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Durham University

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Publication details for Professor Philip Williamson

Williamson, Philip (2013). National days of prayer: the churches, the state and public worship in Britain 1899-1957. English Historical Review 128(531): 324-366.

Author(s) from Durham


A terrible war had been followed by a harsh winter: trade was poor, money was scarce, and food, fuel and other essentials were in short supply. Extraordinary measures seemed necessary, so the king on the advice of his archbishop and chief minister summoned his people to observe a day of prayer to Almighty God. In every community in the kingdom large congregations attended special religious services, and in London the king and queen joined other leaders of the realm in worship at St Paul’s Cathedral.

This was not an episode in medieval or early modern times. The king was George VI, the year was 1947 and the chief minister was Clement Attlee, whose government is more frequently associated with entirely secular solutions to the nation’s difficulties. God has not, so far, featured in histories of Labour governments. Nor have other national days of prayer in early twentieth-century Britain received more than incidental historical comments, even in studies of religion and the churches. As exceptional events, arranged in times of unusual strain or celebration, they have seemed tangential to investigation of longer term trends and have fallen between the concerns of different historical specialisms. Yet national days of prayer were considerable public occasions, with a significance and influence well beyond their infrequent occurrence. An understanding of these occasions of special worship explains much about the place of the churches and religion in public life in modern Britain.