On Wednesday 24 March 1847 a national day of fast and humiliation was observed throughout the United Kingdom, imploring, in the words of the royal proclamation, ‘the removal of those heavy judgments which our manifold sins and provocations have most justly deserved’. The fast-day was marked by a general stoppage of work and the opening of places of worship for special services. Substantial collections for the relief of famine distress in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands were made at church and chapel doors as the congregations retired. The effect was, as one Hampshire clergyman observed, dramatic: ‘The whole nation has this day lamented their sins and prayed for pardon; imagination can scarcely picture a more affecting scene than that of millions of people, assembled at the same moment in the presence of the Almighty, imploring his forgiveness, praying for grace to amend their lives, and deprecating the continuance of his displeasure.’
What was the meaning of this seemingly archaic reaction to the Irish Famine? Considered through the filter of late twentieth-century religious scepticism, it might appear at best a marginal distraction from the catastrophic drama of the Famine, at worst a cynical attempt by the political establishment to lay a moral smokescreen around the question of responsibility for famine relief by reviving pre-modern conceptions of divine agency. To understand the significance of the fast-day and its repercussions, however, it is necessary to recognise the extent to which a Christian — and more particularly a Protestant evangelical — world-view permeated early Victorian British society.