“Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November.” Many English-speakers know this rhyme (though can you finish it?). Millennial Americans likely know it from the 2006 film V for Vendetta (adapted from the graphic novel), which took Guy Fawkes and made the original villain a hero set against a government meant to be a critique of the George W. Bush administration. The film directed special ire at that Administration’s supposedly theocratic aspirations, calling instead for an anti-statism grounded in secular and progressive values.
This is highly ironic: Guy Fawkes was no anti-theocrat, but was rather involved in competing visions for a very prominent role for Christianity in public affairs. The British holiday of Guy Fawkes Night receives its name from events surrounding the “Gunpowder Plot.” In 1605, a group of Roman Catholics–Guido Fawkes among them–frustrated by the suppression of their faith by James I, pledged to overthrow the Protestant government and install a regime more aligned with Rome. The men placed dozens of barrels of gunpowder in a cellar beneath the House of Lords. Guy Fawkes was then tasked with lighting the fuse at the State Opening of Parliament, scheduled for November 5th, 1605, when both houses and King James would be in attendance. The plot was discovered and, in the early hours of November 5th, foiled. The conspirators were either killed in attempts to apprehend them or, once apprehended, brought to execution.
On May 25th, 1606, King James assented to a bill mandating the observance of every November 5th as a day of thanksgiving for God’s mercy in foiling the Gunpowder Plot. For more than two centuries this holiday was a required observance for the state-established church. The day has an American history, too, with Boston and New York in particular celebrating it during colonial times as “Pope’s Day” (ironically named). Fireworks, bonfires, parades, food, and burning straw effigies of Fawkes (or the Pope) all formed part of the annual celebrations.
With time, the holiday’s religious and political meaning became obscured and even critiqued. Parliament repealed the Act requiring its observance in 1859 due to lessening antipathy towards Roman Catholicism as well as the day’s lost focus. Though now largely ignored in the United States, Guy Fawkes Night still gets celebrated in the United Kingdom, though shorn of any religious or political connotations and largely referred to now as “Bonfire Night” or “Fireworks Night.”
Does the original Guy Fawkes Night, then, hold any remaining relevance in 2023–particularly in America? Or does it stand as at best an historical curiosity for Great Britain and Anglophiles, at worst a painful mark of theocratic English bigotry toward Roman Catholics?
The first answer is the right one–there are ongoing benefits of commemorating November 5th on both sides of the Atlantic. That famous rhyme exhorts us to remember, and I contend that there are three important political theological lessons which Guy Fawkes Night teaches us: God’s purposes for government; God’s providence over government; and God’s preservation of government.
To understand these points, we will engage with the liturgy for the 5th of November developed by the Church of England, as found in its 1662 Book of Common Prayer (available here). Or, to give the liturgy its full name: “A FORM of PRAYER with THANKSGIVING to be used yearly upon the Fifth Day of November; for the happy Deliverance of King JAMES I, and the Three EStates of ENGLAND , from the most traiterous and bloody-intended Massacre by Gunpowder: And also for the happy Arrival of His Majesty King WILLIAM on this Day, for the Deliverance of our Church and Nation.”
This liturgy communicated to Church of England parishioners in a three-fold manner: words to pray, Scripture to hear, and a sermon or homily to digest. In each element of prayer, reading, and preaching, this service provided a thanksgiving for the historical moment it celebrated and perpetual guidance for Protestant churches down through the ages.
God’s Purposes for Government
First, the BCP liturgy instructs us in God’s purposes for government. Yes, the service is intended for worship, for the praising of God by his people. But praise is pedagogical, for in praising, we must understand not just who we praise but why we praise him.
The special collects pray for political rulers, articulating God’s design for their role. The second collect for Morning Prayer asks God to, “Strengthen the hands of our gracious King Charles, and all that are put in authority under him, with Judgment and justice.” In justice, the prayer asks that magistrates receive divine aid to know the standard for good. In judgment, the collect petitions God to endow rulers with the wisdom to apply that standard to the particular circumstances of the kingdom. One can see echoes here of the opening to Psalm 72: “Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king’s son.”
In the Communion Service, moreover, the officiant should replace the day’s normal collect with a prayer that asks God, on behalf of the King and his family, to “Preserve them in thy faith, fear and love.” The first collect, finally, thanks God, for “the protection,” not of any and all rulers, but “of righteous and religious Kings and states.” A King’s throne “is established by righteousness” (Prov. 16:12). We therefore should pray for our rulers to have no other foundation and for the preservation of that foundation’s own security in the faith, fear, and love of God.
