Origins of World Day of Prayer
The origins of World Day of Prayer date back to the 19th century when Christian women of United States and Canada initiated a variety of cooperative activities in support of women’s involvement in mission at home and in other parts of the world.
Concern for women and children
Women had a strong sense of identification with the needs of women and children and searched out ways to provide appropriate support. In spite of strong resistance from the all male mission boards, in 1861 and the following years, women founded numerous and effective women’s boards for foreign and home missions whereby they could work directly with and for women and children.
The role of prayer in mission work
Women were encouraged to engage in personal prayer and take leadership in communal prayer within their mission auxiliaries and associations. This emphasis on prayer led to annual days and weeks of prayer. In 1887 Presbyterian women called for a Day of Prayer for Home Missions and Methodist women called for a week of prayer and self-denial for foreign missions. A Baptist Day of Prayer for foreign missions began in 1891.
Women had a vision of Christian unity that was seen as essential to their exercise of mission.
Methodist women joined the day of prayer for home missions between 1892 and 1894. By 1897 the women of 6 denominations formed a joint committee for a united day of prayer for home missions. On a rotation system women of the participating denominations wrote the common worship service. In 1912 the Woman’s Boards of Foreign Missions called for a united day of prayer for foreign missions.
Study is everyone’s responsibility
Following the Ecumenical Missionary Conference in New York City in 1900, women organized an interdenominational Central Committee for United Study that prepared publications, summer conferences, study days and courses so that women could become informed about the lives of women in other parts of the world and could study biblical foundations and vital issues related to mission work.
Women created ways to work together in mission
Women undertook organizing interdenominational structures that were effective and cooperative in home and foreign missions. For example, in 1908 the women founded the Council of Women for Home Missions that took responsibility for joint work with immigrants and other social issues and for preparation of the joint day of prayer.
Women celebrated their commitment
In 1911 women celebrated the 50th Anniversary or Jubilee of women’s missionary activity by organizing a series of speaking engagements across the United States that provided women with a powerful experience of what they had achieved in ecumenical cooperation and fellowship, in local and global linkage, in prayer and information sharing, and in biblical reflection. All of this had been in the hands of women. Out of this experience many local interdenominational women’s groups were formed.
Women linked world peace with world mission
After the devastation of World War I, women incorporated the conviction that world peace was intrinsically tied to world mission. With this realization women renewed their efforts for unity. The first Friday of Lent was established as a joint day of prayer for missions and was celebrated for the first time on February 20, 1920. Due to the enthusiastic facilitation of local denominational and interdenominational women’s groups, the day of prayer spread rapidly throughout the USA. In 1922, the Canadian women, who had begun celebrating a day of prayer in 1895, took up the same date.
World Day of Prayer comes into being
In the second half of 1926 the women of North America distributed the worship service to as many countries and partners in mission as they could. The response worldwide was enthusiastic. By the beginning of 1927 the call to prayer that was issued was for a World Day of Prayer for Missions. In 1928, the title of the day was shortened to “The World Day of Prayer”. In the same year, this statement came from the World Day of Prayer Committee:
“It is with deep gratitude that we recognize the growing power inherent in our World Day of Prayer. A very decided expansion of this prayer fellowship has come during the past year. The circle of prayer has expanded literally around the world. We have learned the great lesson of praying with, rather than for, our sisters of other races and nations, thus enriching our experience and releasing the power which must be ours if we are to accomplish tasks entrusted to us.”
The circle of prayer reaches out to the world
From 1927 up to now, women gather to pray with women from a different country. A theme developed by the WDP Committee inspires informed prayer and prayerful action.
In 1930, Helen Kim of Korea was the first woman outside of the United States to write the order of worship for the World Day of Prayer. It is from these roots that World Day of Prayer has taken its present shape.