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Special Worship in the British Empire: From the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Centuries

  • Joseph Hardwick (a1) and Philip Williamson (a2)


Across the British empire, public worship was important for sustaining a sense of community and connectedness. This was most evident in special acts of worship, when the peoples of imperial territories, and sometimes of the whole empire, were asked at times of crisis and celebration to join together in special days or prayers of petition or thanksgiving to God. These occasions, ordered by a variety of civil and ecclesiastical authorities, were an enduring feature of all colonial societies from the seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Although these special acts of worship have considerable potential for deepening our understanding of various themes in the history of the British empire, they have yet to receive sustained analysis from scholars. This article is concerned with the fundamental task of considering why and how special prayers and days of fasting, humiliation, intercession and thanksgiving were appointed across the empire. By focusing on the causes of, and orders for, these occasions, it indicates reasons for the longevity of this practice, as well as its varied and changing purposes.


Corresponding author

*Joseph Hardwick: Faculty of Arts, Design and Social Sciences, University of Northumbria, Lipman Building Room 330, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8ST. E-mail:
Philip Williamson: Department of History, University of Durham, 43 North Bailey, Durham, DH1 3EX. E-mail:


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1 A ‘day of humiliation’ was an alternative term for ‘fast day’, commonly used in government and church orders. The nomenclature of special days of worship changed over the centuries; for definitions, see the introductions to the three volumes of Philip Williamson et al., eds, National Prayers: Special Worship since the Reformation, CERS 20, 22 and forthcoming (Woodbridge, 2013–).

2 Weiss Muller, Hannah, ‘Bonds of Belonging: Subjecthood and the British Empire’, JBS 53 (2014), 2958.

3 Published sermons are a leading source for studies of religious and political ideas in colonial America and early modern Britain; these were commonly delivered on fast or thanksgiving days. For comments on the imperial visions and tensions in these sermons, see Guyatt, Nicholas, Providence and the Invention of the United States 1607–1876 (Cambridge, 2007), chs 1–3. For similar sermons in the nineteenth-century empire, see Cruickshank, Joanna, ‘The Sermon in the British Colonies’, in Francis, Keith and Gibson, William, eds, The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon, 1689–1901 (Oxford, 2012), 513–29.

4 Existing scholarship on imperial special worship focuses on particular colonies, rather than the empire as a whole: see Hardwick, Joseph, ‘Special Days of Worship and National Religion in the Australian Colonies, 1790–c.1914’, JICH 45 (2017), 365–90; idem, ‘Fasts, Thanksgivings and Senses of Community in Nineteenth-Century Canada and the British Empire’, Canadian Historical Review 98 (2017), 675–703.

5 Maclaren Brydon, George, Virginia's Mother Church (Richmond, VA, 1947), 141, 176, 238–40, 434, 447, 461–2, 471–2; Beasley, Nicholas M., Christian Ritual and the Creation of British Slave Societies, 1650–1780 (Athens, GA, 2009), 39, 48–51; Mulcahy, Matthew, Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean 1624–1783 (Baltimore, MD, 2008), 38–9, 46–9, 56–7.

6 See the large number of occasions recorded in DeLoss Love, William, The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England (Boston, MA, 1895); Weinbrenner, Melissa, ‘Public Days in Massachusetts Bay, 1630–1685’, Historical Journal of Massachusetts 26 (1998), 7394.

7 See the fast and thanksgiving proclamations included or reported in Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639–1800 [digital resource], the printed records of the colonies published from the 1850s onwards, and the Calendars of State Papers Colonial. For publication details, see Williamson et al., eds, National Prayers, 2: xlv–li.

8 See ibid. 1: 1688–EIr2, 1688–S2. Occasions are coded in the edition for ease of cross-reference: 1688–EIr2 is the second joint occasion for England & Wales (E) and Ireland (Ir) in 1688. Where an occasion refers to all three kingdoms, including Scotland (S), only a number is used, e.g. 1763–1. The National Prayers volumes include texts or summaries of the orders sent from London to colonial governors.

