"Now in open rebellion against the Crown": at prayers with Parson Woodforde on the first fast day of the American War

On 30th October 1776, King George III issued a proclamation for a general fast, to be observed on 13th December:

in the most devout and solemn Manner, send up Our Prayers and Supplications to the Divine Majesty, for averting those heavy Judgements, which Our manifold Sins and Provocations have most justly deserved, and for imploring his Intervention and Blessing speedily to deliver Our loyal Subjects within Our Colonies and Provinces in North[235] America from the Violence, Injustice, and Tyranny of those daring Rebels who have assumed to themselves the Exercise of Arbitrary Power, to open the Eyes of those who have been deluded by specious Falshoods, into Acts of Treason and Rebellion, to turn the Hearts of the Authors of these Calamities, and finally to restore Our People in those distracted Provinces and Colonies to the happy Condition of being free Subjects of a free State; under which heretofore they flourished so long and prospered so much. 

Parson James Woodforde had taken possession of the living of Weston Longville, Norfolk, in May 1776, beginning his long ministry which continued until his death in 1803. His famous diary recorded observance of the 1776 fast day:

This day being appointed a Fast on our Majesty’s arms against the rebel Americans, I went to Church this morning and read the Prayers appointed for the same. I had as full a congregation present as I have in an afternoon on a Sunday, very few that did not come.

Noting a "full" congregation, Woodforde's description does indicate strong support amongst his parishioners for the Crown's determination to maintain its authority over the American colonies.  His diary entries for subsequent general fasts similarly noted good attendance in the parish church for the appointed prayers, indicating ongoing support:

This being a Day for a general Fast to be observed thro’ the Kingdom, to beg of Almighty God his Assistance in our present troubles being at open rupture with America, France and Spain, and a Blessing on our Fleets and Armies ; I therefore went to Weston Church about ii o’clock and read the proper Prayers on the Occasion, but there was no Sermon preached. My Squire and Lady at Church, and there was a very respectable Congregation that attended at it (4th February 1780);

This being the Day for a general Fast to be observed during our present Troubles, I went to Church this morning and read Prayers, but did not preach. I had a large Congregation that attended (21st February 1781).

At the same time, however, we might read here a growing sense of the difficulties facing the forces of the Crown in the American War.  In 1776, Woodforde merely referred to "the rebel Americans".  In 1780, he references the intervention of the kingdoms of France and Spain, the factor which would ultimately (and ironically) ensure the victory of the rebellious colonists.  In 1781, "our present Troubles", a phrase not at all suggestive of confidence in the Crown maintaining its authority against the rebellion.

Woodforde's decision not to preach on the 1776 fast day - and on the subsequent fast days - would have resulted in the authorized Form of Prayer being the primary feature in shaping his parishioners' experience of the general fast.  The form of prayer appointed for 13th December 1776 replaced the Venite with penitential verses from various Psalms, including words from Psalm 33 which emphasised the purpose of the day: "There is no king that can be saved by the multitude of an host".  

The appointed Psalms - 27, 46, and 64 - would have been deeply resonant. The rebels' Declaration of Independence issued earlier in the year had proclaimed, "The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States".  On this general fast day, Woodforde and his parishioners read from Psalm 27:

Deliver me not over into the will of mine adversaries: for there are false witnesses risen up against me, and such as speak wrong.  

Even as the Empire was shaken, and authority of Crown in Parliament - the cornerstone of the ordered liberty of the Revolution Settlement - was challenged, Woodforde and his parishioners read from Psalm 46:

God is our hope and strength: a very present help in trouble.

As the rebellious, usurping Congress, breaking their oaths as British subjects, took up arms against the Crown, Woodforde and his parishioners read from Psalm 64: 

They encourage themselves in mischief: and commune among themselves how they may lay snares.

The first lesson, Isaiah 58, declared that communal peace and well-being was reliant on a true and righteous fast, for when "a nation ... did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God", then its prayers would be heard, then there would be the promise of restoration:

And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.

