Millions of Americans pray every single day, but the National Day of Prayer, which has been celebrated annually since 1952, was established as the first Thursday of May by President Ronald Reagan.

This year’s observation on May 2nd centers on the theme, “Lift Up the Word – Light Up the World,” and is based on 2 Samuel 22:29-31:

For you are my lamp, O Lord, and my God lightens my darkness. For by You I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall. This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; He is a shield for all those who take refuge in Him.

But it was the Continental Congress in 1775 that issued the first proclamation for our fledgling nation, calling for “a day of humiliation, fasting and prayer” on July 20of that year.

Signed by John Hancock, the legislators stated it was “recommended to Christians, of all denominations, to assemble for public worship, and to abstain from servile labour and recreations on said day.”

Setting aside a day for corporate prayer has been one of the great distinguishing characteristics of America.

The National Day of Prayer Taskforce, now led by Kathy Branzell, dates to 1974 when Mrs. Vonette Bright, wife of Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright, was appointed to a special prayer advisory group. After years of managing the effort, Mrs. Bright reached out to Mrs. Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder, Dr. James Dobson.

“She asked me if I would take that position, and I talked to Jim, my husband, about it and I said, ‘I think I can do this for two or three years,’” Mrs. Dobson told WAVA’s Don Kroah. “And I ended up staying 25 years because I saw the Lord moving and blessing our efforts, and He just kept His thumb in my back.”

A quarter-century at the helm of the National Day of Prayer Taskforce (NDP) put on full and public display Shirley Dobson’s unique and Holy Spirit-inspired gifts. From her ability to marshal a broad range of coalitional support to calling the nation to prayer through numerous administrations and crises, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the prayer initiative grew exponentially.

For the majority of those years, NDP was housed inside the offices of Focus on the Family. An entirely separate ministry with its own board and budget, the dynamic team championed the power of prayer and demonstrated the peace it brings.

For over a decade, I had an office just a few paces from Mrs. Dobson’s, and the sight of her praying with guests and staffers became the norm. She wasn’t just preaching about prayer – she was modeling it.

The NDP Taskforce helps organize countless events in every state, from major arenas to courthouse steps to small church halls.

During those years heading up the National Day of Prayer Taskforce, Shirley Dobson also became a frequent visitor at the White House on the first Thursday in May. She wasn’t there for partisan reasons, but to pray with the president and other leaders. Sometimes they were public, other times they were private. An annual prayer event for members of Congress also became a tradition.

Tim Goeglein, now Focus on the Family’s vice president of external and government relations in Washington D.C., served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush, as well as deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. Tim helped plan and organize many of the National Day of Prayer events in the White House between 2001 and 2007.

I recently asked him about those experiences, and specifically Mrs. Dobson’s ability to lead the charge.

“Shirley Dobson and President George W. Bush connected in a manner that was actually profound,” he recalled. “I once walked into the Blue Room ahead of one of the NDP events, and they were laughing and smiling as if they had known each other 100 years.”

Of course, the National Day of Prayer is about neither presidents nor evangelical personalities. It’s about calling the country to its knees in a humble and contrite posture. The current generation stands on the shoulders of its predecessors, praying as fervently as in the past, and giving glory and honor to the Lord.

If you’re not sure where you might celebrate this year’s commemoration, please check out this site.