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Wars, famines — and pandemics      

03 April 2020

Philip Williamson surveys the history of national days of prayer during times of crisis


Queen Elizabeth with the Dean of Westminster, Paul de Labilliere (a former Bishop of Knaresborough), and King George VI leave Westminster Abbey on a national day of prayer in May 1940

Queen Elizabeth with the Dean of Westminster, Paul de Labilliere (a former Bishop of Knaresborough), and King George VI leave Westminster...

THE “national day of prayer and action” which was called by British church leaders on Mothering Sunday in response to the coronavirus pandemic (News, 20 March) was the latest in a long Christian tradition of special acts of worship.

There were numerous examples in medieval England; and, from the Reformation to the mid-20th century, such acts were appointed for general observance in the kingdoms of the British Isles during periods of crisis. Thanksgivings were held at times of celebration. Nearly 900 of these occasions have been identified by the British State Prayers project at Durham University.

Their history reveals much about changing Church-State relations and theological beliefs, and the modern growth of ecumenism and the decline of religion in public life. The subjects included royal events, rebellions, wars, battles, peace treaties, droughts, floods, famines, harvests, fires, earthquakes — and pandemics.


NATIONAL acts of special worship could be either particular prayers or whole church services. Until the 1850s, the services were for use on special fast or thanksgiving days. These were usually ordered by royal proclamation, for observance by the whole population. As they were often appointed for weekdays, all work was suspended as on Sundays.

In England and Wales, and in Ireland, these prayers and services involved departures from the Book of Common Prayer. New texts were supplied by special forms of prayer, long series of which are often found in parish records.

The original rationale for these occasions was provided by the conceptions of “special providences” and divine judgements, drawn especially from Old Testament examples of afflictions suffered under the kings of Israel. Dislocations in the natural world as well as in human affairs were seen as God’s punishments for the collective sins of the kingdom, to be assuaged by simultaneous penitence, petitionary prayers, and promises of repentance. 

A preface in the forms of prayer used during plague epidemics in the 16th and 17th centuries declared:

We be taught by many and sundry examples of holy Scriptures, that upon occasion of particular punishments, afflictions, and perils, which God of his most just judgement has some times sent among his people to show his wrath against sin, and to call his people to repentance and to the redress of their lives: the godly have been provoked and stirred up to more fervency and diligence in prayer, fasting, and alms deeds, to a more deep consideration of their consciences, to ponder their unthankfulness and forgetfulness of God’s merciful benefits towards them, with craving of pardon for the time past, and to ask his assistance for the time to come to live more godly, and so to be defended and delivered from all further perils & dangers. . . (1563)

As the penitence, petitions, and promises of repentance had to be fulsome and deeply felt, the forms of prayer were elaborate and lengthy, running to scores of pages, with new services for matins, litany, and evening prayer containing the full texts of biblical lessons and psalms, long homilies or exhortations, and special prayers expressed in hundreds of words.

One prayer in 1603 began:

O Lord our God most gracious and merciful, we most miserable wretches humbly beseech thee in mercy and compassion to behold our grievous afflictions; for thine indignation lieth hard upon us, thine arrows stick fast in us, and the venom thereof doeth drinke up our spirits, and thy terrors do fight against us. We confess (O Lord) that these thy judgements are just: for we have multiplied our transgressions like the sand of the sea, and the cry of them hath been so great, that it hath pierced the Heavens, and called for vengeance against us. But yet we beseech thee, O Lord, forget not thou to be gracious, and shut not up thy loving kindness in displeasure: turn thee again at the last, and be gracious unto thy servants. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy Name: O deliver vs, & be mercifull unto our sinnes for thy names sake: take thy plague away from us, for wee are even consumed by the means of thy heavy hand: cause thine Angel to sheath his sword againe, and preserve thou those which are appointed to die. …

The plague forms contained an “order for the fast”, setting out how the fast days were to be observed. Prayers and fast days were also ordered as pandemics seemed to be approached from continental Europe.  A prayer used on a fast day for averting a spread of the plague across the English Channel in 1720 included the phrases:

O Lord, thine Arrows are gone abroad; they stick fast in the flesh of Multitudes round about us. The Pestilence rageth in their Streets; it goeth about seeking whom it may devour. No Strength can stand against it; it threatens to make whole Cities desolate. And shouldst thou suffer it to spread unto us, and bring us to the dust of Death; yet must we acknowledge, that Righteous art thou, O Lord, and just are thy Judgments. But, O merciful Father, suffer not thy destroying Angel to come among us. Remove this great Calamity from those whom thou hast visited with it: Give them all the Means that are necessary, or may be useful, to their Preservation. Hear their Groans, and bind up their Sores: Comfort them that are Sick; Preserve them that are Well; Receive them that Die to thy Mercy; and grant that both they, and we, whether in Life or Death, may be made Partakers of thy Heavenly Blessings. Keep us, whom thou hast hitherto preserved from this contagious Distemper, in Health and Safety. Thou killest, and makest alive; thou bringest down to the grave, and raisest up again: O let us live, and we will praise thy Name, and thy Judgments shall teach us!

The end of the crisis showed that God had been appeased, whereupon orders were issued for prayers, or days, of thanksgiving. 
A thanksgiving prayer at the end of an outbreak of cholera in 1849 read:

Accept, we beseech Thee, O merciful God, the praises and thanksgivings of Thy people, whom Thou has graciously relieved from the sore judgment of grievous sickness and mortality which has lately afflicted our land. Incline us to devote to Thy service the lives which Thou hast spared; and so enlighten our understandings and purify our affections by Thy Holy Spirit, that we may learn from Thy judgments to fear Thy wrath above all things, and may be led by Thy goodness to love Thee with our whole heart, through Jesus Christ our Lord.


