Washington's Prayer Breakfast History

1925 - A. Vereide(r) at first GWI store on 1st & Cedars, Seattle, WA. Photo courtesy of Goodwill Industries1925 - A. Vereide(r) at first GWI store on 1st & Cedars, Seattle, WA. Photo courtesy of Goodwill Industries

During the 1930?s, the city of Seattle was going through a time of intense political pressure and turmoil. In April of 1935 a group of nineteen civic leaders, led by Dr. Abraham (Abram) Vereide, first superintendent of Goodwill Industries, met together at the Olympic Hotel in downtown Seattle. They were gathered together to face a critical situation in the life of their city. In attendance was Seattle city Councilman Arthur B. Langlie, who later became Mayor of Seattle (1938-1941), and then Governor of the State of Washington (1941-45, 1949-57). As they continued to meet regularly, a new vision of a life of usefulness was born. A new purpose for living was recognized, that of being agents of reconciliation in personal, business, and community life.

The idea of these prayer breakfast groups, which were non-denominational, was to bring together civic and business leaders informally to share a meal, study the Bible, develop relationships of trust & support, and to promote the principles of Jesus. As their fellowship grew there developed among them a concern for the poor and those oppressed in their community. Vereide traveled throughout the Pacific Northwest and later around the country, helping to develop similar groups. He began to see the relationship of the political and industrial leadership of America to social and economic problems.

Vereide determined that in order to remedy the latter, it was necessary to redeem the former. After nine years at Goodwill in Seattle, he was invited to Boston in 1931 to be associate general superintendent of the Goodwill Industries of America. The turning point came when Franklin D. Roosevelt, then governor of New York State, invited him to a conference concerning a social relief program for that state. He emphasized that what the state needed more than anything else was a spiritual upsurge. When Roosevelt had been nominated for president he formed an advisory body for his incoming administration to discuss national policy. They shared a mutual concern to save America from the political and economic breakdown that then existed. They reviewed the history of America and pointed out that they had nineteen depressions, five major ones, and that every one was caused by disobedience to divine laws, neglect of God, the Church and the spiritual life, and that what had given rise to economic prosperity and social welfare was the quickening of the religious life. By 1937, two hundred nine prayer breakfast groups had been organized throughout Seattle.

Over the months and years that followed, as they told others of how much these small groups meant to them, breakfast groups sprang up in other states. The city of Seattle was so positively affected that Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York City traveled to Seattle to find out how prayer changed their city. In January 1941, the newly elected Governor Langlie presided over the first prayer breakfast, held in Olympia, Washington. Three hundred men and women attended from all over the state. The word spread and city and state breakfasts reached southward to San Francisco, eastward to Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and then in 1942, to our nation's capitol. As America went to war in Europe and the Pacific, two Senators and a Supreme Court Justice and a member of the Administration began to meet informally to talk and pray together. A House group followed soon after. At the personal request of President Roosevelt, breakfast groups were founded in the United States Senate (1943) and then in the House of Representatives (1945). When those first groups began, there was an understanding "that this would be a meeting of friends", "titles and positions were dropped at the door", "regardless of race, political party or belief " all are welcome.

 
1960 - A. Vereide(r), President Dwight D. Eisenhower(c) & William Jones(l) at the Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Library1960 - A. Vereide(r), President Dwight D. Eisenhower(c) & William Jones(l) at the Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Library

During the years that followed, Vereide served those serving in Washington, D.C. Once at a news conference in 1949 at the Oval Office, Vereide asked President Harry S. Truman if he would consider setting aside a day of prayer in our nation like they did during the last days of the war. President Truman responded saying, "I think that that should be done every day, not necessarily on any special day." They did pray that day for wisdom and encouragement for the President and the nation's leaders. Their prayers, especially for the world's dilemmas, continued daily and as they met weekly through the years that followed.

