Four days after he became prime minister in May 1940, Winston Churchill approved a national day of prayer. Roused by news of the German onslaught against the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in Belgium and France, people throughout Britain flocked to their local churches and chapels. Five days later, news reached the country of the successful evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk. Many laymen, as well as clergy, quickly attributed this as a ‘deliverance’ or ‘miracle’ to divine providence and to the day of prayer. Churchill himself became an enthusiast, approving two national days of prayer in each of the next three years. Then, in 1943 and 1944, he agreed to brief halts in war production so that factory and office workers could join in the BBC’s broadcast services.


This event is now probably the best known example of a custom that, in the British Isles, goes back to the tenth century when King Aethelred ordered prayers for God’s help to withstand a Danish invasion. Growing in number during the wars of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III, special acts of worship continued after the Reformation and were soon to become a settled tradition of public fasts and days of humiliation or thanksgiving.

Between 1535 and the last national day of prayer in 1947, there were 544 English and Welsh or British occasions, as well as 170 separately ordered Scottish and 84 Irish occasions. These extraordinary moments of special national worship are a register of great moments of crisis, anxiety and celebration in Britain’s past. Yet, despite their evident importance and interest, no one has yet studied these events across their history.

King Aethelred ordered prayers for God’s help to withstand a Danish invasion

As we approached the 70th anniversary of Dunkirk, it seemed appropriate to explore the roots of Churchill’s initiative. Partly for that reason, Philip Williamson, Alasdair Raffe, Lucy Bates and myself at the University of Durham – together with Stephen Taylor at the University of Reading – worked on a project to do just that. What were fasts, thanksgivings and national days of prayer? What did people do on these occasions? What do they tell us about public anxieties and joys? Were these occasions truly ‘national’, and what sort of national identity did they promote?

When was the first 'national day of prayer'?

‘National day of prayer’ was a term that only came into use in the 20th century. Before that, the practice consisted of fasts, thanksgivings and petitionary prayers. The former two were usually held on a designated day, while petitionary prayers tended to be held three times a week – for a period of weeks or months – and were accompanied by a weekly fast. All were ordered by the monarch through the Privy Council.

In the 18th century, prolonged periods of prayer went out of fashion while days set aside for fasting became more common. However, by the mid-19th century, concerns about ordering prayers for the established churches in a multiconfessional state had made the government reluctant to organise such events, other than for royal occasions. By the 20th century, the government had largely removed itself from the process, and so events were initiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury with the co-operation of the leaders of the nonconformist, Free and Roman Catholic churches.

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There seem to have been two principal motivations for the country to come together in prayer: to seek God’s help in secular affairs, and to offer thanks for his intervention. War was, of course, the most common stimulus for such occasions: from Henry VIII’s disputes with France in the 1540s, through the American War of Independence, to the two world wars. There were also thanksgivings for victories in major battles, such as Trafalgar (1805) and Waterloo (1815), and for the end of wars. Rebellions and mutinies, including the Jacobite Risings (1716, 1745), the Swing Riots (1830) and the Indian Mutiny (1859), also brought the nation to prayer.

There seem to have been two principal motivations for the country to come together in prayer: to seek God’s help in secular affairs, and to offer thanks for his intervention

Yet conflicts weren’t the only events to send Britons rushing to their churches: outbreaks of disease – the plague and cholera – as well as cattle plagues (1748, 1759, 1865–66), bad weather and poor harvests (such as the Irish famines of 1740–41 and 1845–52) prompted special prayer and fasting.

And so did royalty. Prayers for the safe delivery of queens in childbirth, for the birth of children and for the sovereign’s recovery from illness became a feature of British life. Queen Victoria may not have been enthusiastic about ‘days of humiliation’, as they were often called, but she did believe in marking royal occasions. These account for all special acts of worship between 1868 and 1897 – including the recovery of the Prince of Wales from illness (1872) and her own Golden and Diamond Jubilees (1887, 1897) – and they established a new trend in which coronations and funerals, as well as jubilees, became national religious and secular holidays.

