When war broke out between Britain and Germany in August 1914, the British nation prayed. Special services took place across all denominations, attracting large congregations, beginning with two days of intercession. Randall Davidson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, supported by King George V then called a national day of prayer on the first Sunday of 1915, which brought together leaders and people across the churches. This was the first of a number of such days during the War, with a national day of prayer on a Sunday close to the new year becoming customary for the remaining years of the war, and special services also taking place on the anniversary of war breaking out. After the Armistice there were spontaneous and crowded thanksgiving services in churches throughout Britain, and further prayers of thanksgiving in July 1919 after the Versailles Treaty was signed.
It seems that prayer and action worked hand in hand. Leaders played an important role in this, both inside and outside of the church. Philip Williamson tells us that on the weekend of the national day of prayer in 1916, for example, ‘preparatory prayers were recommended for the preceding Friday and Saturday, and mayors and provosts throughout the United Kingdom agreed to organise formal civic attendance at the principal church services in their cities or towns, and to “urge their fellow-citizens to a right and worthy observance of the day.”’
Williamson notes that ‘The war anniversary in August 1918, which fell on a Sunday, was appointed as an additional national day of prayer, and the two houses of Parliament, by formal resolutions, joined the king and queen in a special service in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. In Davidson’s words, this “official attendance” at worship by the nation’s leaders would mark “our prayer, our confession, our thanksgiving in the most deliberate way possible as a national act.”’ And it did.
Some fasted as part of their religious observance, with the King, Lloyd George (who became Prime Minister in 1916) and General Kitchener taking a pledge not to consume any alcohol during the war, which the King kept until the cessation of hostilities and Kitchener until his death in 1916.
It’s easy for all this prayer to be overlooked or discarded as unimportant today, but that was not how it was seen a century ago. Our forebears knew it was crucial that our nation prayed.
So what role did prayer play in the helping Britain win the Great War? That question is impossible to answer. What we can say with certainty is that prayer on its own was not what won the war. Because the Germans prayed too, as did the other nations involved in the war. The Kaiser said at the outbreak of war ‘Forward with God who is with us’. The German Lutheran church, held Kriegsbetstunden – war prayer hours – every evening of the week in Berlin. All sides understandably prayed for victory, with the church in Germany particularly promoting and supporting the war. In Britain the response was less triumphalist with formal prayers thoughtfully worded, especially praying for peace to come soon so that, as the Archbishop of York, Cosmo Gordon Lang said, ‘the nation, speaking through its responsible authorities, (could) corporatively express its trust in God and desire to fulfil His Will.’
Clearly not everyone’s prayers were answered – at least not as they hoped. Germany’s prayers to triumph were not realised. Many on both sides prayed for loved ones to be kept safe, but were killed. Lots of questions about God, faith and prayer were raised during the war that often weren’t answered helpfully or at all. Some particularly struggled with how two supposed Christian nations could both be praying for victory while fighting such a bloody and brutal war against each other with seeming little concern for loss of life. This created a crisis of faith in many, from which some never recovered. Church leaders at home and at the front were not prepared for this and often not equipped to know how to help people. The church had much to learn, and still does. It’s good to be encouraged to pray in faith, but it’s also important to have helpful resources to offer people when prayers seem unanswered. Both were needed a century ago. Both are needed in the church today.
Looking back now, our overtly prayerful nation of a century ago feels rather different to the more secular Britain of today, where the role of the church in society is much diminished, other religions are tolerated and welcomed and many claim no religious allegiance at all. Indeed church-going in the UK has declined year by year over the last one hundred years. And yet surveys consistently show that British people pray. They pray not only in churches but also at home or when out walking in the countryside. Prayer is still part of our make-up and it seems is increasingly being talked about today. In fact a BBC survey published less than two months ago on miracles showed that nearly half those surveyed said they’ve prayed for a miracle, and over three in five adults said they believe in miracles, with the number rising to nearly three-quarters when it comes to young people aged 18-24.
As a church leader with a passion for prayer, I’m sure our nation’s humble prayers a century ago were not insignificant during the First World War. Despite there being much mystery to prayer I believe Pete Greig is right when he says that ‘the rusty hinge of human history turns out to be the bended knee.’ Leaders today would do well to consider this and to pray, or at the very least, to try praying.
When we pray it’s good to pray prayers informed by the Bible. A good place to start, it seems to me, would be with the words of Jesus, where he says ‘love your enemies’ (Matthew 5:44). After that try 2 Chronicles 7:14, where God says: ‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.’
If you’re a leader, what are you praying for? And how are you praying for the people you lead? And what are you encouraging them to pray?
The history has made me realise that my conclusions and decisions after prayer (not just ‘their’ prayers) might still be flawed. Many think that the Treaty included elements which made fertile ground for WW2
Love your enemies is easier on an individual basis by ‘doing good to those who persecute you’. If only nations would too.