In January 1953, former general and newly-elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower told a friend the White House, "is the loneliest house I've ever been in." After the President learned of the Representative's Prayer Breakfast, he instigated a combined prayer breakfast which immediately took on virtually a life of its own. As they prepared, the President thought that he might only be coming over to see 20 or 25 or maybe 50 people. On February 5th, 1953 members of Congress, along with President Eisenhower, established the first Presidential Prayer Breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. That month, Time Magazine covered the Prayer Breakfast events as they unfolded in their February 15, 1953 edition:

"In an assembly room of Washington's Mayflower Hotel one morning last week gathered a group of 600. The President of the United States was there. So were the Vice President, the Chief Justice of the United States, Cabinet members, Congressmen, diplomats, businessmen. Senator Frank Carlson of Kansas, called order. "This morning," said Baptist Carlson, "we are here to renew our faith and our commitment to God." In the next half-hour, half a dozen notables rose to their feet. Wisconsin Senator Alexander Wiley, a Lutheran, read from the First Psalm ("Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly?"). Vice President Nixon, a Quaker, read from the 15th chapter of John ("This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you."). Hotelman Conrad Hilton, their host, a Roman Catholic, told them: "It took a war and the frightening evil of Communism to show the world that this whole business of prayer is not a sissy, a counterfeit thing. Rather it is a part of man's personality, without which he limps."

 

In his dedicatory remarks, at the 1st Presidential Prayer Breakfast, President Eisenhower said, "Once in a while it might be a good thing for us to turn back to history. Let us study a little bit of what happened at the founding of this Nation. It is not merely the events that led up to the Revolutionary War. All of the confused problems that we were then called upon to solve were as difficult as those we face now. When we came to that turning point in history, when we intended to establish a government for free men and a Declaration and Constitution to make it last, in order to explain such a system we had to say: `We hold that all men are endowed by their Creator.' In one sentence we established that every free government is imbedded soundly in a deeply-felt religious faith or it makes no sense. Today if we recall those things and if, in that sense, we can back off from our problems and depend upon a power greater than ourselves, I believe that we begin to draw these problems into focus. Today I think that prayer is just simply a necessity, because by prayer I believe we mean an effort to get in touch with the Infinite."

[Time continued reporting] "The last speaker was Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was raised a Methodist, now frequently attends Baptist services with his wife. "I believe no one can read the history of our country," he said, "without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses. Whether we look to the first Charter of Virginia, or to the Charter of New England, or to the Charter of Massachusetts Bay, or to the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the same objective is present: a Christian land governed by Christian principles. I believe the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their belief in it: freedom of belief, of expression, of assembly, of petition, the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of the home, equal justice under law, and the reservation of powers to the people. I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so, no great harm can come to our country."

In 1964, at the 12th Annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast, President Lyndon B. Johnson remarked, "No man could live in the house where I live now or work at the desk where I work now without needing and without seeking the strength and the support of earnest and frequent prayer. In these last 70 days, prayer has helped me to bear the burdens of this first office which are too great to be borne by anyone alone. I believe that these annual prayer breakfasts serve a most useful purpose in both reminding and reassuring the people that those who hold their trust are themselves godly and prayerful men and women. With the duties which rest upon us, we have much to pray for; that we may, as a nation, be just in our strength, wise in our actions, and faithful in our trust."

 

Every sitting United States President, since Eisenhower, has attended and provided remarks at the Prayer Breakfast. In 1970 the name was changed from "The Presidential Prayer Breakfast" to "The National Prayer Breakfast" to emphasize the individuals attending and their purpose in gathering. Each year the President is joined by members of their Cabinet, the Supreme Court, Congress, the Diplomatic Corps, the Military Leaders from all Services and Leaders in the private sector from every state in the Union. In honor of the small weekly breakfast groups formed in 1941, the breakfast continues to bring together the Leadership of the United States in recognition of the moral and spiritual values upon which this nation is founded. Once a year, the members of the House and Senate breakfast groups do in public what they do each week in private.

During the National Prayer Breakfast in 1975, President Gerald R. Ford remarked, "On the day that I suddenly became President of the United States, after all the guests had gone, I walked through some of the empty rooms on the first floor of the White House and stopped by that marble mantle in the dining room to read the words carved in it; words that were a prayer of the first President who ever occupied the White House: 'I pray to heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it,' John Adams wrote. 'May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.' I am grateful to President Adams for leaving that message and to all who have said amen to it for nearly two centuries. My own prayer is for God's continued blessing and God's continued guidance for our country and all its people whose servants we in government strive to be."