9 Ibid. 2: 1702–EIr2, 1704–EIr2, 1705–EIr2, 1706–EIr1.

10 Ibid. 2: 1759–2, 1763–1. For the first of these, the governor of New Hampshire even included the text of the English proclamation, complete with references to archbishops and bishops, as part of his own proclamation (see Fig. 1).

11 For examples, see ibid. 2: cxlii–cxliii; Hawkins, Jonathan, ‘Imperial '45: The Jacobite Rebellion in Transatlantic Context’, JICH 24 (1996), 2447.

12 For example, Early American Imprints I, nos 141 (Massachusetts, 10 March 1668), 760 (New York, 27 February 1696), 1672 (Connecticut, 16 August 1714), 6361 (Massachusetts, 27 February 1750), 41468 (New Hampshire, 31 March 1764), 12734 (Connecticut, 16 October 1773).

13 See comments on sermons in Guyatt, Providence, chs 1–2.

14 Berens, John, ‘“Good news from a far country”: A Note on Divine Providence and the Stamp Act Crisis’, ChH 45 (1976), 308–15; Davidson, Philip, Propaganda and the American Revolution 1763–1783 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1941), 92–6; Ippel, Henry, ‘Blow the Trumpet, Sanctify the Fast’, Huntington Library Quarterly 44 (1980–1), 4360; Williamson et al., eds, National Prayers, 2: cxliv–cxlv, 1776–1.

15 Hardwick, ‘Fasts, Thanksgivings and Senses of Community’, 679–80.

16 Hardwick, ‘Special Days’, 371.

17 Bayly, Christopher, Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780–1830 (London, 1989), ch. 7.

18 Ottawa, Library and Archives Canada [hereafter: LAC], MG23–C6/C–2227/3, fol. 30, Inglis to governors, 13 May 1799; Mountain in The Correspondence of the Honourable Peter Russell, 3, ed. Cruikshank, E. A. and Hunter, A. F. (Toronto, ON, 1936), 65, 111. For the conservatism of early Canadian Anglicanism, see Williams, Peter W., ‘Anglicanism in North America and the Caribbean in the Nineteenth Century’, in Strong, Rowan, ed., OHA, 3: Partisan Anglicanism and its Global Expansion, 1829–c.1914 (Oxford, 2017), 232–52, at 240.

19 LAC, RG5–A1/C–6875/115, Bishop Stewart of Quebec to Lieutenant-Governor Colborne, 31 March 1832, fols 64739–41.

20 Stewart J. Brown, ‘Anglicanism in the British Empire, 1829–1910’, in Strong, ed., OHA 3, 45–68, at 52–3.

21 Nova Scotian [Halifax], 20, 27 October, 17 November 1842.

22 See the commentaries in Williamson et al., eds, National Prayers¸ 2: 1840–1, 1840–2, 1841–1, 1847–2, 1854–1, 1855–1, 1856 –2, 1857–2.

23 For examples of the language of subjecthood, see the proclamations in Canada Gazette, 7 April 1855, 7 November 1857. For the messages communicated on days of prayer, see Hardwick, ‘Special Days’, 372–9; idem, ‘Fasts, Thanksgivings and Senses of Community’, 683–6.

24 Gould, Eliga, ‘A Virtual Nation: Greater Britain and the Imperial Legacy of the American Revolution’, AHR 104 (1999), 476–89, at 485–9.

25 Williamson et al., eds, National Prayers, 3: 1872–2.

26 Ibid. 3: 1887–1, 1897–1.

27 Ibid. 3: 1901–1, 1902–2, 1910–1, 1911–1, 1929–1, 1935–2, 1936–1, 1937–1, 1952–1, 1953–1.

28 For Canada, see Heath, Gordon, War with a Silver Lining: Canadian Protestant Churches and the South African War, 1899–1902 (Montreal, QC, 2009), 65–9. For services elsewhere, see Sydney Morning Herald, 12 February 1900; Auckland Star, 12 February 1900.