The key to the prevalence of national days of prayer in British life was, of course, that Britons truly believed they worked. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and beyond, people had absolute faith in divine providence: that God had a plan for the world, and that when provoked by a nation’s sins he would send warnings or punishment in the form of disease, natural disasters, war and military defeats to encourage the nation to reform. The only way to assuage God’s anger and ensure that the realm returned to peace and prosperity was for its subjects to pray, humble themselves, confess their sins, repent and reform.

Divine providence, however, raised awkward questions. If God had already constructed a plan, how could the nation change it by praying? What about natural causes of disease? Not surprisingly, special prayers and fasts provoked much debate, as was the case in 1603 when a pamphlet war erupted over whether plague was sent by God or had natural causes.

Days of prayer have also fomented fierce opposition. During the Civil War, some London ministers even feigned illness to avoid conducting services or preaching sermons. Two centuries later, on the fast day for cholera in 1832, some radicals registered their dissent by feasting rather than fasting. Cartoons – such as Richard Newton's Fast Day! (1793), Isaac Cruikshank's A General Fast in Consequence of the War!! (1794) and R Seymour's Fasting by Proclamation; Fasting by Necessity (1832) – lampooned the practice.

Queen Victoria thought it right to thank God for his blessings but that petitionary prayers were futile. She did not believe that wars were caused by the sins of the British people and doubted, even if her subjects were at fault, that “the Almighty would alter the course of his providence at the request of the Privy Council”. She represented a growing view that distinguished between the immediate causes of events and God’s special providence which lay behind them.

What did people do on national days of prayer?

Notwithstanding these doubts, what exactly did people do on ‘days of humiliation’? At the centre of petitionary prayers were special church services. These date back to 1548, when the government commissioned bishops to write prayers and choose appropriate Bible readings and psalms to supplement the Book of Common Prayer. Known as ‘Forms of Prayer’ (often full church services), these were distributed to the bishops for purchase by parishes. A great effort was made to produce the forms quickly and to distribute them across the country.

In addition to attending church, parishioners were expected to study the Bible, fast, wear moderate clothing, to organise family and private prayers, to give alms to the poor and abstain from secular pastimes and work. In August 1918, mass open-air services were held in London, Edinburgh and other cities, situated around a temporary shrine at which bereaved families placed flowers in memory of the dead.

In the early modern period, thanksgivings were celebrated with church services, bell-ringing, bonfires and feasts. The public thanksgiving for the recovery of George III on 23 April 1789 comprised a royal procession to St Paul’s Cathedral accompanied by gun salutes, a three-hour service, followed by further gun salutes as well as parties, entertainments, illuminations and music. Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (1887) was celebrated in Royston, Hertfordshire with a ‘meat tea’ for 1,100 adults, sweets and buns for the children, followed by sports, a bonfire and fireworks. In 1911, Welwyn in Hertfordshire celebrated the coronation of Edward VII with a sports day, separate children’s and adults’ tea parties, a torchlight procession, fireworks, a bonfire and, the following day, a fancy dress parade and competition.

10 events in history that inspired moments of national prayer

1) November 1554, Mary's false pregnancy

Special prayers were held during the short reign of the Catholic Mary I (1553–58), and they were marked with processions, Te Deums and masses. The prayers of November 1554 were called for the queen's safe delivery in childbirth, which was announced and celebrated in April and May. But by July it was clear that the pregnancy was false.

2) July 1597, A raid on the Spanish

A book of special prayers was issued to appeal for the success of the English attack on the Spanish navy at Ferrol, led by the Earl of Essex. However, when Elizabeth discovered that one of her own prayers had been included, she demanded that it be removed from all copies.

3) 10 October 1666, London pays for the nation's sins

Charles II ordered a “day of solemn fasting and humiliation” after the Great Fire devastated the capital. It was a “visitation so dreadful that scarce any age or nation has ever seen or felt the like”, but the government was anxious to point out that it was caused by the sins of the nation, not just London.

