Richard Nixon photo

Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast.

January 31, 1974

Mr. Vice President and Mrs. Ford, Senator and Mrs. Stennis, and all of the very distinguished guests here, and those who may be listening on television and radio to this National Prayer Breakfast:

It has always been the custom that the President has the privilege of making the final statement at these breakfasts, and as usual having that responsibility is one that is difficult because of the eloquence that has usually preceded him and of the statements that have been made which make what he says simply repetitive of what has gone on before.

There are some thoughts, very brief ones, that I would like to leave with you this morning, however, that have occurred to me, and one is how very thankful we are that it was just a year ago that we had the prayer breakfast--Senator Stenhis was supposed to be in the position that he now occupies--he could not come, and I had the privilege of reading a note that he had scribbled when he first became conscious after he had had his operation at the hospital, a note to the prayer breakfast. We are so thankful that John Stennis is well and strong and that he is with us today.

And as usual, we are very proud to have all of the visitors from abroad, the ambassadorial corps, the visitors from various countries, the Purdue Glee Club, which has honored us with its presence here today. You know, we have something in common. When I went over and had my picture taken, I asked whether any of them were on the Purdue football team, and nobody held up his hand. I said, "That is just like me. I made the glee club, but I didn't make the football team." But what a great glee club it was. If their football team was up to the glee club, they would be in the Rose Bowl.

I know that many have made a great effort to come to this prayer breakfast from various parts of the country and the world. Billy Graham was taking a long-needed vacation at Acapulco. And I rode up with him in the car, and I can assure you that the tan he has is real. That is no makeup. He is going to go back to see his wife, Ruth, after this prayer breakfast and after perhaps several other engagements today with members of this group.

When I first addressed a prayer breakfast as President, I made a statement about all the Presidents of this country. You know, the difficulty with a President when he makes a statement is that everybody checks it to see whether it is true. And in this particular instance, I stated what I thought was the truth, and that was that every President in our history had been a religious man, had belonged to a church. And afterwards, I received quite a few letters from people and said, "What about Lincoln?"

So, I had to go back to the history books to find out about Abraham Lincoln. And I found that his law partner who practiced with him in Illinois had written the first biography of Lincoln and said that he was a man who had no religion, as a matter of fact, that he was a nonbeliever. I then found that when he ran for Congress his opponent was an evangelist, and although Lincoln won that year for Congress, his opponent who was the evangelist campaigned against him on the basis of Lincoln being a nonbeliever.

I found also that Lincoln never joined a church, one of the few Presidents who never belonged to any church. He often attended with his wife the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, and the pew down there so marks the place where he and his wife used to sit, but he never formally joined a church.

But in a very fine little book--and the size of a book does not decide how fine it is--Elton Trueblood in 1973 on the religion of Lincoln1 the anguish that he went through during the War Between the States, makes some eloquent points about Lincoln, the man with a very deep religious conviction. He said that while he never belonged to a church that he probably prayed more than any man who has ever been in the White House. And the reason he prayed more was perhaps twofold, one because he had a mystical sense of the destiny of America. He did not have a feeling of arrogance about his side as compared with the other side; he did feel that America was destined to be united; he did feel that for that reason that some way, somehow, after that terrible struggle in which men on both sides and women on both sides prayed fervently to the same God that it would come out' all right, and he did believe that America had something to stand for and something to believe in, and something to do in the world bigger than itself. And he often said that. In other words, that there was something other than just Lincoln--the politician, the President--and the American people, each individual, but there was what he called the Almighty, the Universal Being, sometimes he referred to Him as God, who guided the destiny of this Nation.

1 David Elton Trueblood, "Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish" (New York: Harper and Row, 1973).

The second reason, of course, that Lincoln must have prayed so much was because the problems of the country were so great. When you think of the fact that his wife had several brothers who fought on the Confederate side, and some were killed, you think of the tragedy that marked his life---one of his sons died while he was in the White House. When you think of all these things, you can see why this man, who had such deep emotional feelings, often went to his knees in prayer, although he did not belong to any church.

And finally, I noted in reading this little book by Elton Trueblood that while Lincoln prayed more perhaps--or at least it is said that he probably prayed more than any President who has been in the White House--it is very hard to find at any time an oral prayer. He was on his knees, and he prayed in silence.

