The famous rhyme associated with bonfire night, or Guy Fawkes day, begins, “Remember, remember, the 5th of November.” It’s repeated thousands of times at this time of year. After all, who’d want to forget a celebration that involved lighting huge fires and shooting rockets into the air?
But the fact is, Britain has forgotten. Not the story of what November 5 celebrates, but how this day was originally celebrated—what it is all about. We’ve forgotten the most important part of what this day is meant to remind us.
Almost every year at school, I was taught what happened on November 5. A group of Catholic terrorists conspired to destroy the government of England. They filled the cellars under the houses of Parliament with gunpowder, ready to detonate on the State Opening of Parliament, November 5. Their main target was the protestant King James i. But on that day, the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the king’s close advisers and relatives, which included the most senior judges in the kingdom and the bishops of the Church of England, were all gathered in the same building.
Had Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators succeeded, it would have been as if terrorists hit the White House, the Pentagon, the Supreme Court, the Senate and the Congress—as well as taking out a good chunk of America’s religious leaders.
It almost happened. But in late October, according to the traditional version of events, Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend Parliament. He alerted the authorities, who discovered Guy Fawkes in the cellars with barrels of gunpowder on the night of November 4.
That much is remembered. But the nation’s response has been completely forgotten. In all my history lessons on the subject, I’d never heard of it.
In early 1606, the government passed a law so that the events of November 5 would be memorialized forever. Why? So that “this unfeigned thankfulness may never be forgotten, but be had in a perpetual remembrance, that all ages to come may yield praises” to God.
Parliament gave God the credit for their deliverance. “This great and infinite blessing” they wrote, came “merely from God.” All the “honor, glory and praise” went to His “most holy name.”
November 5 was set aside as a day of thanksgiving—the original annual day of Thanksgiving, 16 years before the pilgrims celebrated their harvest in Plymouth. The Act of Parliament commanded all in England to pray on that day, to “give unto Almighty God thanks for this most happy deliverance.”
Bonfire night wasn’t about remembering gunpowder and plots, or setting off fireworks. It was a day to thank God for the blessings He had given the nation, and for His divine protection in preserving those blessings.
The celebrations with fires and rockets aren’t wrong. And they do seem to have been a part of how the day was originally celebrated. But thanking God for His deliverance is far more important.
The plot may sound a little kooky, but it came frighteningly close to success. Guy Fawkes used 20 times the amount of gunpowder necessary to destroy the building. That gunpowder had been sitting in the cellars since February, when Parliament was originally scheduled to open. The opening was repeatedly delayed, forcing Fawkes to continually replace the old gunpowder with new supplies, until the plot was finally discovered eight months later.
Had Parliament opened on time, the last 400 years could have been dramatically different.
But it’s not just the originally meaning of Bonfire Night that we’ve forgotten. We no longer give thanks to God.
We used to. As recently as World War ii, our leaders gave God credit for miracles of deliverance. But we don’t talk about that today.
A few weeks ago, I visited Dover Castle. As well as being an impressive medieval fortress, it also served as naval headquarters in 1940, when British and French soldiers were evacuated from Dunkirk. There, organizers have done a great job of memorializing the evacuation, creating an exhibit that succinctly shows the magnitude of what happened on those beaches and reminding the world of the heroism shown by so many to bring so many safely to England.
But there’s something, or rather someone, completely missing from the exhibit: God. The Dunkirk evacuation was just one of several occasions when the nation gathered to give thanks to God for His deliverance. But that history was absent.
“Some people may call the Dunkirk evacuation a miracle,” said our tour guide, “but I put it down to the organization of Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay.” Their website is more brazen. “Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay pulled off a miracle,” it says.
I’m sure Admiral Ramsay was a remarkable man. But God pulled off the miracle.
The exhibit neglected to mention that on May 26, 1940, the king called for a day of national prayer. Shops closed as the Church of England, the Catholic Church, Jews and other religions appealed to God for help. The Times described how the king and queen attended the service at Westminster Abby, with Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, along with the prime minister and all the leaders of Britain. “In the cities and towns leaders of civic life attended church on this Day of National Prayer at the head of their people,” the Times wrote. “From peaceful village churches in the remote countryside the same prayers were offered, just as in these fateful hours the same thoughts are in people’s minds.” Afterward, the archbishop of Canterbury called on everyone to pause at noon every day and pray for deliverance.
The exhibit rightly praised the bravery of the men who flocked to Dunkirk in their little ships. But I saw no mention of the remarkable weather. As the Daily Telegraph wrote on July 8, 1940, “Those who are accustomed to the Channel testify to the strangeness of this calm; they are deeply impressed by the phenomenon of nature by which it became possible for tiny craft to go back and forth in safety.”
“I have talked to officers and men who have gotten safely back to England, and all of them tell of these two phenomena,” continued the article. “The first was the great storm which broke over Flanders on Tuesday, May 28, and the other was the great calm which settled on the English Channel during the days following.” The storm grounded the German aircraft, while the calm allowed the little ships to sail to France.
“The fortitude displayed and the success achieved are to me, at least, miracles and an answer to the prayers which rose up from the Empire, and from millions outside it on May 26. Let us not forget to return thanks” read one letter to the Times.
“Surely our prayers have been answered in the merciful deliverance of our Expeditionary Force from complete destruction?” another letter said. “Thanksgiving is surely as important as supplication, and there must be many who feel, like myself, that we ought to have a special day of thanksgiving to God for His wonderful answer to our prayers.” The Times wrote that these letters “are two out of a very large number addressed to the Times in the same sense.”
On June 9, Britain went back to church for a national day of thanksgiving. “One thing can be certain about tomorrow’s thanksgiving in our churches,” wrote the Telegraph. “From none will the thanks ascend with greater sincerity or deeper fervor than from the officers and men who have seen the hand of God, powerful to save, delivering them from the hands of a mighty foe, who, humanly speaking, had them utterly at his mercy.”
Even Time Magazine spotted the connection. “Since the beginning of the war, Great Britain has observed two national Days of Prayer,” it wrote, April 7, 1941. “The first was the dark Sunday, May 26, 1940, when the fagged-out British Expeditionary Force was fleeing under torrential Nazi fire toward Dunkirk beach. Five days later most of that Army got safely home through the fogs off Dunkirk.” At the start of the evacuation, the most optimistic estimates said that Britain would be able to rescue 45,000 men. The final total was 338,000.
Britain’s top newspapers joined the call for a national day of prayer and then gave thanks to God. This is an important part of that history—something that touched every individual in the nation. Thanksgiving was once a part of our national life. It isn’t any more. That history has been forgotten.
That’s not to say that Britain genuinely repented back in World War ii, or earlier. But at least we thanked God for His help and blessings.
And it’s not just Britain that’s forgotten thanksgiving. America may have a day called “Thanksgiving,” but to many people it has about as much to do with thanking God for His blessings as Bonfire Night does.
This lack of thanksgiving gets to the heart of Britain’s problems. We have forgotten God. We don’t thank Him, we don’t look to Him for protection and we certainly won’t obey Him. That is why there’s a time of great suffering awaiting the British and American people. Conditions will keep getting worse until the nation has no choice but to turn to God for help and guidance.
At that time, with all nations looking to Him, God will be able to create utopia—a wonderful world with bounty for all. His laws lead to all humanity living a joyful way of life.
Then, as the Americans say, it really will be Thanksgiving every day. ▪