What’s With All the Prayer Breakfasts?

Why can’t they do a prayer lunch instead?

Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast 

President Barack Obama will attend the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast on Friday. The event is one of many religio-political breakfasts held around the country—like the Greater Chicago Leadership Prayer Breakfast in December, the Minnesota Prayer Breakfast in April, and, most famously, the National Prayer Breakfast in February, attended by every president since Eisenhower. Why so many prayer “breakfasts”—rather than prayer lunches or teatimes?

Tradition. The prayer breakfast got started in mid-1930s Seattle, where traveling preacher Abraham Vereide held morning meetings for politicians and businessmen to pray about—and try to combat—poverty and the spread of communism. He decided on breakfast due to the Christian tradition of morning prayers and, it’s said, as a nod to John 21—wherein Jesus appears to his disciples in the early morning by the Sea of Tiberias and helps them catch fish. Breakfast was also practical, since 7 or 7:30 a.m. meetings didn’t interfere with the workday or with family obligations in the evening.

Vereide’s informal prayer breakfast concept spread quickly, first through Seattle, then to San Francisco and Chicago and to Washington, D.C., in the early 1940s—where the preacher’s disciples created weekly breakfast groups for senators and congressmen. The purpose of these meetings was to encourage personal relationships among religious politicians and to discuss the problem of poverty. Again, breakfast made sense for those with full schedules of legislative work and meetings. In 1953, members of these informal groups and Vereide initiated the first annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast, attended by Eisenhower, which was later retitled the National Prayer Breakfast. Although local politicos made up most of the guest list at the earliest of these breakfasts, nowadays they’re also attended by business, social leaders, and foreign dignitaries.

The many present-day prayer breakfasts are modeled on the national one and thus play on the title, although the National Prayer Breakfast, the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, and other large breakfasts are really conferences that can last two or three days—not just quick a.m. snacks. The main events at these conferences do tend to be morning meals, during which speakers address the crowd. At the National Prayer Breakfast, for example, guests sip orange juice and coffee and such while the president, and a keynote speaker, deliver addresses. (Click here to see a list of recent keynote speakers, including Tony Blair and Bono.)

Christians, Jews, and Muslims share the general tradition of morning prayer. Religious Jews recite the Schacharit prayer in the morning; in the Muslim custom, the first of five daily prayers is called the Fajr and is habitually recited by sunrise; Roman Catholics and Anglicans are supposed to say the Lauds or Matins near dawn.

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Explainer thanks Kermit Sutherland of the Prayer Breakfast Network.