 

In 1985, President Ronald W. Reagan reflected on his experience. He remarked, "The other day I was at the National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington, and I spoke, as so many others did, of the central place of faith in our lives and how belief in something bigger than ourselves is probably a necessary precondition to peace. There were more than 3,000 people in that room, from almost every country in the globe: African chiefs, Central American businessmen, people from Australia and Europe and the Middle East. And the room seemed to hum with agreement that faith and belief are the key to man's salvation and the only way we'll learn to live with each other in peace."

Since that first breakfast, this simple idea of people meeting together for mutual encouragement and fellowship in order to find the better way has spread to over 180 countries on every continent. With the Spirit of Jesus at the center, this ancient idea of serving others has spread spontaneously and at an incredibly rapid rate to meet the long felt need of men and women at all levels of society in our modern world. Each year, at the breakfast, there will vary between 160 to 175 different nations of the world represented by leaders or representatives of their respective countries. It is all done through the dedicated work and prayers of the members and their friends from every walk of life, nationwide.

 

Today, members of Congress, continue this tradition of support, prayer, and care for our President, the first family, and our country by inviting guests from across the nation and around the world. The breakfast often acts as a forum for political, social and business leaders of the world to assemble freely together and build friendships which might not otherwise be possible due to political or religious differences. As a result, there has always been a non-religious, non-political, bipartisan spirit. Each breakfast presents opportunities for people who live in the same regions to meet each other and build relationships outside the official sphere. Through the years one of the exciting developments is the commitment of many of those involved in caring for the "poorest of the poor" and starving people of the world. Every year guests from all 50 states & U.S. territories and world leaders seek a better ways to further peace, reconciliation, justice, and bring aid to the needy of the world.

 

To find out more about the history of the National Prayer Breakfast we encourage you to research the repository at the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C. Millions of items and digital files relating to faith and prayer can be found in presidential and congressional recordings. To learn more, please click here.


City and State History

 

In the early part of the twentieth century Washington State had become gripped in the clutches of "subversive forces" and great corruption, so much so as to lead the populous into despair. Norwegian immigrant Abraham (Abram) Vareide, living in the Seattle area, started Goodwill Industries in Seattle in 1923 to assist the "down 'n outers." After the stock market crash of 1929, homelessness, resulting from those events, caused an economic upheaval. Another societal ingredient affecting this history was the rampant vice existent in Seattle during the '30s. Across the city there was general criminal activity: open gambling, prostitution, violence, and organized crime going essentially unchecked. The civil disregard for others caused social unrest across the city. Vereide, disturbed by the erosion of moral values, set up a weekly prayer time with his Goodwill board, to pray for the city of Seattle. After their weekly meeting, one of Goodwill's board members, rather casually commented to Abram, in the light of the general evil "at the top" of the political totem pole, "Abram, maybe if you were as concerned about the 'up 'n outers' as you are the 'down 'n outers,' something could be done about the city and its corruption."

In April of 1935, Vereide, and former Army Major J. F. Douglas, owner of the Metropolitan Building Co. & a founder of the Community Chest of Seattle-King County, enlisted nineteen business & civic leaders for an early morning meeting downtown at the Olympic Hotel. The group included William H. St. Clair, president of Frederick & Nelson; James Pollard, president of the Seattle Gas Co.; Jess G. Kennedy, president of the Kennedy (J. G.) Lumber Co.; Arthur B. Langlie, city councilman & future mayor (1938-1941); J. N. Davis, president of John Davis & Co.; William F. Devin, a prominent attorney & future Seattle mayor (1942-1952); Arthur S. Eldridge, owner of Eldridge Buick Co. & Eldridge Securities Corp.; Verne Samuelson, president of the Ford Agency of Port Angeles; Arthur Young of the Balfour-Guthrie Co.; Chester Roberts, president of the Imperial Candy Co.; Clyde B. Rose of the Walter-Rose Co.; Commander Alfred J. Byrholdt of the U.S. Navy; Fred A. Ernst, president of Ernst Hardware Co.; C. W. Lee, president of the Clint W. Lee Company; and Spokane legislator, William S. Day who served five terms in the House & three in the Senate.

