Praying for Britain: the history of national days of prayer

Mar 16, 2020 by

from History Extra:

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.

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