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 other’s’ lives personally. Early leaders who embraced the power of small prayer groups included Senator Frank Carlson of Kansas, Senator Walter Judd of Minnesota, Judge Gordon Powell, and Conrad Hilton (who personally hosted the first breakfasts). Later Richard Halverson, Chaplain of the Senate, and General Merwin Silverthorne became involved.
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. As others learned of this event, prayer breakfasts were started in many nations, cities, and states to discover and to work with leaders at all levels of society. Though these were modeled on the Washington, DC example, they were 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. When leaders admit that the problems they face are more complex than can be solved out of human ingenuity they meet 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 other 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.
History of the National Prayer Breakfast . . . and it’s impact
As told by President Ronald Reagan in his address to the 1985 National Prayer Breakfast
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, it’s very good to be here again. I look forward to this meeting every year more than any other. And I want to personally welcome our guests from other countries to Washington, our Capital. We’re happy to have you here with us.
I would like to say something more about this National Prayer Breakfast and how it came about. We’ve already heard some of the history from representatives of the two Houses. But I think some of the story may be unknown, even to a few of our hosts from the Congress here today.
Back in 1942, at the height of World War II, a handful of Senators and Congressmen discussed how they might be of personal and spiritual support to one another. If they could gather now and then to pray together, they might discover an added resource, which would be of sustaining value. And so, very informally, they began to meet.
In time, in both the House and Senate groups, some informal rules evolved. The members would meet in the spirit of peace and in the spirit of Christ, but they need not be Christians. All members would be welcome, regardless of their political or religious affiliation. Sincere seekers, as well as the deeply devout, all on a common journey to understand the place of faith in their lives and to discover how to love God and one’s fellow man.
They wouldn’t publicize the meetings, nor would they use them for any kind of political gain. The meetings would be off the record. No one would repeat what was said. And above all, the members could talk about any personal problem on which they needed guidance, any sadness for which they needed prayers.
Well, the two groups met quietly and with no fanfare for 10 years. And then President Eisenhower, as we’ve been told, came into the story. In 1952, when he was running for President, one of his most important strategists, and a fine man—was a fine man, a Senator named Frank Carlson, I guess he was kind of Ike’s Paul Laxalt (referring to Senator Laxalt of Nevada). One night, out on the campaign trail, Eisenhower confided to Senator Carlson that during the war, when he was commanding the Allied forces in Europe, he had had a spiritual experience. He had felt the hand of God guiding him and felt the presence of God. And he spoke of how his friends had provided real spiritual strength in the days before D-Day. Senator Carlson said he understood, that he himself was getting spiritual strength from members of a little prayer group in the Senate.
A few months later, just a few days after he was sworn-in as President, Eisenhower invited Frank Carlson over to the White House. He said, “Frank, this is the loneliest house I’ve ever been in. What can I do?” And Carlson said, “I think this may be a good time for you to come and meet with our prayer group.” And Eisenhower did. In 1953, he attended the first combined prayer breakfast (of the House and Senate groups). And Presidents have been coming here for help ever since. And here I am.
Some wonderful things have come out of this fellowship. A number of public figures have changed as human beings, changed in ways I’d like to talk about, but it might reveal too much. Fellowships have begun to spring up throughout the Capitol. They exist now in all three branches of the Government, and they have spread throughout the capitals of the world, to parliaments and congresses far away.
Since we met last year, friends of the fellowships throughout the world have begun meeting with each other. Members of our Congress have met with leaders and officials from other countries, approaching them and speaking to them, not on a political level, but a spiritual level.
I wish I could say more about it, but it’s working precisely because it is private. In some of the most troubled parts of the world, political figures who are old enemies are meeting with each other in a spirit of peace and brotherhood. And some who’ve been involved in such meetings are here today.
There are many wars in the world and much strife, but these meetings build relationships which build trust, and trust brings hope and courage.
I think we often forget in the daily rush of events the importance in all human dealings of the spiritual dimension. There are such diversities in the world, such terrible and passionate divisions between men, but prayer and fellowship among the great universe of God’s believers are the beginning of understanding and reconciliation. They remind us of the great, over-arching things that really unite us.
I think we often forget in the daily rush of events the importance in all human dealings of the spiritual dimension. There are such diversities in the world, such terrible and passionate divisions between men, but payer and fellowship among the great universe of God’s believers are the beginning of understanding and reconciliation. They remind us of the great, over-arching things that really unite us.
In this job of mine, you meet with so many people, deal with so many of the problems of men, you can’t help being moved by the quiet, unknown heroism of all kinds of people—the Prime Minister of another country who makes the bravest of brave decisions that’s right, but may not be too popular with his constituency; or the fellow from Indiana who writes to me about some problems he’s been having and what he did to solve them.
You see the heroism and the goodness of man and know in a special way that we are all God’s children. The clerk, and the king, and the Communist were made in His image. We all have souls, and we all have the same problems. I’m convinced, more than ever, that man finds liberation only when he binds himself to God and commits himself to his fellow man.