29 Williamson, Philip, ‘National Days of Prayer: The Churches, the State and Public Worship in Britain, 1899–1957’, EHR 128 (2013), 324–66, at 329–30, 333.

30 See Hardwick, ‘Special Days’, 370–1.

31 Papers . . . in Explanation of the Measures . . . for giving Effect to the Abolition of Slavery, II, in Parliamentary Papers, 1835 (278–II), [part A] 70, [part B], 21, 22, 24, 72–3, 220, 277.

32 See, for example, Calcutta Gazette, 20 June 1799; Bombay Times, 21 February 1846; Gray, Charles, Life of Robert Gray, Bishop of Cape Town, 2 vols (London, 1876), 1: 163, 328; 2: 233.

33 Stevens, Peter, ‘“Righteousness exalteth the nation”: Religion, Nationalism, and Thanksgiving Day in Ontario, 1859–1914’, in Hayday, Matthew and Blake, Raymond, eds, Celebrating Canada, 1: Holidays, National Days, and the Crafting of Identities (Toronto, ON, 2016), 5482; Hardwick, ‘Special Days’, appendix.

34 From 1801 to 1871, the United Church of England and Ireland.

35 Williamson, Philip, ‘State Prayers, Fasts and Thanksgivings: Public Worship in Britain 1830–1897’, P&P 200 (2008), 121–74, at 161–2.

36 See the examples in n. 12.

37 For a Nova Scotian example, see Royal Gazette [Halifax], 25 March 1794.

38 For example, a Newfoundland proclamation of 18 May 1847 ordering a fast day for 9 June 1847: St John's, The Rooms Archives, Office of the Colonial Secretary Fonds, Original Proclamations, Series GN 2.8.

39 See Lower Canadian proclamations in Report of the Public Archives for the Year 1921 (Ottawa, ON, 1922), 58, 76–7, 93, 156, 169–70, 183, 187–8, 192–3.

40 Têtu, Henri and Gagnon, Charles-Octave, eds, Mandements, lettres pastorales et circulaires des évêques de Québec, 2 (Quebec, 1888), 516–17, 531–3, 536–7, ibid. 3 (Quebec, 1888), 105–8, 111–14, 121–3, 123–4, 132–4. For Britain, see Williamson et al., eds, National Prayers, 2: lxxxix–xc.

41 Williamson, ‘State Prayers’, 161–3.

42 See Williamson et al., eds, National Prayers, 2: 1857–2. Jewish communities usually observed special occasions ordered by governments, and from the 1840s the chief rabbi in London issued forms of prayer for the ‘united congregations of the British Empire’: ibid. 3: appendix.

43 Sydney Herald, 19 October 1838; Canada Gazette, 22 December 1849.

44 See correspondence in LAC, RG4–C1/H–2585/198/1267, 2387.

45 Hamilton, Ontario, observed a fast after an 1857 railway disaster: The Globe [Toronto], 17 March 1857; for a drought that led to a municipal day of prayer in Australia, see Warwick Examiner [Queensland], 2 July 1881.

46 Montreal Gazette, 15 November 1872.

47 The confidence of the institutional churches in late Victorian Canada is described in Christie, Nancy and Gauvreau, Michael, eds, The Christian Churches and Their Peoples, 1840–1965: A Social History of Religion in Canada (Toronto, ON, 2010), 57–9.

48 For example, a fast in eastern Australia during drought: Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November 1865.

49 Williamson, ‘State Prayers’, 164–6.

50 Toronto, Archives of Ontario, Strachan Papers, F983–2/ MS35/12, Letterbook 1854–1862, fol. 61, Strachan to Mountain of Quebec, 26 March 1855. For colonial Anglican independence, see Brown, ‘Anglicanism in the British Empire’, 53–5, Rowan Strong, ‘Anglicanism and the State’, in idem, ed., OHA 3, 108–14; Williams, ‘Anglicanism in North America’, 241.

