'Put Your Trust in God': National Days of Prayer in the Two World Wars

This week in the House of Commons DUP Member of Parliament Jim Shannon called for a National Day of Prayer in recognition of the Covid-19 pandemic. He's not the first to do so: similar calls were made when Britain first locked down in March and a current change.org petition has 65,000 signatures.

While national prayers have been a British tradition since at least the sixteenth century, the modern conception of the 'National Day of Prayer' has its roots in the First World War. A reaction to national crisis, the first 'National Day' was held on the first Sunday of 1915, the 3rd of January. King George V described the day as a 'call for united prayer, intercession, thanksgiving, and for those who have fallen in the country's cause'.

War-related themes of intercession and thanksgiving were common in Church prayers, yet this dedicated day would mark a coming together of dedicated focus, reflecting the importance of the war in national life. This was also to be a day to pause and reflect. A letter published in The Times on behalf of the King  stated that 'His Majesty feels confident that on the day employers will do their utmost to reduce Sunday labour as far as practicable, so that all may have the opportunity to attend the service and take part'. At a time when production was an urgent requirement, this was no small request. Yet, such was seen as the importance of the National Day.

The First National Day of Prayer marked a new form of public worship, which blended the religious with the civic. As Philip Williamson has argued in his brilliant article on the subject, the Day 'created a tacit alliance between the churches, the monarchy and the government which sustained the public role of religion ... and endorsed a non-sectarian form of public religion which had considerable ideological significance'. Although initiated and organised by church leaders, the endorsement of both the Prime Minister and the King were essential to making a collective day into a national one, imbuing it with importance from the national leaders.

But the creation of the National Days went further than this. Not only did they cross the divide of religious and civic, but they also brought together all of the church denominations with a united focus. The First World War was a time of developing ecumenism throughout Britain, although much of this was motivated by the Protestant churches. The Days of Prayer went one step further, bringing in the Catholic Church with the same commitment. This, Williamson has argued, 'established an entirely new co-operation between the principal churches in all parts of the United Kingdom'. As plans for the first Day were circulated across the Empire, the Catholic churches in France and Belgium also lent their support, holding their own special prayers. This truly was something new. England, with its established church, had always worked with the Anglican church, but here was a new level of co-operation, with churches in Scotland, throughout the dominions and, indeed, within Europe.

On 3rd January 1915, the King and Queen were at Sandringham where they attended a special church service. In cities across the UK processions were held in connection with the services. In Exeter, for example, the procession departed the Guildhall and made its way to the Cathedral, thereby illustrating the connection fostered between the institutions of society. At a smaller event in Poole, the mayor and the sheriff attended the evening service at St. Peter's Church, accompanied by the fire service, twenty members of the parish council and members of the town band. It can therefore be seen that the Day was one of local significance, as public figures made efforts to pay their respects and participate in the national cause.

The success of this first day led to its repetition throughout the war. The New Year became a moment where such reflection and recommitment to the cause was deemed fitting and a National Day of Prayer was again called for 2nd January 1916 and New Year's Day 1917. The outbreak of war was also commemorated with a National Day and there were further calls, usually made by religious figures writing to the newspapers, requesting additional Days, usually to follow major battles, including the capture of Gaza. 

The final National Day of Prayer associated with the First World War was held on 6th July 1919 to mark the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty. However, in this instance the focus of prayer coincided with wider Peace Day celebrations, bringing the element of thanksgiving to local and national ceremonies.

After the war, many of the trends developed in the National Days infused services of remembrance. The blending of religious and civic life, of the vicar and mayor side by side in ceremony are key elements of now-traditional remembrance occasions. In larger towns and cities the ecumenism of the occasion is broadened to become multi-faith, bringing together divergent worshippers for a common cause.

National Day of Prayer
IWM (Art.IWM PST 14795)

Two decades later, the National Days of Prayer were reintroduced to help Britain through the Second World War. The first was held on 26th May 1940. It had been hastily called by King George VI just a few days prior as these were desperate days. Across the English Channel, the Allied retreat was well underway and the evacuation of Dunkirk was just beginning. For some, the holding of a National Day of Prayer, where the sole focus was the safety of the nation's troops - indeed, the nation's sons - was crucial in contributing to the the 'miracle of Dunkirk', where more than 300,000 were safely rescued from France.

Afterwards, the Days of Prayer were held with more regularity than they were during the First World War. The second followed on  8th September, during the Battle of Britain. The last one during the war was held just before the D Day landings, demonstrating how the Second World War calls for national prayer far more reflected the events of war than the passing of time, which characterised those of the First.

During the Second World War, the National Days of Prayer were bolstered by developing technology, with BBC radio playing special programming to contribute to the prayers. This enabled more people to participate, bringing the occasion into their homes and adding to the sense of a national event involving everyone. If there is something in the conceptions of the 'Blitz spirit' and the 'Dunkirk spirit' then it can be seen in the commitment to national prayer, when people came together with a united cause to aid the war. However, much of this was engineered by the government, who took on a greater role in the promotion of the National Days, including through extensive effort by the Ministry of Information.

The last National Day of Prayer was held on 6th July 1947 in the days following Molotov's rejection of the Marshall Plan and the resulting split between East and West. In announcing the day, the Right Rev. Dr JM Mackenzie of the Church of Scotland wrote that 'there was never a time in history ... when humanity seemed so completely at end of its resources and when the dependence of God seemed so obvious'. Debates between the government and the churches had been going on for most of the year in determining when to hold the Day and it was coincidental, if not divinely determined, that the 6th July became such a pivotal week in European history.

Since then, with the national position of the churches in recession, no National Days have been held.  However, it has been said many times in recent months that today the United Kingdom is facing a crisis the likes of which it has not seen since the Second World War. So maybe now is the time to resurrect the National Day of Prayer. Yet, it would seem today almost anachronistic for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to call for one. Despite this, we still witness the themes of unity in public worship and the legacy of the Days as we reflect on Remembrance Sunday. Believers or not, such ceremonies bring local and national focus for the common aim of remembering those who fought and fell in war.



Title image: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/23904
Aberdeen Journal
The Times
Western Gazette
Western Times

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this post. It is nearly Easter 2024... whether official or unofficial there is a rising swell of prayer for our nation and beyond. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." (Psalm 111:10) "There is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12).