The Obama inauguration team has announced that Myrlie Evers-Williams will be delivering the invocation at the public swearing-in of the President on January 21.
Evers-Williams is the former chairwoman of the NAACP. She is also the widow of Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader who was gunned down in front of their home in Mississippi in 1963. (I am including a brief video of her talking about their work below).
While the choice of Evers-Williams is historical because of who she is…it is also historical on a number of other ways.
She will be the first woman to offer a prayer at a Presidential Inauguration. This somewhat surprised me, though given the relatively recent entry of women into the clergy, maybe it should’t be so surprising.
Ever-Williams will also be the first layperson to offer a prayer at a Presidential Inauguration. This aspect of the announcement stuck out to me the most because it symbolizes a change the role of both prayer and clergy in American society.
When I taught American Heritage at BYU-Idaho and later BYU, many students were surprised that there was no prayer at the Constitution Convention. Their surprise was somewhat because they had heard that there had been prayers offered at the Second Continental Congress which gave us the Declaration of Independence. We can all admit that we have gotten the two events mixed up at some point in our lives.
Additionally, many of my students had attributed a traditional religiosity to the framers or the Constitution and to the founders in general. Now, this can lead us to the old and tired debate of whether that portrayal is accurate (but we are not going there).
The Constitutional Convention is believed to not have had prayers for two primary reasons. First, they had rather strict rules of secrecy. To have prayer would have meant bringing in a clergy member. It was too risky to bring somebody who was outside the body. Second, they did not have sufficient budget to hire a clergy member. So, no prayer.
Why would a group of relatively religious men not just offer a prayer themselves? I do not think the thought would have crossed their minds. While some of them did pray, praying in a public and official setting was something that only clergy did. This is something that likely would not have changed much until at least the Second Great Awaking, though in formal settings prayer would still have been a task for clergy.
In public settings today, that is still often the case. I have been to county and state conventions of both major parties. The prayers given are…as I recall…always offered by a minister, priest, or rabbi. The same patterns follows as the National political conventions (which I have only observed via television).
The work day of the House and Senate in Congress starts with a prayer. But the prayer is not offered by a member of the respective body, it is offered by the chaplain.
My students at BYU and BYU-Idaho came from a background where lay-members mostly gave the invocations and benedictions at religious meetings, so they likely would not have thought along these lines. However, Mormonism has roots in the Second Great Awaking and it places a greater emphasis on lay-member participation in rituals, ceremonies, and worship services.
With Myrlie Evers-Williams delivering the invocation of the Presidential Inauguration, we are seeing this shift on one of the most public platforms in American public culture. Does this mean that clergy are playing a smaller part in American public life? I cannot really be sure, but it seems to be another sign of the changing role of clergy in American society. Clergy are still important. They serve us and they sacrifice much for their congregations. Yet, they are no longer the gatekeepers of our public religious experience
Evers-Williams will be offering a prayer for the nation at the start of a new presidential term. Amen.