51 The term is taken from Guyatt, Providence, 5.

52 For the persistence of providential beliefs, see Williamson, ‘State Prayers’, 132–4.

53 Strong, Rowan, Anglicanism and the British Empire, c.1700–1850 (Oxford, 2007), 60, 106–8, 125.

54 For the Australian context, see Hardwick, ‘Special Days’, 376–8.

55 For the concept of providential election in the Canadian context, see Wise, S. F., ‘God's Peculiar Peoples’, in McKillop, A. B. and Romney, Paul, eds, God's Peculiar Peoples: Essays on Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century Canada (Ottawa, ON, 1993), 1943.

56 See the examples in n. 12; see also Claydon, Tony, Europe and the Making of England, 1660–1760 (Cambridge, 2007), 168–71.

57 Williamson et al., eds, National Prayers, 3: 1877–E, 1897–E. Congregational churches of Western Australia organized prayers for famine sufferers in 1900: Southern Times [Western Australia], 20 March 1900.

58 Special days of worship were called by Australian civil authorities in times of drought in 1895, 1897, 1898, 1902, 1903, 1904 and 1912. An 1896 rinderpest outbreak and a 1912 drought prompted the appointment of days of humiliation in South Africa.

59 Hardwick, ‘Fasts, Thanksgivings and Senses of Community’, 692–3.

60 President of the Council of Churches to editor, The Argus [Melbourne], 16 May 1893.

61 Form of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for Deliverance from the Epidemic with which the City of Montreal has lately been Visited (, 1886).

62 South Australian Advertiser, 14 May 1870; Bowral Free Press [New South Wales], 17 June 1893.

63 Izwi Labantu [East London], 19 May 1908; Indian Opinion [Durban], 11 June 1910.

64 Alasdair Raffe, ‘Nature's Scourges: The Natural World and Special Prayers, Fasts and Thanksgivings, 1543–1866’, in Clarke, Peter and Claydon, Tony, eds, God's Bounty? The Churches and the Natural World, SCH 46 (Woodbridge, 2010), 237–47.

65 Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March 1923; for the South African occasion, see ibid., 29 July 1924.

66 Ibid., 13 April 1900.

67 Ibid., 11, 12 February 1869; The Australasian [Melbourne], 22 April 1876.

68 Buckner, Phillip, ‘“Limited Identities” Revisited: Regionalism and Nationalism in Canadian History’, Acadiensis 30 (2000), 415, at 12.

69 Bell, Duncan, The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of the World Order, 1860–1900 (Princeton, NJ, 2007), 3540.

70 Maughan, Steven, ‘Imperial Christianity? Bishop Montgomery and the Foreign Missions of the Church of England, 1895–1915’, in Porter, Andrew, ed., The Imperial Horizons of British Protestant Missions, 1880–1914 (Grand Rapids, MI, 2003), 3257; Brown, ‘Anglicanism in the British Empire’, 66–7. For Anglicanism's enduring association with empire in the twentieth century, see Grimley, Matthew, ‘The State, Nationalism, and Anglican Identities’, in Morris, Jeremy, ed., OHA, 4: Global Western Anglicanism, c.1910–Present (Oxford, 2017), 117–36, at 120, 128–9.

71 Williamson et al., eds, National Prayers, 2: cxlvii, cxlviii.

72 See commentaries and notices sent to the dominions and colonies for 1914–18 and 1939–45 in Williamson et al., eds, National Prayers, 3. Even the day of national prayer called by the king for July 1947 because of post-war crises in Britain was observed in parts of the commonwealth and empire: see ibid. 1947–1.

73 McKenna, Mark, ‘Monarchy: From Reverence to Indifference’, in Schreuder, Deryck and Ward, Stuart, eds, Australia's Empire (Oxford, 2008), 261–87, at 262.

74 True Witness and Catholic Chronicle [Montreal], 15 June 1887.



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