people needed to sustain them through those worrisome hours when people didn’t know how D-day would turn out.”
Gingrich sees parallels in how Roosevelt and President Lincoln invoked religion in wartime -- and in how religion could provide solace and strength. “Unless, like Lincoln, he could sustain the nation through the pain, he couldn’t win,” Gingrich said.
Author Jon Meacham explores the Roosevelt-Lincoln link in “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation.” Like Lincoln, he drew on “the language and ritual of public religion to do the best one could at an hour when events were beyond the control of any president: help Americans see the crisis in the largest possible context, reminding them that nothing would be easy but that the cause was worth the sacrifice.”
The White House estimated the D-day radio audience at 100 million. “If that estimate is right,” Meacham writes, “then on that Tuesday in June, Franklin Roosevelt led what was, at the time, one of the largest single mass prayers in human history.”
Audio of Roosevelt reading the prayer is available online at the American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara, www.presidency.ucsb.edu.
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‘With thy blessing, we shall prevail’
The text of FDR’s prayer:
My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.
And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest -- until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, thy heroic servants, into thy kingdom.
And for us at home -- fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas -- whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them -- help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in thee in this hour of great sacrifice.
Many people have urged that I call the nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking thy help to our efforts.
Give us strength, too -- strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.
And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.
And, O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment, let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.
With thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace, a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.
Thy will be done, Almighty God.
Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum