IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - Natural disasters and the future in England: an historical perspective
Disaster often appears to be good for religion. It is well known that, even in our secularized society, many people are inclined to offer up at least a silent prayer in times of crisis. But these responses tend to be transitory, and there is no evidence that events like Hurricane Katrina lead to any long-term broadening or deepening of religious belief. Instead, we look to science to explain such events and tend to blame the state for its failure to prepare adequately.
Consequently, from our contemporary perspective the response of early-modern Englishmen to major natural calamities - to famine, fire and plague - appears odd. In the sixteenth century English monarchs and their bishops regularly called the nation to prayer in response to natural disasters such as the plague of 1665 and the fire of London in 1666. Fast days, as these occasions were known, were major events - work and recreation stopped, and everyone was required to attend church to pray and listen to sermons. Fasts were the chief collective responses to natural disasters. Why was it thought important to bring the nation together in prayer? And for what were people praying? The answers to these questions make early-modern beliefs appear even odder than they do at first sight.
Stephen Taylor is Professor of History at the University of Reading and has published extensively on the political and religious history of England in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Professor Taylor is an IAS Fellow and Pemberton Fellow, hosted by University College. For further information please visit: www.dur.ac.uk/ias/fellows/1011/taylor/
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