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Durham University

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Publication details for Professor Philip Williamson

Philip Williamson (2008). State prayers, fasts and thanksgivings: public worship in Britain 1830–1897. Past and Present 200(1): 121-174.

Author(s) from Durham


Among the more remarkable activities of the mid nineteenth-century British state was its practice of ordering special acts of national worship — either new prayers to be read in all churches for particular dates or periods, or whole days set aside for religious duties, with complete church services composed for the occasion. These ‘prayers’ and ‘holy days’ were appointed at momentous occasions in national life, either to implore God's forgiveness and assistance at times of threat or anxiety, or to thank God at times of relief or celebration. The practice dates from the mid sixteenth century and had been much elaborated during the next two centuries,1 but it was certainly not just a historical relic. Into the Victorian period these observances remained striking instances of government acknowledgement of divine superintendence over the nation, and presentation of official religious interpretations of particular events, from epidemics, famine, war and imperial rebellion, to harvests, public discontent and royal births. The state orders were genuinely national, reaching into every parish in Scotland and Ireland as well as England and Wales.2 They were prominent expressions of the state–church relationship, while applying not just to the established churches alone but notionally to all religious denominations, and continuing beyond the ending in 1828–9 of the ‘confessional state’. They not only prescribed alterations in religious services but also affected everyday secular activity: ‘holy days’ — either fast days, renamed ‘days of humiliation’ in the 1850s, or thanksgiving days — were often appointed not for Sundays but for weekdays, with expected suspension of all secular work. Both ‘prayers’ and ‘holy days’ were ordered by authority of the royal supremacy, and were an important attribute of the monarchy. As the sovereign nevertheless acted on government advice, the decisions were political in the sense of always involving the prime …