European settlers in Canada, Australia and South Africa said they were building ‘better Britains’ overseas. But devastating wars, rebellions, epidemics and natural disasters often threatened these new societies. It is striking that settlers in such environments turned to old traditions of collective prayer and worship to make sense of these calamities. At times of acute stress, colonial governments set aside whole days of fasting, humiliation and intercession so that entire populations could join together to implore God’s intervention, assistance or guidance. And at moments of relief and celebration, such as the coming of peace, or the birth of a royal, the whole empire might participate in synchronised acts of thanksgiving and praise to God. This book asks why acts of ‘special worship’ with origins in early modernity became numerous in the democratic, pluralistic and often secularised conditions found in the settler societies of the ‘British world’. Such intense and highly visible occasions had the potential to reach all members of a colonial society: community-wide occasions of prayer were hard to ignore, they required considerable organisation, and they stimulated debate and reflection on a range of political, social and religious issues. The book argues that religion, and more specifically traditional rituals and practices, had a vital role to play in the formation of regional identities and local particularisms in what remained, in many ways, a loosely networked and unconnected empire.
Special worship amplified the communal role of churches and religion: in addition to encouraging and reinforcing denominational identities, fasts, thanksgivings and special prayers could, on occasion, strengthen attachments to alternative ‘we’ and ‘us’ groupings, based on regions and colonies. Special prayers and days nourished a sense of common purpose and shared responsibility among the inhabitants of disparate and diverse colonies and the wider empire. This chapter argues that special worship reflected the complex layers of regional, colonial and imperial denominational identification that developed among the inhabitants of empire. The focus is on how clerical elites articulated these community identifications in their sermons and how understandings of community varied depending on the occasion: though some fasts and thanksgivings orientated colonists towards the mother country and an imperial identity, most occasions were regional events that reminded colonists that their new homes were not Britain and that they, as a community, might be specially favoured and chosen by God. Days of prayer did not make communities; primarily, these occasions reminded individuals that they were social animals, that their lives were bound up with others and that communities shared a past and were recognised by God.
The cattle disease of 1865–6 was the last time the civil authorities ordered special prayers in response to a natural calamity. Other colonial states, notably the Canadian and New Zealand colonies, followed Britain and did not mark environmental calamities with special worship after the 1860s.This chapter explains why days of humiliation, appointed in times of drought, proliferated in the unstable ecologies and environments of the Australian colonies after 1860. Drought was considered an appropriate cause, as such ‘slow catastrophes’ were not fully understood, and it was supposed that low rainfall, ruined crops and the mass deaths of livestock affected everyone – urbanites and farmers alike. Repeated days of worship sharpened a providential awareness, reminded colonists of what made their colony or region distinct, and encouraged the kind of provincialism discussed in Chapter 4. The days that churches and states and set aside in times of drought stimulated reflection and debate about the efficacy of prayer, the causes of drought, the relationship between human actions and climate change, and the environmental consequences of colonisation. An archive of ‘environmental sermons’ provides evidence that Christian ministers were conservationists who reconciled a belief in God’s natural laws and processes – His ‘general providence’ – with an interest in technological solutions to environmental degradation.
Imperial occasions of special worship, most notably for royal events, became more frequent in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Various kinds of special worship marked royal occasions in 1872, 1887, 1897, 1901, 1902, 1910 and 1911. Though the task of proclaiming and organising special acts of worship was devolved to colonial authorities, technological developments, namely the telegraph, meant there was some coordination, and colonial and metropolitan observances took place almost simultaneously The jubilees of 1887 and 1897, the coronations of 1902 and 1911, and memorial services for dead monarchs exhibited much of the ceremonial style that became such a feature of royal celebration and commemoration in the United Kingdom (they also had an intimate and personal quality which was lacking in special worship for other causes). These popular and multi-faith events also provided a focus for imperial unity in an age of colonial self-government and church independence. The chapter argues that the movements of governors on royal occasions – that is, where they chose to worship – are an important register of the evolving relationship between the monarchy, and the Crown authorities more generally, and the empire’s varied faith communities. The chapter also suggests that royal occasions had an integrative and popular character because colonial communities – from the most privileged to the marginalised – had various reasons for identifying with the monarchy: the Crown might be viewed as a protector of minority rights, a symbol of Protestant ascendancy and a point of appeal.