The assigned Scripture readings continue these themes. The service for Holy Communion includes St. Paul’s famous meditation on government in Romans 13. This passage succinctly declares the purposes God intends for the governments which he establishes. The Apostle says that the magistrate is “the minister of God to thee for good.” This good consists of a legal regime that punishes wickedness and rewards righteousness. Regarding the former, the magistrate bears “the sword” against wrong, as God’s “revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom. 13: 4). Regarding the latter, St. Paul exhorts the church in Rome to “do that which is good, and though shalt have praise of” the magistrate. Thus, the Apostle assures his audience that “rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil” (13:3).
The Old Testament reading for Morning Prayer elaborates on these points. The assigned text is 2 Samuel 22, King David’s “Song of Deliverance,” paralleling David with the delivered English monarch. In this song, David sings: “As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the Lord is tried” (22:31). This perfect way and word then become a standard for David not just as a man but as king. David also says, “For all his judgments were before me: and as for his statutes, I did not depart from them” (22:23). God’s law measures out the path of the human magistrate in his rule. The same passage then gives some direction for the standard of what those divine judgments and statutes consist of. David notes that, “The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness” (22:21) and that “With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful, and with the upright man thou wilt shew thyself upright. With the pure thou wilt shew thyself pure; and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself unsavoury” (22:26-27). Thus, maintaining physical safety is not the only political goal but also preserving the church so that the Gospel may go forth. These verses, too, show that God exercises in his own rule those same purposes which he demands of human rulers, punishing the wicked and honoring the righteous according to justice.
Finally, we turn to the Books of Homilies. Absent an original sermon, the rubrics command a homily to be read among the ones “against Rebellion.” Therein, the homilies against rebellion not only condemn insurrection but speak to the goods and duties of a ruler. The relevant homily in the first book tells us, regarding the goods, that, “a king’s power, authority, and strength is a great benefit of God, given of his great mercy to the comfort of our great misery.” The same homily also says rulers are, “diligently taught to apply and giveth themselves to knowledge and wisdom, necessary for the ordering of God’s people to their governance committed.” One can see the perfect pairing with the collects and the Scripture passages in these lines, which themselves teach God’s purpose in government as the pursuit of justice in the rewarding of virtue, the punishment of vice, and the protection of Christ’s people.
God’s Providence Over Government
Second, Guy Fawkes Night reminds us of God’s sovereign providence over human history, including political events. God does not act like the deist deity in affairs of state any more than he does in other areas of human life. His sovereignty oversees and guides all of human history, including the thoughts, words, and deeds of political communities. One of the assigned collects of the BCP liturgy thus opens saying “ALMIGHTY God…who…didst prevent the malice and imaginations of our enemies.” Another of the prayers declares that God “hast in all ages shewed thy power” in delivering both his church and faithful political rulers. The foiling of the Gunpowder Plot was his doing, ultimately.
Reminding us that history records God’s sovereign acts and the working out of his perfect plan curtails any move toward self-congratulation and drift toward self-righteousness in ourselves: “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord” (Prov. 21:31). One collect confirms that “not our foresight, but thy providence, delivered us.” This reminder then turns us to the praise of God, giving him the glory he deserves in the affairs of men. “Therefore,” one collect continues, “not unto us, O Lord, not unto us; but unto thy Name be ascribed all honour and glory.” This point steers us, then and now, away from a nationalism that worships itself or its ancestors. Instead, we must worship the true God whose righteous doings cannot be thwarted.
The assigned Scriptures for Morning Prayer reinforce these points. Romans 13 does not present a God who has withdrawn from political affairs. Instead, “there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (13:1). Alongside this, David’s song repeatedly asserts God’s sovereign power as the fundamental source of David’s own action: “For by thee I have run through a troop: by my God have I leaped over a wall” (2 Sam. 22:30); , “God is my strength and power: and he maketh my way perfect” (22:33). David, too, ascribes deliverance from enemies and victory over the same to God, the “rock of my salvation” (22:47).
The homilies second the prayers and Scripture lessons here as well. One passage says of the good reign of Protestant monarchs, “Almighty God is the only author and provider of this forenamed state and order.” Another says our response to God’s providential provision should be that we “may continually magnify thy glorious Name.”
God’s Preservation of Government
Third, the liturgy for the 5th of November affirms that we can and should express thanks for when God’s providence preserves existing blessings. The entire liturgy is “A Form of prayer with Thanksgiving.” This response flows from the previous point acknowledging God’s providential governance of human history: we thank a sovereign God for exercising that sovereignty for good.
Returning to the collects, one assigned for Morning Prayer refers to God’s “gracious providence” in foiling the Gunpowder Plot, thanking him that his power is exercised in gracious ways towards his people. The collect for the Communion service declares, “thy power, wisdom, and goodness in preserving” at work in saving King James and Parliament. We express thanks that God’s power and wisdom are intertwined with his goodness and all in ways that constantly bless us.
