The Litany is a very ancient form of prayer. It is the oldest service in English and, in some ways, the most interesting. It first appeared in 1544 (Henry VIII). The break with Rome was only ten years old, and feelings were still strong. One of the petitions included “from the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome, and all his detestable enormities … Good Lord, deliver us.” Otherwise, it was very traditional, to be chanted in procession, and included an invocation of saints.
The first Book of Common Prayer, in 1549 (Edward VI), was more Protestant and dropped the invocation of saints. The revision of 1552 made only minor changes in wording and added prayers in time of famine, war, or plague; with an even more Protestant emphasis, it was now said kneeling.
In 1559 (Elizabeth I), the mention of the Bishop of Rome was dropped, and prayers for the queen and for “Bishops and Curates, and all congregations committed to their charge” were added. The revision of 1604 (James I) was minor and did not affect the Litany except that a prayer had to be added for “Queen ANNE, Prince HENRY, and all the King and Queen’s Royal progeny.” [Prince Henry died young, and King James was succeeded by his second son as Charles I.]
The 1662 edition (Charles II) came at the Restoration, after the Civil War and Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell; the word “rebellion” was added to the petition for deliverance from sedition and privy-conspiracy. Clergy were now described as “Bishops, Priests, and Deacons,” emphasizing the three-fold ministry as opposed to the single order of ministry used by the Puritans.
In America, the independence of both country and church from England required a new book, which was adopted in 1789. Several prayers for king and royal family were replaced by a single prayer for “all Christian Rulers and Magistrates.” Ironically, the word “rebellion” was not removed, and took on a new meaning years later during the American Civil War.
The revision of 1892 added “That it may please thee to send forth labourers into thine harvest,” reflecting the founding of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society in 1820 and the inclusion of all baptized members in 1835. The revision of 1928 added “from earthquake, fire, and flood,” recalling the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the 19th Century experience of fire and flood on the frontier; and the petition for travelers added “by air” to “land and sea.” In the current (1979) edition, new petitions include “That it may please thee to make wars to cease in all the world; to give to all nations unity, peace, and concord, and to bestow freedom upon all peoples.”
Until the mid-19th century (and, in many parishes, later), the Anglican service on Sunday morning consisted of Morning Prayer, Litany, and Ante-Communion (followed, four times a year, by the rest of the Communion service). I can remember when many Episcopal churches still had a prayer desk, called a litany desk, at the head of the nave, where the officiant of the Litany would kneel, although some parishes revived the practice of chanting in procession. I have often thought of the petition for deliverance “from earthquake, fire, and flood” during recent disasters.
The Great Litany begins on page 147 of the Book of Common Prayer.