The second lesson, Luke 8:22-25, was the account of the stilling of the storm.  The choice of lesson reflects the bewilderment amongst many in Great Britain and Ireland at the rebellion in the American colonies, and the sense that dark forces were at work, threatening to overwhelm peace and good order. The attentive reader following the second lesson in their personal Bible might also have noted that the passage following this in Luke is the account of the Gerasene demoniac: the legion which drove the herd of swine to destruction.

Of the two collects appointed for the day, the first petitioned for the restoration of communal peace against "the unjust attempts of their rebellious fellow-subjects against the rights of our Sovereign, and the lawful authority of the legislature of these kingdoms". The second prayed for defence against "the disturbers of our peace":

Be thou to us a tower of defence against the assaults of our enemies, our shield and buckler in the day of battle, and so bless the arms of our gracious Sovereign, in the maintenance of His just and lawful rights, and prosper His endeavours to restore tranquillity among His unhappy deluded subjects in America, now in open rebellion against His Crown, in defiance of all subordination and legal government, that we being preserved by thy help and goodness from all perils and disasters, and made happily triumphant over all the disturbers of our peace, may joyfully laud and magnify thy glorious Name; and serve thee from generation to generation in all godliness and quietness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Following the Prayer for the Church Militant at the Communion - almost certainly Ante-Communion - a prayer was provided for the restoration of peace between the subjects of the Crown:

GOD, who hast taught us in thy holy Word, to increase and abound in love one towards another, put away from us, we beseech thee, all bitterness and wrath, and evil-speaking and our hearts may be firmly knit together in mutual affection, in zeal for our religion and laws, in dutiful obedience to the King, and all who are in authority under him.

A second prayer was for "our Enemies", "our unhappy fellow-subjects in America", in the hope of reconciliation:

give grace, we beseech thee, to our unhappy fellow-Subjects in America, that seeing and confessing the error of their ways, and having a due sense of their ingratitude for the many blessings of thy Providence, preserved to them by the indulgent care and protection of these kingdoms, they may again return to their duty, and make themselves worthy of thy pardon and forgiveness: Grant us in the meantime not only strength and courage to withstand them, but charity to forgive and pity them, to shew a willingness to receive them again as friends and brethren, upon just and reasonable terms, and to treat them with mercy and kindness, for the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

The purpose of this post is to attempt to describe something of the experience of Woodforde and his parishioners on that first fast day of 'the American War'.  Many early 21st century Anglicans, of course, would be horrified at this liturgy.  I do wonder, however, if our cosy assumptions that liturgy should be untouched by robust concerns for communal peace and constitutional order are a product of an age which has passed: that post-1998 era when we assumed that peace and prosperity were triumphant, and that revised liturgies for this new age did not require antiquated prayers for civil peace, seasonal weather, or deliverance from plague.  

Then came 9/11. War. Global economic crash. Climate crisis. The abandonment of constitutional norms. Rising authoritarian regimes. And now Putin's attempt to crush Ukraine by force.

Perhaps the liturgy read by Woodforde on that day in December 1776 is rather more relevant to us than liturgies still shaped by the cosy assumptions of the 1990s.  Perhaps we do need to read the Psalms when communal peace and constitutional order is threatened.  Perhaps we do need readings from Scripture which speak into a time of great fear.  Perhaps we do need collects which explicitly petition for peace and good order because their absence is a fearful evil.  Perhaps we do need to pray for deliverance from enemies. Perhaps, in the face of conflict and war, we do need to hear of fasting and repentance.

In other words, perhaps Parson Woodforde and his parishioners on 13th December 1776 are more relevant to - and realistic in assessing - the early 21st century than contemporary liturgies and contemporary theological trends.

(The painting is William Walcutt's 'King George III Statue, 1776'. The statue had been erected in 1770 by the New York General Assembly in gratitude for "the innumerable and singular Benefits received from our most gracious sovereign". It was destroyed on 9th July 1776, when the city of New York was occupied by Washington's forces. At the same time, the Royal Coat of Arms were removed from Church of England churches in the city of New York.)


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