This thanksgiving pushes us toward a proper humility as well. These collects make clear that we did not earn this deliverance. The collects admit guilt (“our sins cried to heaven against us”) with the resulting conclusion (“our iniquities justly called for vengeance upon us”). The prayers confess, “it was thy mercy, thy mercy alone, that we were not then consumed.” God showed his mercy in foiling the Gunpowder Plot despite our desserts. Today, too, we must look on political blessings as manifestations of God’s mercy to us.
This humility, moreover, leads us to national repentance. One of the collects exhorts us, “Let the consideration of this thy goodness, O Lord, work in us true repentance, that iniquity may not be our ruine. And increase in us more and more a lively faith, and fruitful love in all holy obedience, that thou maist continue thy favour, with the light of thy Gospel to us and our posterity for evermore.” We continue today to think of praise and repentance as individuals or even as part of the church. However, these texts remind us that we are part of political communities and that collective repentance is necessary at times. These prayers restore to us a sorely needed role for repentance and thanksgiving as citizens in regimes established by God for purposes we often fall far short of obeying.
These points also find support in the Scripture lessons and the homilies. The assigned Psalms—64, 124, and 125—overflow with thanks to God for deliverance from enemies: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8). David’s song of deliverance, after recounting God’s many mighty and gracious deeds of salvation, says, “I will give thanks unto thee, O Lord.” (2 Sam. 22:50). And the last homily of both books is titled, “A Thanksgiving for the Suppression of the Last Rebellion.”
Some may especially balk at this thankfulness in the context of Guy Fawkes Night. Does it not fully display a sectarianism, an anti-Roman Catholicism we now find distasteful and counterproductive? In short: no. Celebrating Guy Fawkes Night now need not and should not resuscitate the anti-Romanism of the seventeenth century. To celebrate Guy Fawkes Night is not to suggest bringing back laws barring Roman Catholics from full political participation in the community or restricting their freedom of worship.
But this does not mean that thanks cannot be given for the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot; and that such thanks can be more than mere relief that lives were not lost. For Englishmen, despite the events of the Gunpowder Plot being more than 400 years in the past, its failure is still worthy of thanksgiving as an event in the life of the nation: who knows how different (for ill) today’s United Kingdom would have been had it succeeded? To retain regular thanksgiving for events even centuries past–especially those which preserved the nation from an existential threat–is part and parcel of retaining a national identity.
Is the 5th of November something for which Americans can give thanks? To suggest such may simply seem like Anglophilic LARPing. Granted, we are not as directly invested politically in the celebration as our British cousins. And yet, as former colonies of Great Britain, America is in many ways an inheritor of the blessings the 5th of November celebrates. Our Protestant heritage, and with it our civil and religious liberty, owes so much to God’s providence as worked out through these events. Moreover, the political lessons of the BCP’s liturgy–remembrance of God’s purposes, providence, and preservation in relation to government–are ones of which we need constant reminders, especially in such a politically fraught time.
Furthermore, American Protestants can and should celebrate more than the general lessons drawn from the 5th of November. We can and should thank God for preserving the English Reformation in its doctrinal, liturgical, and political manifestations by foiling the Gunpowder Plot. It is part of our story, far removed as it may now be in time and place. We should celebrate because we still believe the Protestant Reformation brought about goods worth preserving regarding our understanding of Scripture, the church, salvation, and the state. We can and should believe that the Church of England, as a Protestant Reformed church, bears purer marks of the church, in Word and sacrament, than its Roman counterpart. Otherwise, the martyrdoms of Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, and more were a violent and pointless misunderstanding. Otherwise, why not return to Rome? We should not feel one ounce of shame in rejecting those kinds of positions, ones too frequently trumpeted by Protestants who should know and say better. No, November 5th is a fitting cousin to Reformation Day October 31st. On that day, we remember Martin Luther’s inauguration of the Reformation across Europe. On November 5th, we rightly celebrate the Reformation’s preservation in England and, by extension, those colonies in the Americas which became these United States.
On Sunday, then, let us “Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November/Gunpowder, treason, and plot.” Let us remember it that we may better understand God’s purposes for the political order. Let us remember it that we may better acknowledge God’s sovereignty over history and give Him the requisite glory. Let us remember that day so we might humbly thank God for His acts in reforming His church and politically preserving the truths of those reforms in England and beyond. Finally, let us remember the fifth of November that we might repent of our own sin and plead for greater faith, love, and obedience in all we do for God’s eternal kingdom. To complete the rhyme: “I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.”
Adam Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College where he is the Patricia and LaMothe Chair in the U.S. Constitution. He holds a Ph.D. from Baylor University. He is a Commonwealth Fellow at Ad Fontes. In addition to scholarly work, he is a contributing columnist for the Washington Examiner and World Magazine. His book on the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field was published in 2017 by Lexington Press. In the 2020-2021 academic year, he served as a Garwood Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.
*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons