In a chant that thundered for blocks from the Capitol to the Washington Monument, the men of the Promise Keepers thrust their arms upward and declared in unison, "Dear God, I am a sinner. ... Please forgive me and change me."
Kneeling in prayer and rising in exuberant stadium-style "waves," the men pledged to become better fathers, husbands, friends and churchmen. Feminists and liberals saw subtexts of female subjugation and a right-wing political agenda that organizers insisted wasn't there.
Fourteen-year-old Dominic Andreoli of Avon, Ohio, saw only the positive: "I can't believe there are this many people in the world who love Jesus. When I grow up I want to be a good dad and a good husband."
Dell Schell, a 50-year-old mutual fund salesman from Matthews, N.C., said, "I came here seeking forgiveness and repentance and maybe to give my support for a cause that may bring the American people closer together,"
Ready to replicate the experience across the country, Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney set the date Jan. 1, 2000, for rallies at every state capitol to "take roll call" for Jesus Christ.
"Men have been irresponsible; men have not stood strong for their convictions; men have not been men of their word," McCartney declared with the same zeal he once used to mold championship football teams.
"The reason we see a downward spiral in morality in this nation is because the men of God have not stood together."
On a crisp fall day more typically described as perfect football weather, the National Mall was transformed into a giant outdoor cathedral for what was surely one of the largest religious gatherings in American history although there was no official crowd count.
The six-hour "solemn assembly" began with the blowing of a ram horn to summon a crowd that was overwhelmingly white and male to worship.
Promise Keepers president Randy Phillips set the tone for the day from a giant sound stage near the Capitol dome by declaring, "We have not come to exalt our gender as males; we have come to exalt the man Jesus Christ who is savior."
The atmosphere amid the "prayer tepees" and jumbo video screens on the mall was an unlikely mix of meekness and machismo: Men confessing their weaknesses on bended knee yet eager to reassert their manhood at home.
It was the latter that made feminists nervous.
"The Promise Keepers come to their rally and check their wives and daughters at the door like coats," Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, said at a news conference organized by detractors. "We're here with a promise we want the Promise Keepers to keep: 'I promise to support equality for women."'
Al Ross, executive director of the Center for Democracy Studies in New York, cast the Promise Keepers not as a religious movement but as an "extreme, right-wing political movement."
Phillips answered the critics, saying, "No woman should feel threatened by this gathering because the ground is level at the foot of the cross." As for politics, he said, "It is not political preferences we are concerned with but biblical convictions."
President Clinton took note of the political dispute in his weekly radio address while endorsing the call for family commitment.
"There are those who have political differences with some of the statements which have been made by some leaders of the organization," Clinton said, "but no one can question the sincerity of the hundreds of thousands of men ... who are willing to reassume their responsibilities to their families and to their children and therefore to our future."
Evangelist Billy Graham sent a videotaped message urging the men to "set things right" and commit to serve in the local churches.
Pastors "are frustrated and disappointed by the lack of commitment of men in their congregations," he said.
With its themes of responsibility and brotherhood, the rally drew inevitable comparisons to the Million Man March for black men in October 1995.
This crowd was predominantly white, despite a concerted effort by the Promise Keepers to broaden their appeal among minority groups. McCartney challenged the men to do better, urging "an end to racism inside the church of Jesus Christ" by the year 2000.
It was controversy over the crowd count for the Million Man March that made public officials balk at estimating Saturday's attendance. The men stretched for blocks down the mall, tens of thousands spilling out onto side streets.
Strolling the sidelines, Joan Essenburg said she came with her husband from Orland Park, Ill., because the Promise Keepers had made her husband a better spouse.
"Women whose husbands are not Promise Keepers are missing out," she said. "We are women who are elevated and loved."
The group drew its "Stand in the Gap" theme from the biblical passage in Ezekiel where the Lord looked without success for a righteous man to "stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it."
Michael Jones, of Birmingham, Ala., heard the call.
"I have to be responsible and committed that my children are influenced in a positive way," he said. "I want to stand in righteousness."
Since its founding by McCartney in 1990, Promise Keepers has grown into one of the nation's largest religious enterprises. Some 2.6 million men have attended stadium rallies around the country and the movement also sponsors small Bible study groups, leadership training conferences and radio programs.