"In the time of our visitation": a Church of Ireland sermon for the first fast day of the American War

As Joseph Butler was preaching to the House of Commons on the 13th December 1776 fast day on the occasion of the American War, Thomas Leland was delivering his sermon to the University of Dublin.  Like Butler, Leland set before his hearers the divine judgement that is civil war:

We are at this day, not indeed at the conclusion, possibly but at the commencement of a civil war. It hath already proved far more obstinate, far more afflicting and alarming, than at first our pride suffered us to suspect: and from this beginning of strife the most bitter waters have already gushed out. One tribe, however divided from us by situation, yet of our own language and people, influenced, I do not say, by what motives, hath avowed, and seems to glory in its separation ...

It is not the business of the present hour, to speculate on the causes and occasions of this contest. In the time of our visitation, we are to consider only, that we have been visited. There is an intestine war; the empire is rent; men's passions are inflamed; their sentiments various; their affections divided; the immediate state of things alarming; the future prospect melancholy; but one event desirable, a speedy and effectual reconcilement.

The sermon also reminded hearers that a day of prayer and fasting for the concerns of a political community was fitting and appropriate:

The principles of our holy religion are sometimes represented as detaching us from all civil connections, and teaching us to look down with indifference on the concerns and interests of earthly communities. But the representation is injurious and false: for we "have not so learned Christ". Both the precepts and examples of his gospel, tend to form the most valuable and amiable citizen, as well as the faithful subject of our Lord's universal kingdom. As citizens as well as Christians, ye are now assembled; ye are now exhorted, ye are entreated to consider seriously, deeply, and earnestly, how our national dangers may be averted, and our national prosperity established and secured.

The peace of the political community also required what Leland termed "rational obedience and submission" to constitutional authority:

It will harmonize our disorders, and render all our actions, counsels, and devices, gracious and comfortable to those around us. It will teach us, (if there be need of such instruction) to "honour the king", to pray earnestly that the wisdom from above may guide him, and the shield of the Almighty protect him from the "secret council of the wicked, and the insurrection of the workers of iniquity", wheresoever they may be found. It will dispose us to submit cheerfully and reverently to his constitutional authority, and to whomsoever it may be delegated: not tossed about by every wind of clamour or discontent.

As the polity was confronted by division and bloodshed - by "these visitations" - so this was a call to corporate and individual repentance:

At a time, then, when he hath permitted a spirit of discord to harass and confound us; when the small cloud of calamity which at first appeared in our untroubled sky, no greater than a man's hand, is spreading, blackening, and threatening; when the tongue of every man is whetted against his neighbour, and the weapon of every warrior lifted against his brother; when we have "miserable comforters" to assure us, that the sinews of our strength are weakened, the ſorces of our prosperity failing, and new enemies impatient to arise and seize the advantage of our divisions; when these divisions are violent ... At such a time, if ever, and in such alarming distraction, surely we should ask our consciences, how have we merited these visitations? We should devoutly consider, that national calamity can be averted only by national reformation; and that if men would be reconciled to each other, they must first be reconciled to God. Every member of society is, therefore, bound to perform his part in this work of reformation; and to consider the faithful discharge of his particular duty, as of the utmost conſequence to others, as well as to his own soul.

The purpose of such repentance was reconciliation, the healing of the polity's divisions, and the restoration of peace:

If then ye would not "fear their fear" who have arisen, or may arise against us hearken to the voice of the Prophet. Sanctify the Lord of Hosts himself, and "let Him be your fear, and Him be your dread". Or if with hearts of brethren, we lament the loss of one tribe, it is the ardour of our repentance, the sincerity of our amendment, and the mercy of the Almighty, which can bind up our wounds and restore us once again to UNION, AMITY and PEACE.

The sermon shared much of what was characteristic of Old High political theology in the face of the rebellion in the American colonies: lamenting the bitter experience of civil war, recognising it as an expression of divine wrath and thus a call to repentance, and seeking the renewal of constitutional peace and order.  It also exemplifies what was heard from the pulpits of the Established Church in England and Ireland during the fast days of the American War. What is more, it shows how the fast days contributed to a renewed Old High political theology, with "rational obedience and submission" - a re-working of passive obedience for a polity shaped by the Revolution Settlement - understood as essential to securing the gift of communal peace and constitutional order. 

The sermon is most foreign to contemporary Anglicanism in its recognition of civil discord as "the time of our visitation", leading to the explicit call for communal repentance as the means of restoring peace and concord.  And yet it is here that it has particular contemporary resonance. In our own age of fear and division, of culture wars and bitter partisanship, perhaps Anglican preaching should be echoing Leland and recognising "the time of our visitation".

(The picture is of a memorial to those who fell in the service of the Crown at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, April 1775.)


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