Chapter 3 considers the meanings that church leaders, lower clergy, congregations and private individuals attached to special acts of worship. It first considers how governments and churches overcame the ‘tyranny of distance’ and spread the news of forthcoming occasions. Observances, responses and styles of worship varied between churches, but within denominations too. Worship in the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches was structured and centralised, as archbishops and bishops issued forms of prayer and pastoral letters that guided clergy on the causes of worship and the use of prayer books and liturgies. Cultures of prayer and worship in other Protestant denominations had a freer character. Despite these differences, all churches discovered that colonial conditions required them to give much responsibility for organising special worship to lay communities. In many ways, then, it was the laity that made institutional religion work in the colonial world. The chapter also considers the messages, such as collective sin and divine providence, that clergy communicated to congregations (and to indigenous communities on missions) on fasts and thanksgivings. While ministers and congregations shared common providential beliefs, the chapter recognises that special days of worship could be contested occasions: individuals did not always engage in religious events, people disagreed on the meaning of great calamities, and some occasions, such as Canadian thanksgivings, became more about holidaying and feasting.
This chapter examines how special worship was called and for what reasons. It also explains its longevity. Two broad developments are addressed, both of which bear on two of the key concerns of the book: community and church authority. First, after 1850 special worship in the empire became increasingly fragmented and regionalised. Colonial governments commonly appointed special acts of worship for causes that were specific to their particular colonies, such as droughts and frontier wars. Second, the responsibility for organising and ordering special worship gradually passed from civil to ecclesiastical and other non-state authorities. While the first development – the move towards regional occasions – points to the importance of regional and denominational attachments, the second – the growing visibility of church leaders – suggests the confidence of institutional religion. Though the preponderance of acts of worship called for regional causes indicates that identifications below the level of empires, nations and colonies exerted a powerful pull in the late nineteenth-century empire, developments in communication meant that thanksgivings for royal events, notably coronations and jubilees, were now possible, and could be coordinated at the imperial level by the authorities in church and state in metropolitan Britain. Special worship, then, orientated the inhabitants of empire in several directions, both towards an extended imperial nation, and towards more regional attachments.
Special worship demonstrates the confidence and authority of institutional churches in nineteenth-century ‘new world’ societies. To evidence this point, the chapter considers how churches responded to, and increasingly initiated, community-wide special occasions of worship. Non-Anglicans and non-established churches observed state days of worship more frequently and readily in settler colonies than they did in Britain, though how churches responded to orders and invitations from states varied considerably, as styles of worship within denominations differed. Indeed, occasions that had once been monopolised by Anglicans took on an ecumenical and multi-denominational character in the colonial world, though this important development, one that reveals much about relationships between churches, occurred at different speeds in Canada, Australia and South Africa. The chapter asks why non-established and ‘nonconformist’ churches were drawn to state-appointed acts of worship; it also considers the encouragement that special worship gave to those who believed the empire could be united by a common national or imperial church: Anglicans in particular felt their church could be the kind of broad-based institution that represented the diversity of a far-flung imperial spiritual community.
The introduction defines special worship, explains the chronological and geographical focus, and outlines the book’s key themes. These are brought out through an early examination of the chief similarities and differences between traditions of special worship in the British Isles and the settler colonies. The chief difference, one that provides a key problematic explored in the book, is that while British governments ceased to set aside special days of prayer for all but royal occasions after 1860, colonial states continued to use the royal proclamation to summon their populations to special acts of worship well into the twentieth century. Also, while days of ‘fasting’ and ‘humiliation’, appointed by states, disappeared in the British Isles after 1857, such occasions remained a customary response to crisis in settler societies. All this raises large questions about the nature of authority in colonial societies, the religious basis of community identity and the invention and persistence of tradition in overseas settlements. In addition to exploring these varied histories of special worship, the introduction explains why traditional forms, such as the special day of prayer, require the attention of ‘British world’ scholars. Often the study of colonial society is a search for the new. This book argues that equal attention should be paid to the old and the traditional if the varied character of Britain’s colonial settler societies is to be understood.
Colonial special worship in the period between the American Revolution and the Great War displayed considerable diversity and complexity. Multiple strands of special worship coexisted in colonial societies and sometimes such traditions were in tension with one another. Furthermore, special worship might expose the difference between regions and people, and it could inflame sectarian tensions While the conclusion notes these points of contest and divergence, it draws out the convergences in special worship and emphasises unifying themes. Colonial governments, as well as a good proportion of the colonial public, continued to acknowledge that God exercised divine superintendence over nations and the natural world. Such evidence challenges the view that colonies with cosmopolitan populations were ideal locations for the development of post-Enlightenment forms of secularised government. Special worship shows that traditional practices, ideas and institutions played vital roles in the journeys that settler dominions made towards modernity. The conclusion also considers what special worship achieved (for instance in bolstering the confidence and national credentials of an imperial Anglicanism), and the extent to which the traditions discussed in the book evolved in the twentieth century and persist to the present day.