I often wondered about that, and I thought a little of my own upbringing, about the place of silent prayer, and there is, of course, a place for both.

My father, who was a Methodist, believed very strongly in spoken prayer, and my mother, who was a Quaker, believed in silent prayer, and both agreed that there was a place for both.

When I was 8 or 9 years old, I asked my grandmother--a very saintly woman, a little Quaker lady who had nine children--I asked her why it was that the Quakers believed in silent prayer. When we sat down to table we always had silent grace, and often at church, while we sometimes would have a minister or somebody got up when the spirit moved him, we often just went there and sat and we prayed.

Her answer was very interesting, and perhaps it relates to why Lincoln prayed in silence. My grandmother spoke to me on this occasion, as she always did to her grandchildren and children, with the plain speech. She said, "What thee must understand, Richard, is that the purpose of prayer is to listen to God, not to talk to God. The purpose of prayer is not to tell God what thee wants but to find out from God what He wants from thee."

Now, my grandmother did not believe that others who used oral prayer were wrong, because that would not have been the Quaker way. She thought they might be right. In fact, both could be right.

We read Lincoln's Second Inaugural, the most eloquent of all the inaugurals, and we see it all captured there, pointing out that people prayed on both sides, and yet the war had come, but not speaking in arrogance about the North as against the South, but expressing his belief that the destiny of this Nation would eventually be served by the survival of the Union.

So, the thought I would leave with this audience here today is very simply this: I, too, believe that America has a destiny. I do not believe it in the sense that some national leaders of times past have believed it about their countries.

Our destiny is not to rule any other country. Our destiny is not to conquer any other country. Our destiny is not to start war against any other country. Our destiny is not to break freedom, but to defend it.

Our destiny also is to recognize the right of people in the world to be different from what we are. Even some may have different religions. Even some, we must accept, may not have a religious belief, as we understand a religious belief, to believe.

But on the other hand, while I know this goes counter to the ideas of many of my good friends in this audience who believe as my mother and father deeply believed in the missionary work of our church, I think that America today must understand that it is in its role as a world leader that we can only have peace in the world if we respect the rights, the views of our neighbors, our friends, and of the people of all the nations of the world.

It is that respect for other people, despite differences in political philosophy, despite differences in religion, that has brought us so far along the road to world understanding and world peace over these 5 years.

It is rather hard sometimes for us to have that respect, sometimes for each other in our political process and sometimes for other nations who have totally different political views, but I would only suggest that we go back to Lincoln--and, of course, I go back to my grandmother-and I would pray for this Nation at this time, and I hope all of you would, too, whether orally or in silence, that we try to listen more to what God wants rather than to tell God what we want, that we would try to find out what God wants America to be rather than to ask Him always to see that what we believe America should be prevails.

Call this humility, which they called it in Lincoln's case, call it what you like, but it is the way a great country ought to be.

America is a nation of destiny, and whether freedom survives in the world and whether the weak nations of the world can be as safe as the strong, which is our goal, depends on America.

I do not say this in arrogance. I do not say it without recognizing that other great powers in a different way may also work together with us toward that great purpose, but I do know that without American strength and I speak not just of our military strength primarily; primarily I speak of our moral strength and our spiritual strength and our faith in our national destiny--without America's strength, the world would not have the chance today that it has for freedom and for peace and for justice in the years ahead.

So, my friends, may I thank you all for the prayers that I know you have offered for our national leaders; may I urge you all, whatever your faiths may be, to pray in the future at times, perhaps, in silence. Why? Because too often I think we are a little too arrogant. We try to talk to God and tell Him what we want, and what all of us need to do and what this Nation needs to do is to pray in silence and listen to God and find out what He wants for us, and then we will all do the right thing.

Note: The President spoke at 9 a.m. in the International Ballroom of the Washington Hilton Hotel.

Representative Albert H. Quie of Minnesota presided at the 22d annual breakfast which was sponsored by the Senate and House Prayer Breakfast Groups.

Approximately 3,000 guests, including representatives from government, the diplomatic corps, industry, labor, and the academic community, attended the breakfast.

Richard Nixon, Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/256220

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