The origins of World Day of Prayer date back to the 19th century when Christian women of the 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. These activities related to the following areas:
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 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
Since 1812 women encouraged one another 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. In 1895, a day of corporate intercessions for mission was initiated by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Anglican Church of Canada.
Women had a vision of Christian unity
that was seen as essential to their exercise of mission. By 1897 the women of six denominations formed a joint committee for a united day of prayer for home missions. In 1912 the Woman’s Boards of Foreign Missions called for a united day of prayer for foreign missions.
Study was 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 organized interdenominational
structures that were effective and cooperative. For example, in 1908 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 1910-1911 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, 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. Therefore, women renewed their efforts for unity.
In Canada, Presbyterian women called together representatives of women’s missionary societies from five denominations in 1918 for united prayer and action. This committee, which now has expanded into the ecumenical Women’s Inter-Church Council of Canada, organized the first national Day of Prayer in Canada on January 9, 1920.
In the United States, the first Friday of Lent was established as a joint day of prayer for missions, beginning 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. Canadian women took up the same date in 1922.
World Day of Prayer comes into being
In the second half of 1926 the women of North America distributed the worship service to many countries and partners in mission. 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 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. 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.World Day of Prayer Committee
In 1928 during the International Missionary Conference in Jerusalem, women delegates from many countries agreed that worldwide participation would be a bond of unity among women. Helen Kim of Korea was chosen to be the first woman outside of the United States to write the order of worship for the World Day of Prayer in 1930.
In 1930 The Federation of Women’s Board of Foreign Missions of North America co-opted ten women from all over the world as corresponding members. Plans for a world committee for WDP were proposed for 1932, but depressed economic conditions prevented its implementation.
In 1941 the coordination of World Day of Prayer within the United States became the responsibility of an interdenominational movement now known as Church Women United. Coordination with other countries was carried out by the Foreign Missions Conference of North America.
In 1969 The World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations decided to change their international day of prayer from March to May in order to take part in the World Day of Prayer.
It is from these roots that World Day of Prayer has taken its present shape. World Day of Prayer has moved with women wherever their lives have taken them.
In 1927 Queensland and New South Wales led the way to the introduction and establishing of Women’s World Day of Prayer in Australia. The Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union was responsible for the service in both States. These two States were followed by Victoria in 1931. Programs were sent to South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania in 1936, where the day was observed. These States went on and formed their own committees shortly thereafter.
Australia was given the privilege of preparing the Order of Service in 1958 with the theme ‘Bread of Life’ and again in 1986 with ‘Choose Life’.
A National Committee was formed in 1968 and a National Liaison Officer (NLO) appointed. The Committee meets once in every four years in a different state on a rotating basis and a NLO is appointed from that State. She visits local committees and each State during her term of office at their invitation.
Small quantities of Orders of Service are supplied by some States to Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Thursday Island, Republic of Nauru, Ocean Island, Western Samoa, American Samoa and Korea.
In February 1986, Australia, in line with most countries, changed its name from “Women’s World Day of Prayer” to “World Day of Prayer, Australia”.
The number of Orders of Service printed for the 2006 Service totalled 93,570 and 1333 Services were held (cf 1318 in 2005) in 6 States.
World Day of Prayer goes from strength to strength, recognising God’s goodness.