 

From the outset there were two unique aspects to these meetings. The first was that it should be a lay person who carries out the work. It was felt that lay people could better relate to leaders. The other aspect was that everything should be done in a low-keyed behind the scenes manner. They met for fellowship; no projects, no officers, no fundraising, and no publicity. The main objective was to bring together civic and business leaders informally to share a meal, study the Bible and develop relationships of trust and support. They felt that this could only be done most successfully in a personal, quiet, confidential way. Grubb recalled, these groups "ushered in a spiritual revival among business leaders that resulted in sweeping ethical, economic and political change in the 1930's and beyond." With a focus on others it set the tone for defining servant leadership in our cities, state and beyond. In the years that followed the breakfast groups began to impact those in civic leadership, modeling the principles of Jesus, based on loving God and loving others.

Norman P. Grubb, lecturer, prolific writer, and a close friend of Abram, said this about the early days in Seattle, "Vereide found himself facing an impossible-looking spiritual, economic and political situation." Washington and Seattle were not unlike many of the cities and states in the 1930's. Grubb wrote about that first meeting in 1935: "They pulled together a group of business and political leaders. They realized God's direction was necessary and established a weekly prayer breakfast group. Soon after their inception, they led to daily prayer meetings. The spirit of prayer now began to increase." Grubb quotes Vereide, "People began to come without announcement or invitation; first one room, then two rooms, then three. There was no preaching, only prayer, and 'such a power of the Holy Spirit rested upon us for revival in Seattle' and the northwest."

 

In the words of Cecil E. Jenks of the People's National Bank, "There was born a new regime in the city of Seattle and a new epic of the political history of the city and state. The breakfast group is the moral anchor of the city." During World War II and the years that followed, racial tensions and prejudices affected the city. In February 1944, the possibility of racial violence prompted now Seattle Mayor William F. Devin, to form the Seattle Civic Unity Committee. In July of that year Devin remarked, "We are a northern city which means that we did not grow up with a prejudice against the 'Negro' race. However, we are all ordinary citizens and we are apt to be influenced very easily and swayed from one side to the other by unthinking people and leaders who bring to us misinformation that causes prejudices against not only the 'Negro', the Jew, the Catholic but against all groups. I do not feel that I am able to solve these questions alone. No man can govern and direct the affairs of a city this size without the help of civic leaders and indeed of all the citizens. It is our duty as citizens to face the problem together. If we do not do that, we shall not exist very long as a civilized city or as a nation."

Good & Faithfull Servant...
In an era where our leaders are faced with political pressure from all fronts we are reminded of those who have been ground breakers in our society. Many in our history, from across our cities and state, have embodied true leadership. Here is one story of a man who served both his state and the city of Seattle: The Honarable Samuel (Sam) J. Smith's life and career exemplified a dedication and devotion to public service. Smith served five consecutive terms in the state House of Representatives for Seattle's Thirty-seventh District. In 1967, Smith left the state legislature and became the first black person elected to the Seattle City Council. Smith served on the city council for 24 years, eight of those as president of the council. Smith once wrote an article titled, "Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant." This prophetic title reveals the true character of the man. His involvement in state and city leadership modeled what it meant to be a servant leader for the common good. The following are excerpts from his oral history:

 
1961 - Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.(l) & Hon. Samuel J. Smith(r), first black person elected to the Seattle City Council. Photo courtesy of the Washington State Archives1961 - Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.(l) & Hon. Samuel J. Smith(r), first black person elected to the Seattle City Council. Photo courtesy of the Washington State Archives

"To be a leader, you have to be a keen observer. You observe from your daily life. You have to do that, and it can't be taught. But you have to possess God-given facilities to do it. And you have to recognize it. And I had it, and I knew it. But it's a gift. You can't develop it. I say that it came from the Lord, that certain people are gifted and they have knowledge that they didn't learn in books, in college, whatnot. But my gift, I maintain came from my family. And everything you get from your family is a gift of the Lord." Rep. Smith reflected on the events after President Kennedy's assassination. "And then Lyndon Johnson came on the scene and restored hope. When he was sworn in that day, he came through as very calm. He made a statement indicating his calling upon God to help him rule the country." Councilman Smith faced many trials in office.

