January 4: A Day of Fasting and Humiliation

Fast Day Sermons; or The Pulpit on the State of the Country is a collection of sermons which were delivered on January 4, 1861, in answer to a proclamation from President James Buchanan, setting that day “apart for fasting, humiliation, and prayer throughout the nation.” When that day arrived, across the nation special services were held in churches, public buildings were closed, and many businesses were shuttered for the day. Later these sermons were gathered as representative of the divisions splitting the nation apart.

The unnamed editor of the volume, in his introductory Preface, sets out the purpose of the book,

The following Discourses are collected in a volume in the belief that they will have a historical interest. These are Revolutionary times. The country is profoundly agitated, not on a question of party, but of National existence. On the very brink of dissolution, we are led to pause and review the causes that have brought us to this. While the people attend eagerly to the appeals of their leaders, thoughtful men will listen silently to the calm voices of the Pulpit, from which they will expect a clearer statement of the principles which underlie all this popular turbulence.

Even after all these years, the editor’s approach seems surprisingly academic and sterile. Disturbingly so. For our purposes, the book is noteworthy because Presbyterians are well represented on both sides of the terrible debate. Our little blog isn’t the appropriate place to try to lay out an understanding of how we might appreciate the bulk of a man’s teaching while at the same time entirely rejecting what is sinful in his life. Nor do we have space here to wonder at how otherwise seemingly good men can be so misled by their culture, or to ponder how has our own culture may have blinded us to sins that an earlier generation would never have tolerated?

From among the sermons, this one quote from “The Union to be Preserved,” by Robert J. Breckinridge will have to suffice, to give a flavor of the book and to give some words of comfort, as we in our own day strive to trust in God in the face of trials and troubling times:

After all, my friends—after all, we have the great promise of God that all things shall work together for good to them that love Him. I do not know but that it may be the mind of God, and His divine purpose, to break this Union up, and to make of it other nations, that shall at last be more powerful than it, unitedly, would have been. I do not know, I do not pretend to say, how the Lord will use the passions of men to glorify His name. He restrains the remainder of wrath and will cause the wrath of man to praise Him. We have His divine assurance that all nations that have gone before us, and all that will follow us, and we ourselves, by our rise, by our progress, and alas! by our decay and ruin, are but instruments of His infinite purpose, and means in His adorable providence, whereby the everlasting reign of Messiah, the Christ of God, is to be made absolute and universal.

Great then is our consolation, as we tremble for our country, to be confident in our Lord! Great is our comfort as we bewail the miseries which have befallen our glorious inheritance, to know that the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth! Infinitely precious is the assurance, amidst the trials now impending, and the woes which threaten us, that the heroic self-devotion with which our personal duty is discharged, is one part of our fitness to become partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light!

Words to Live By: As true today as ever, we need humility and repentance as we stand before our Lord. We stray so easily, and so repentance must become a daily, even constant discipline. Salvation belongs to the Lord. His blessing is upon His people. On that we can rely.

Also on this day, January 4th:
1715 – marks the birth of the Rev. Aaron Burr, Sr.
1947 – the Rev. Peter Marshall was appointed chaplain of the U.S. Senate.

For Further Study:
If you want to dig deeper, the book is available on the Web, here: Fast Day Sermons; or The Pulpit on the State of the Country. (New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1861). It makes for difficult reading, in many parts. For one, arguments on both sides of the debate were deficit. But for an heartening comparison, make a point to also read and compare the Alexander McLeod’s work, Negro Slavery Unjustifiable (1802). What would have been different had the force of McLeod’s arguments held center stage? Would history have been any different?

[I have to mention one particular surprise among the editor’s comments—one which caught me completely off-guard—when he says that he saw R.L. Dabney’s message as milder and gentler, and that he saw Dabney more as a minister of the Prince of Peace than a Southern partisan. Knowing just a little of the man that Dabney became, I never would have expected that assessment!]

Note: Our Through the Scriptures and Through the Standards sections have now been replaced by RSS feeds which appear at the top of right-hand column (for the day’s entry) and can now also be found at the foot of each blog post.



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