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State prayers, fasts and thanksgivings: public worship in Britain 1830–1897

Williamson, Philip

State prayers, fasts and thanksgivings: public worship in Britain 1830–1897 Thumbnail


Philip Williamson


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 …


Williamson, P. (2008). State prayers, fasts and thanksgivings: public worship in Britain 1830–1897. Past & Present: A Journal of Historical Studies, 200(1), 121-174.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Aug 1, 2008
Deposit Date Mar 12, 2013
Publicly Available Date Mar 12, 2013
Journal Past and Present
Print ISSN 0031-2746
Electronic ISSN 1477-464X
Publisher Oxford University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 200
Issue 1
Pages 121-174


Accepted Journal Article (410 Kb)

Copyright Statement
This is a pre-copy-editing author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Past and present following peer review. The definitive publisher-authenticated version Williamson, Philip (2008) 'State prayers, fasts and thanksgivings: public worship in Britain 1830–1897.', Past and present, 200 (1). pp. 121-174 is available online at:

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