The power for the Virginia government to proclaim public days of prayer in Bill #85 was applied by Jefferson while Governor of Virginia in 1779. On November 11, Governor Jefferson issued a “Proclamation for a Public Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer.” The official document began: “By his Excellency Thomas Jefferson, Esq. Governour or Chief Magistrate of the commonwealth of Virginia; Proclamation…Impressed with a grateful sense of the goodness of Almighty God, in…manifesting in multiplied instances his divine care…” and then it quoted at length from a proclamation made by the Continental Congress (from October 20, 1779), which stated in part: ‘…[God] hath diffused the glorious light of the gospel, whereby, through the merits of our gracious Redeemer, we may become the heirs of his eternal glory…that he would grant to his church the plentiful effusions of divine grace, and pour out his holy spirit on all ministers of the gospel; that he would bless and prosper the means of education, and spread the light of Christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth…that he would in mercy look down upon us, pardon our sins and receive us into his favor, and finally, that he would establish the independence of these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue.
After these overt Christian statements from Congress (using the words “Christian,” “Redeemer,” “church,” “gospel”) that Jefferson included in his proclamation, Jefferson then with his own words in the closing paragraph said: “…I do therefore by authority from the General Assembly issue this my proclamation, hereby appointing…a day of thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God, earnestly recommending to all the good people of this commonwealth, to set apart the said day for those purposes” and for “the several Ministers of religion to meet their respective societies thereon, to assist them in their prayers, [and] edify them with their discourses.”
Note: as president, Jefferson never called for a day of prayer. Yet he did as governor. What’s the difference. Jefferson thought that religion was up to the states and the people—not the FEDERAL government. This should help us understand more what he had in mind when he spoke about the separation of church and state. It was NOT the secularization of the state—which is what many interpret it to mean today.