4) 20 March 1700 and 24 April 1701, The Darien disaster

Fasts were ordered in Scotland in response to the failure of the two Darien Schemes, attempts to establish a Scottish colony on the isthmus of Panama, organised by William Patterson, a founder of the Bank of England. Many colonists died and immense popular support for the scheme quickly turned to fury with England, whose trading companies were blamed for the failure.

5) December 1776, The American War of Independence

1776 saw the first of a series of prayers and thanksgivings during the American War of Independence. The event is believed to have been well-observed, though two ministers in Hampshire refused to conduct services while three Essex men “showed their dislike to the maxim” by ordering a large dinner at The Bull in Totham.

6) 23 April 1789, George III's dramatic recovery

The public thanksgiving for the recovery of George III was initiated by the king, who had sworn an 'oath' during his illness to offer public thanks to God for his recovery. He wanted a solemn occasion with minimum fuss, but growing popular enthusiasm ensured that it was more elaborate with a royal procession to St Paul's, gun salutes, parties, entertainments, fireworks and music. The occasion appears at the end of the film The Madness of King George.

7) 29 November 1820, Queen Caroline's tiff with "the evil man"

A Form of Prayer was printed for a spoof thanksgiving for Queen Caroline, estranged wife of George IV, by her supporters after the collapse of her ‘trial’. Signifying popular support for the queen, the form proposed the reading of Psalm 140: “Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man”, a jibe at the king.

8) March and June 1832, Cholera strikes

The outbreak of cholera in 1832 was widely considered to be divine judgement on Catholic Emancipation (1829) and the parliamentary reform crisis. Local ‘days of humiliation’ in England and Scotland prefigured national prayers and fasts. The government’s preparations for the events were hampered, among other things, by hysterical speeches in parliament by Spencer Perceval, an evangelical MP, who wanted the Commons to “express its own errors and humiliation before God”.

9) 1845, Famine ravages Ireland

The Great Famine in Ireland (1845–52) was probably the most destructive of all modern and contemporary famines, killing over a million people and causing another two million to emigrate. Prayers were ordered for England, Wales and Ireland. A fast day was ordered on 24 March 1847 for the whole of the UK.

10) 3 January 1915, The First World War

This was the first of the annual New Year national days of prayer organised during the First World War. It was observed in Protestant and Roman Catholic churches across the empire, as well as in Roman Catholic churches in France and Belgium. Blessings were also issued by the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church.

How did churches and states promote national days of prayer?

Both church and state were willing to use new technology to promote these occasions. Printing was poorly developed in 16th-century England compared to the continent, but it was quickly harnessed to provide the Forms of Prayer for parishes. By the early 18th century, forms were posted to parishes rather than having to be collected in person. At the same time, the demand for personal copies rose. Initially, pirated copies of forms were printed in the provinces and sold for personal use but in the 19th century a whole range of editions were available legally, from expensive luxury books to small, cheap pamphlets. Over one million copies of the form for the Indian Mutiny in 1857 were sold.

From the 1930s, services were broadcast on the radio and, in 1942, Archbishop Temple made a short film to be shown in cinemas, and encouraged ministers to “take the church to the people” by organising services in offices, factories, canteens and the open air to enable as many people as possible to participate. The Form of Prayer for the funeral of the Queen Mother in 2002 was available for clergymen and parishioners to download from the internet as a PDF file.

It seems appropriate that the term ‘national day of prayer’ only came into use in the 20th century, for it was not until then that these occasions could really claim to be national. Prior to this, prayers and fasts were ordered separately for England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and excluded Dissenters and Roman Catholics. After the Act of Union in 1707, prayers were ordered for the whole of Britain, though both Scotland and Ireland continued to stage additional, separate events until 1846 and 1888 respectively. Though some Dissenters and Roman Catholics voluntarily observed days of prayer in the 18th century, and royal occasions, like the jubilees, from the 1860s, it was not until the First World War that they were invited to participate actively in the organisation of days of prayer.

