A young Norwegian named Abraham Vereide came to the United States in the early 20th century. He had a great commitment for Jesus Christ. He became a Methodist circuit rider traveling on horseback, preaching in small rural churches in Montana. Later he moved to Seattle where he and his friends began working with people suffering through the Depression.
During these years, Vereide realized that many people were poor because of the failure of community leaders (from all spheres) to assist them. He reasoned that if the leaders and people of prominence in the state of Washington knew and cared more about Jesus and more about the plight of the poor, they could give better leadership. He sought out and started meeting regularly with the mayor and some of his friends from Seattle and around the state of Washington. He simply met with these leaders and counseled them to study Jesus and his teachings, especially about the poor and disenfranchised.
Because these meetings often occurred over breakfast and always included prayer, they became known as “prayer breakfasts.” Vereide gathered groups that were intentionally diverse, nurturing friendships with people from across religious, political and philosophical viewpoints. He took this model from Jesus, who gathered his own disciples from many different backgrounds.
As the groups flourished and began to interrelate, positive changes began happening through these friendships. These ideas caught on, and eventually Vereide’s friends suggested that he move to Washington DC, to cultivate at the national level the same ideas that had such positive impact at the local and state levels.
In the 1940s, with encouragement from Vereide, small groups were formed in the Senate and House of Representatives to provide a place for people of differing opinions to meet privately to express their concerns as leaders, to pray, and to share in each others’ lives personally. Early leaders who embraced the power of small prayer groups included Senator Frank Carlson of Kansas, Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Judge Gordon Powell, General Merwin Silverthorne, Richard Halverson, Chaplain of the Senate, and Conrad Hilton (who personally hosted the first breakfasts).
In 1953, the two groups in the US Congress joined together to establish the National Prayer Breakfast to afford President Eisenhower the opportunity to participate in such a group once a year. Out of this success prayer breakfasts were started in many nations, cities, and states to discover and to work with leaders at all levels of society. Often these were modeled on the Washington, DC example, but not controlled or funded by the Foundation.
As a result of such gatherings in the United States and around the world there have been many examples of leaders’ lives being changed in America and around the world. The key idea is for leaders to be humble enough to admit that the problems they face are more complex than can be solved out of human ingenuity and to seek inspiration from studying the teachings of Jesus together.
Vereide continued the work in Washington, D.C. and globally until his death in 1969. A band of approximately half a dozen of Vereide’s closest trusted friends agreed to provide consensus leadership as a team, without titles, to continue the mission. These included lay leader Doug Coe, businessman Paul Temple and attorney Jim Bell, who joined with initial prayer group leaders such as Senator Carlson, Judge Powell, General Silverthorne and Chaplain Halverson.
The structured, visionary-led organization that Vereide established quickly transitioned into a vision-directed model after the approach of Jesus, that reflected a decentralized network of people-to-people relationships focused on serving people in need that is still in effect today.