When his friend, who was head of the Urban League, was murdered he was overcome with grief and fear for our city. They both worked on the Seminar for Equal Opportunity and Racial Harmony. He went on to reflect on how he overcame his death through faith. "My mother called me and said, 'whatever you are doing, keep doing it and trust in God. Don't give up.' I called it a spiritually inspired conversation. My mother's call was one that hit home. My religious faith came to my rescue through personal prayer, and in pushed me on into not giving up. I was human enough to get angry, but I didn't let it come over my actions. This was one time that I probably was more earnest and more engaged in my prayer life than others, but it was not a radical departure."

Smith said, when reflecting on the importance of faith and prayer, "All through my career I engaged in personal prayer. My religion was the cornerstone of my behavior all through my public service. All along in the history of our country there have been leaders who were interested in the common good. They founded this country based on their idea of the common good, which came from their deep religious beliefs. And in every century, and every decade, there was always a score of leaders that were the outstanding ones who had a profound effect. The common good, brotherhood and equality, was their driving force. And of course, the freedom and equality movement they led was ultimately based upon the Bible. The drawing force of the movement was religion. Religion was the deeper force. For example, when Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks came on the scene, they had the religious belief that would sustain them as they were going into difficulty."

When Smith looked back on his life in public service he said, "I have tried to keep myself in tune with God's will. Oh, like anybody else I've strayed off from time to time, but I have tried to form my philosophy and my actions in the manner that I believed pleased God, I measured my participation and acts by right and wrong. And I felt protected as long as I was acting with those realms. I managed to not be after self-aggrandizement. I denied myself that, willingly. And I believe that was God's will. I helped everybody I could, and I believe that was God's will." When Smith passed away in 1995, the mayor's office released this statement on his life of service: "Sam Smith considered himself a simple man but he inspired many. He taught us that life is about helping others; we can help others, when we get beyond ourselves." Leaders, just like Sam Smith, led through caring for others. He set aside his own personal interests and sought a better way.

 

Norman Grubb, in writing Vereide's autobiography, chronicled the history of prayer in the early part of the 20th century. In doing so, he interviewed one of the founding members of the original group who met in 1935 in downtown Seattle. Grubb wrote, "The Bible became a living book and its teachings practical in business, government and social life." They began to discover that life was so planned that things worked normally when the precepts of Jesus were followed. "We discovered that, as the eye is made for light and the ear for sound, so the human personality is made for God." Through our history we have sent leaders to seats of power in national, state and local service to govern fairly. Often they are confronted with overwhelming challenges. Often they have sought solace in a higher power in great times of troubles.

Civic leadership is often displayed by ordinary men and women who have a sense of duty, compassion for others and recognize the need to find a better way. Leaders who seek the common good find encouragement in the words of those that have gone before, or face similar trials. Sam Smith was a WWII veteran, father, public servant, friend, man of faith, and a humble leader. He admired many great leaders. One such hero was Martin Luther King, Jr. who once said, "The faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future." Vereide once said: "Prayer was the first necessity. `There was nothing to do except pray; but I could do that, and I did,' he said. 'Crushed and burdened by this spiritual apathy and the downgrade pace at which things were moving, I sought God, not for myself, but for my city, state and nation."

 

Later in his life Grubb was asked to comment on the faith, courage and vision of those faced with difficulty in leadership. He wrote, "In this turbulent Twentieth Century, the power of God has repeatedly blazed forth against the black destruction of war and destitution in the splendor of sacrifice and the valor of inspired leadership." He concluded with these words, "God's vision is man's highest destiny." Today, the vision for our cities and the insights from King's faith, Smith's belief, and Grubb's words can be found in the book of Matthew, chapter five verse fourteen. Jesus of Nazareth spoke: "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden."

These weekly and annual gatherings, to pray for local political officials in their work, continue to bring leaders together. As their hearts are touched, the poor, the oppressed, the widows and the youth of Washington are being impacted in positive life changing ways. In 1996 Bruce Kennedy, former chairman emeritus of the holding company for Alaska Airlines and co-chairman of the breakfast remarked, "The thing we noticed was the first year we held it, there was a very tentative, apprehensive feel to those who came. The second year the climate was remarkably changed. People shared openly, prayed openly, and somehow it was all right to do this."

 

To learn more about faith and prayer in the history of our city, state and nation, please click here.