In the early 20th century, the government’s growing reluctance to order occasions for the established churches in a multi-confessional state left the initiative with Archbishop Davidson of Canterbury. Keen to co-operate with the leaders of other denominations and faiths, and with their active participation, he organised national days of prayer to be held throughout the UK in all Anglican and non-established churches, chapels and synagogues.

When national prayer all goes wrong

Prayers and fasts did not always seem to work: monarchs died (Edward VI, Mary II, Queen Caroline), battles were lost (Cartegena de las Indias, 1741; Yorktown, 1781), plagues continued to rage and famine dragged on. But, for many people in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the fault never lay with prayer or God but with themselves.

Common prayer could only fail for two reasons. Continued suffering might be part of God’s plan. More likely though, it was because the nation had not prayed hard or heartily enough, people had not confessed all their sins and reformed their lives sufficiently to assuage God’s wrath.

In 1698, the synod of Lothian and Tweeddale argued that famine and bad weather continued because “after Solemn Humiliations People go on in their Sins and continue impenitent, hard Hearted and unreformed”.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, emphasis shifted from the nation’s sins to the strength of its belief in divine providence. In 1916, it was argued that victory would not be obtained without a “real and practical recognition of National, as well as personal, dependence upon God”.

Consequently, the failure of national days of prayer could stimulate calls for more prayers rather than less, as was the case in 1915 and 1916. However, there was also a recognition that the failure of prayers was hard for people to accept. After Oliver Cromwell’s death in 1658, despite the organisation of national prayers for his recovery, his son Henry wished: “Oh that our stubborn hearts would let us say with true submission, ‘Thy will be done!’”.

Yet days of prayer became distinctly British and inclusive events long before the 20th century. In fact, by emphasising the role of divine providence in governing national affairs, they played a key role in expressing the idea that England was an ‘elect nation’, favoured by God because it had adopted the ‘true faith’, Protestantism. This idea was reinforced by annual thanksgivings which commemorated events interpreted as signs of God’s favour: the Gunpowder Plot (1605) and Glorious Revolution (1688). These services were not formally abolished until 1859.

Britain was not the only country to practise national prayers. Special occasions in the British calendar were marked across the empire: in the British Caribbean from the 1670s, America in the 1750s and 1760s, the colonies through the 19th century and the Commonwealth into the 20th. Indeed, Thanksgiving in the USA (the fourth Thursday in November) had its origins in special thanksgiving days from 1607.

Both sides beseeched God’s assistance when only one could emerge victorious

Elsewhere, Protestant states – such as the Netherlands and Sweden – and Catholic nations – like France and the Holy Roman empire – had their own national prayers. Strangely enough, the fact that opposing sides regularly beseeched God’s assistance when only one could emerge victorious rarely appears to have excited comment. One exception was in 1653 during the First Anglo-Dutch War. An English newsletter writer from The Hague wrote: “how powerful Satan is in the hearts of the [Dutch] ministers”. Rather than confess their sins, they attributed their misfortunes “to those bloodthirsty rebels of England”.

When was the last national day of prayer in Britain?

Though 6 July 1947 was the last occasion when a national day of prayer was ordered by the crown for a non-royal event, they are far from being historical relics. Most noticeably, they continue in the form of nationwide services for great royal occasions such as the queen’s jubilees in 1977 and 2002 and for royal funerals.

More surprisingly, perhaps, national days of prayer continue to be called by the leaders of the various churches: for South Africa (1960, 1963), Northern Ireland (1971, 1973 and 1976) and, most recently, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in the United States in 2001. Though these did not garner the support witnessed in May 1940, they suggest that the 400-year history of post-Reformation national days of prayer is set to continue.

Natalie Mears is a senior lecturer in early modern British history at the University of Durham and the author of Queenship and Political Discourse in the Elizabethan Realms.


This article was first published in the April 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine