IN Yakima, Wash., they will circle the county jail, praying for freedom and hope. In Washington, D.C., a rally in Lafayette Park near the White House will urge prayers for the president. Elsewhere, in arching cathedrals and humble community churches, the Oklahoma City tragedy will bring heads to bow.
Set up in 1952 by President Truman in a period widely defined as mainstream ''Protestant-Catholic-Jew,'' the observance now has a decidedly Christian evangelical feel.
This year a concert, ''Seek His Face,'' will be broadcast from Moody Memorial Church in Chicago to 100 TV stations -- reaching millions.
National Day of Prayer Task Force officials in Colorado Springs, Colo., speak in evangelical terms of a spiritual crisis, ''something deeply wrong'' with America.
Spokesman Ken Waggoner argues, ''There is a growing grass-roots sense, underscored by Oklahoma, that we have thrown billions of dollars at problems that are primarily spiritual and moral.''
''Oklahoma calls people to prayer,'' says Cathy Colley, an organizer in Seattle, ''including people who don't normally pray.''
Many backers hope this prayer day will bring a revival inside American churches. Typical is John Dwyer, a Presbyterian and co-publisher of a monthly Christian newspaper in Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas.
''The American church has become a reflection of the larger culture,'' he says, ''arrogant and self-centered. Churches today want people to feel good -- rather than calling [us] to repent and glorify God.''
Mr. Dwyer is helping to sponsor ''Awaken, America,'' an event designed to celebrate the Christian heritage of the country.
Still, the prayer observance is controversial even among many evangelical Christians, some of whom strongly disagree with a state-sponsored prayer day, and others who feel that prayer extravaganzas are superficial and ultimately misleading.
''If you are seriously Christian, prayer is something you do every day, and you don't want the state sponsoring it,'' says Duke University in Durham, N.C. professor of theology Stanley Hauerwas. ''That reinforces the kind of patriotic civil religion that is exactly the problem.''
''At its best it is like a Puritan fast day,'' says one scholar of American religion. ''At its worst it is like that bumper sticker, 'Honk if you love Jesus.' ''