80th Anniversary of the Nation being called to Prayer
Updated: May 20
In May 1940, King George VI called a worried nation to prayer. The previous three weeks had witnessed a relentless drive by the Nazi regime across much of Western Europe. Lightning fast military manoeuvres – Blitzkrieg - had resulted in the capitulation of Belgium and the Netherlands, with France on the verge of surrender.
Appearing unstoppable, the Germans had driven a wedge between the Allied armies, with the British now being squeezed towards the channel ports of Calais and Dunkirk. The destruction of the United Kingdom’s professional soldiery appeared inevitable. Churchill’s Government and the Royal Navy made plans for an evacuation. Only a miracle could save the trapped Allied soldiers.
It was against this backdrop that His Majesty King George VI requested that the Nation “…turn to God in a spirit of repentance and plead for Divine help.” The population responded en-masse. In Cathedrals, churches, mission halls and private homes, thousands turned to God and sought deliverance. Their prayers were answered. Storm clouds filled the skies above Dunkirk, preventing the Luftwaffe from attacking the besieged British forces, and the calmness of the English Channel allowed a flotilla of small boats to join the Royal Navy in the evacuation of over 300,000 British, French and Belgian troops. Operation Dynamo was a resounding success. Light would continue to shine against the forces of darkness.
There were extraordinary scenes across the country on that 26 May 1940. Thousands of people quietly queued to attend services and prayer meetings. The response to the King’s call was remarkable. In some places Churches were unable to cope with the numbers attending special services.
Reflecting on these events, and several other ‘Days of Prayer’ held during the Second World War, the Bishop of Chelmsford remarked “If ever a great nation was on the point of supreme and final disaster, and yet was saved and reinstated, it was ourselves…it does not require an exceptionally religious mind to detect in all this the Hand of God.”
There were two further national days of prayer during the Second World War. On 3 September 1944, the fifth anniversary of the start of the war, special services were broadcast by the BBC. Dr. William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury led the nation in prayerful reflection, thanksgiving, and a desire to ensure that people would truly change their ways after deliverance. “We look forward to victory as something within our grasp, and beyond victory to the use that should be made of it. We are concerned with the spirit in which we shall enter upon the new era. For it must be a new era; otherwise we shall have failed.” Those behind the initiatives wanted to involve as many people as possible and employ the latest technology.
The idea of bringing a nation together for prayer was not a new one. Encouraging society to join in a collective act of penitence and request for deliverance had been a feature of life in the British Isles since the arrival of Christianity. At times of crisis, rulers and governments appealed for the whole population to unite in requesting God’s intervention. Such communal acts of penitence and request were also followed by periods thanksgiving.
Special prayers were produced during the war against Spain in 1597; a day of solemn humiliation and fasting after the Great Fire of London in 1666; and even in the wake of economic crisis such as the collapse of the Darien Schemes in 1701 (this had been an attempt to create Scottish trading colonies in Panama). Nor were these ‘national days’ always characterised by formal prayers in churches. In April 1789 a royal procession heralded the recovery of King George III from illness, while the coronation of King Edward VII was celebrated with sports days and tea parties. Despite their differing forms, prayer was a central act of focus for the people.
Our history is littered with periods of plague, threatened invasion, natural disaster, famine, and hardship. On such occasions the people turned to God for assurance and rescue. Why? Because they believed. They knew that nothing can be achieved through human endeavour alone. Moreover, such acts of worship were not just about ‘turning on the tap of help when the basin was dry’. They were always part of a wider thanksgiving for God’s help, guidance, and deliverance. There was also an acknowledgement that all things, good or bad, happened for a reason – there was always a higher power at work.
During the Nineteenth Century the State had largely shied away from announcing national days of prayer but other organisations ensured such a practice continued. In the case of the Orange Family, two anniversaries – originally celebrated through national acts of prayer and thanksgiving – have been incorporated into annual practice. Acts of thanksgiving to God for deliverance from the Gunpowder Plot (1605) and the Glorious Revolution (1689-1691) remain a central part of the annual Orange calendar.
In the Twentieth Century, National Days of Prayer, were an opportunity to take the Word of God beyond the formal settings of a Church building. In 1942 Archbishop Temple made a short film to be played in cinemas as part of an initiative “…to take the Church to the people.” In the same fashion the BBC carried services and announcements with worker permitted to pause for reflection on the factory floor. It had happened before. In both 1943 and 1944 the factories paused as workers joined with the rest of the Nation to listen to broadcasts and ask for prayerful deliverance. The use of new technology was key.
The introduction of the printing press had been employed in previous efforts of national penitence and thanksgiving. This had allowed specially commissioned prayers to be circulated to a wider audience, especially in an era before broadcast media. It also meant that individuals did not have to attend the formal act of worship to take part in the National endeavour. During the Indian Mutiny (1857) over one million copies of the special commissioned prayer were sold to the public.
Days of Prayer or reflection were also a characteristic of a people who were more in tune with their Christian beliefs. The fog of secularism and consumerism had not displaced the sovereignty of the Word of God. Prayer was not employed as petitioning for mere petitioning sake. God was part and parcel of everyday life. The words of Romans 8 verse 8 had real meaning - “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
The current Covid-19 crisis has recently been described as a war against an unseen enemy. Although not a true reflection of Ephesians 6 verse 12 “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood…” our current situation certainly does capture the spirit of a struggle against what we cannot control. Down through the centuries the population have been encouraged to turn to God in times of War and strife – the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo; the Jacobite Risings; cholera outbreaks, the Great famine, to name but a few.
In May 1940 King George VI called on all British people to pray for deliverance against apparently unwinnable odds. But God is not on the side of the big battalions, he is on the side of those who turn to him, those who truly believe, and those who live out his word in their everyday lives. In 1940 a Nation responded, a Nation appealed for help, a Nation rejoiced with genuine thankfulness for deliverance, and a Nation changed its ways. Perhaps in 2020, we should do the same.
Crowds queuing to pray at Westminster Abbey
* Resources: Images from Wikimedia Commons and Canon J John.