FAST days were ordered during nine plague pandemics from 1563 to 1721, for weekly, monthly, or annual observance. Only gradually was it understood that meetings could spread the plague. In 1636, the royal proclamation ordering the fast days stated that, in infected places, the only permitted meetings were for the church services, and that ministers should not

detain their assemblies any longer together to hear either Sermons or other Divine Service, because such detaining of the people so long together may prove dangerous to the further increase of the Sickness. And further, that all other Duties of Prayer and Humiliation requisite to the keeping of such a Fast, be observed by every person in their private Families, at home.

National acts of worship were not just ordered during diseases in humans. In the mid-18th century, daily prayers were even maintained for nine years during a “plague” (rinderpest) among cattle.

In the 19th century, however, special worship during natural disasters gradually ceased. Prayers and a fast day were appointed during a cholera pandemic in 1831-32, but only prayers during a further outbreak in 1849 and during epidemics of both cholera and cattle plague in 1865-66.

With advancing scientific knowledge and changing theological beliefs, it was no longer believed that divine intervention alone could halt disease. The natural world was now regarded as a realm of “general providence”, of a generally beneficent divine order in which God had given humankind the capability to understand, overcome, avoid, or minimise natural disasters.

Lord Palmerston as Home Secretary outraged Evangelicals when, during a cholera outbreak in 1853, he publicly rejected requests for a fast day, declaring that the solution lay with better sanitation and public health. National acts of special worship were not proposed during the 1918 influenza pandemic. While individual bishops and clergy might encourage prayers, the purpose now was to ask God’s assistance in human efforts to care for the sick and find medical solutions, and to console the bereaved.


STATE orders for national acts of special worship assumed that the whole population were members of the Established Churches. By the mid-19th century, this was manifestly anachronistic. Other Churches rejected state orders in religious matters on principle, even if, in practice, they observed the occasions on their own terms.

An increasingly liberal State, sensitive to theological changes and religious plurality, ended these orders for the whole nation, and left any appointments of special worship to the decision of the various Churches.

This state withdrawal made it possible during the First World War for Archbishop Davidson to create a new form of special worship, “national days of prayer”. Organised by consultation among leaders of the main British Churches and with the public approval of King George V, these brought large numbers of the general public into the churches.

During the Second World War, they were nominally initiated by King George VI, with the approval of Winston Churchill and his Cabinet. Some churchmen credited national days of prayer with securing divine intervention for German defeats in 1918, the Munich agreement in 1938, and the “deliverance” of Dunkirk in 1940. For others, however, including Archbishop William Temple, the purpose of the nation’s prayers was not to seek a change in God’s will, but to gain the discernment and dedication for its fulfilment.

Prayers were now very different in style to those of previous centuries, notably with inclusion of intercessions on behalf of particular members of the nation and the wider world, as in 1942:      

  We bring to thee, O God our Father, all our desires, our needs and our hopes; praying first for our

  King and Queen, that they may be strengthened with courage and hope, through the assurance of   

  their people’s loyalty and love:

For all the Ministers of State, especially the Prime Minister; for all the Parliaments in the

   Dominions; and for the leaders of our Allies: that they may be wise to think, bold to plan,

   and swift to act:

For the leaders of the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force, and for all the men of the Forces

   and the Merchant Navy; especially for all who have gone out from this place, and those

   that are near and dear to ourselves:

For all civilian workers who help, by day and night, to protect our homes and our lives; and

   for all who are bearing the burden of long hours and heavy labour:

For all children, widows, and prisoners of war; for the sick and wounded, and for the

chaplains, doctors and nurses who minister to them; for the mourners and the anxious; and for all who

are desolate and oppressed:

For those who have been driven from their homes by the enemy, and have lost all that once

was theirs:

For all those whose lands are now under enemy rule, and for all who are being persecuted

for the faith in Christ:

 And we remember before thee the fallen in battle, and all who have lost their lives through

 enemy action; praying that they may be accounted worthy to share the vision of thy
  beauty, and to find light and joy in the heavenly places:

  That thou wilt raise up men of wisdom and power both in Church and State, to proclaim

   and do thy holy will:

   That it may please thee to make an end of all wars; to bring to birth the brotherhood of man

    in all the world, and to set up on earth thy kingdom of justice and love:

 That in thy love and pity thou wilt forgive all our weakness, our failures, and our neglect;

   and so fill us, and all for whom we have prayed, with thy Spirit that we may be worthy of

   victory and a lasting peace.


WHEN church attendance fell in the post-war period, church leaders came to accept the unreality of asking the whole nation to participate in special acts of worship. The last national day of prayer endorsed by the King and Government was for the economic crisis of 1947. During the 1950s and 1960s, Archbishops Fisher and Ramsey discouraged national appeals for prayer, instead urging continuous special prayer among churchgoers. When appeals for “national” days of prayer were occasionally revived in the 1970s, church leaders addressed only part of the nation: the religiously observant.

From 1915 to 1947, national days of prayer were normally appointed for Sundays, but in 1942 and 1943 Temple persuaded the coalition government to allow observance on weekdays, enabling new and wider types of participation. As well as church services outside work hours, a 15-minute daytime break in war production and all other work was organised, so that everyone could listen to a special religious service broadcast by the BBC. In March 2020, the national day of prayer was still more exceptional, without public services and observed in private homes.

Dr Philip Williamson is Professor of Modern British History at Durham University.

National Prayers: Special worship since the Reformation is published in four volumes by the Church of England Record Society and Boydell. Volume 3, Worship for National and Royal Occasions in the United Kingdom, 1871-2016, edited by Philip Williamson, Stephen Taylor, Alasdair Raffe, and Natalie Mears, will be published later this year. Copies of the National Prayers volumes can be purchased at a substantial discount by subscribing to the Church of England Record Society

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