National prayer breakfast movement began in unchurched Seattle

national prayer breakfast

Abraham Vereide (via Wikipedia)

Seattle ranks high on lists of the country’s least religious cities. Sperling’s Best Places figures that only 38% of Seattleites profess a religious affiliation, compared with a national average of 49%. The Public Religion Research Institute reckons that Seattle, tied with San Francisco, is the country’s second most godless city (behind Portland, Ore.). Among the country’s 100 largest metro areas, Seattle/Tacoma placed No. 7 on a list of highest percentage of adults who have not attended any service in the past six months. That squared with a Gallup Poll that said only 2% of all Washington State residents attend religious services weekly, tying the state for next-to-last place (behind Vermont).

Still New To Seattle, I found it surprising and interesting to read in a newly published book tracing the intertwining of capitalism and Christian religion that the National Prayer Breakfast, the famous annual Washington, D.C. religious event attended by top governmental leaders, got its start 80 years ago as a local tradition in Seattle. And one grounded in conservative politics, to boot.

According to One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Kevin M. Kruse, the prayer breakfast movement was started in 1935 by Abraham Vereide, a Methodist minister in Seattle who went by Abram. Vereide gathered local business executives to pray and fight the worsening poverty of the Depression–as well as Communism, labor unions, anti-free market philosophies and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. Vereide’s conservative movement based on trickle-down economics and what he called the leadership skills of “key man” Jesus spread across Seattle, then to other cities and eventually to both houses of Congress in the Other Washington.

In 1953 Vereide was instrumental, along with Billy Graham, in staging the first national prayer breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel. The attendance of the new president, Dwight Eisenhower, insured its significance. More than 60 years later, the once-a-year National Prayer Breakfast is still going strong, held on the first Thursday of each February at the Washington Hilton. President Obama has been a frequent attendee.

Vereide is a figure largely lost to history, especially in Seattle. He is rarely noted here, even though he was a prominent pastor and founder of the local Goodwill Industries operation that nearly a century later still dominates the thrift store scene. Looking at Seattle Public Library databases, I can’t find a single reference to Vereide in the pages of The Seattle Times since the aftermath of his heart attack death at age 82 in 1969. Nor is there any mention of him at all on HistoryLink.org, the comprehensive online encyclopedia of Washington State history. Even the Goodwill Seattle website completely omits his name.

Yet his influence persists. The National Prayer Breakfast is run by The Fellowship Foundation, also known as the International Foundation or, somewhat ominously, The Family. It’s a secretive, somewhat spooky nonprofit organization of Christian activists that Vereide incorporated in 1942 to carry on the work he started in Seattle. The Fellowship Foundation, which according to its latest available federal tax return has an annual budget of $16 million, has been called one of the most politically connected and influential ministries in the world, not to mention one of the least known.

The foundation played a role in facilitating the Camp David Peace Accords with Egypt and Israel. It is also no stranger to unpleasant controversies. These include supporting murderous right-wing foreign dictators, making unreported loans to elected U.S. officials, serving as a haven for conspirators in the Watergate scandal and unsuccessfully counseling such errant politicians as U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford. As South Carolina governor in 2009, he tried to cover up his absence pursuing an affair in Argentina by saying he would be “hiking the Appalachian Trail.”

Granted, Vereide’s conservative politics and religious fervor likely wouldn’t fly well in present-day liberal Seattle. But his relative obscurity might change a bit with the new book by Kruse, who is a history professor at Princeton University. Kruse argues that various acts of national religious profession–besides the prayer breakfasts, putting “In God We Trust” on currency and “One Nation Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance–are relatively recent developments and were as much or more about using Christian religion to advocate a conservative world view in what became the Cold War as they were about religious belief. Vereide, Kruse writes, was one of the folks in the thick of it.

I am drawing here upon Kruse’s work as well as a 2008 book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, by Jeff Sharlet, and various other published accounts.

Vereide was born in 1886 in Norway and emigrated to the U.S. via Ellis Island in 1905 at age 19. Becoming a Methodist minister, he rode a preaching circuit in Montana before coming to Seattle in 1916 as assistant pastor, and later pastor, of the First Norwegian-Danish Methodist Episcopal Church, at Stewart Street and Boren Avenue in downtown Seattle.

In 1923 he founded and became superintendent of the Seattle division of Goodwill Industries. He was so good at his job–convincing 49,000 housewives to collect used goods for the needy–that he rose nationally in Goodwill management. In 1932 Vereide was even considered by president-elect Roosevelt for a major federal relief as the Depression worsened.  But Vereide didn’t like what he saw in FDR, especially his warming to the Soviet Union. And Vereide had become disenchanted with directly helping the poor. He left Goodwill.

In April 1935, amid a time of great labor strife in Seattle, as Vereide later wrote, he received what he described as a middle-of-the-night revelation from God: “To the big man went strength, to the little man went need. Only the big man was capable of mending the world.”  Later that same day, walking on a Seattle street, Vereide encountered a developer he knew named Walter Douglass. They started discussing the sad state of the country, and how the solution was to minister to the powers-that-be rather than to the poor. Douglass agreed to back Vereide.

Together, they went to see William St. Clair, president of fancy Frederick & Nelson, then the largest department store in the Pacific Northwest (what was then its flagship location at 500 Pine Street is now Nordstrom’s). St. Clair compiled a list of 19 local executives and invited them to breakfast at the recently built Washington Athletic Club on Sixth Avenue.

From Kruse:

The men at that first prayer meeting included the presidents of a gas company, a railroad, a lumber company, a hardware chain, and a candy manufacturer, as well as two future mayors of Seattle. Only one belonged to a church at the time, but even he had little use for religion, joking that the others knew him only as a gambler, a drinker and a golfer–someone who swore so much “the grass burns when I spit.” But like the others, he rallied to Vereide’s call and joined what became a regular prayer breakfast for businessmen called the City Chapel. Their services were nondenominational, but the message that came from their meetings was one that called for a return to what they saw as basic biblical principles.

Those principles reflected a world view of what has been called muscular Christianity, or, less charitably, The Strong Will Inherit The Earth. In the tony circles that Verveide would soon travel, it played very well.

Finally finding his life’s true calling as he neared age 50, Vereide energetically spread the prayer breakfast movement to other cities and eventually to the seat of power in the nation’s capital, where he organized weekly sessions for members of the House and Senate. A few years after that first prayer breakfast, he relocated from Seattle to the Washington, D.C. area. Vereide lived there the rest of his life, although he frequently returned to Seattle for speaking and preaching engagements, and because he had family here.

The Washington Athletic Club website is among those in Seattle that make no mention of Vereide or his historic gathering on its premises. In today’s Seattle, both history and religion are elusive.

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