Mar  2016 09
Needed: National Day of Fasting, Prayer, and Humiliation

When I teach church school classes on the subject of church and state, I ask the class participants if they support a national day of thanksgiving. Assent is unanimous. Then, I ask if they would support a national day of fasting. Hands in the air are few.

Most people are surprised that the U.S. has a history of proclaiming national fast days. Some Lenten season in the future, I’d like to see Christian churches (rather than Congress) proclaim a fast day for the nation.

Here is what I mean:

Presidential or congressional proclamations for a national day of prayer, fasting, and humiliation were issued during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Note the common theme of war.

In Harry Stout’s excellent book, On the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, he explicates why fasts were proclaimed by both sides of that conflict.

In a nation that framed its life as the New Israel and looking for national meaning in the stories of the Old Testament, each side believed a battle lost was due, in part, to the people’s sin. Proclaiming a fast was to cleanse the sins of the people and increase the likelihood of victory in battle.

Here is a nice article in which the author links to and compares the wording of national day of prayer and fasting proclamations. The practice of declaring a prayer day died at the end of the Civil war and was revived in we-are-not-godless-communists 1952.

However, whereas earlier proclamations were for prayer, fasting, and humiliation, only the call for a day of prayer survived.

The Civil War calls for fasting and prayer could be one-sided. The national proclamation in 1864 reads as a condemnation of the rebellious South. But the wording of the March 30, 1863 is different, and foreshadows Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address—the nation (not one side of the conflict) has sinned and the war is punishment for sin.

And, insomuch as we know that, by His divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People? (From Abraham Lincoln Online)

 And, from the Second Inaugural Address:

If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether"

Note that the President of the United States acknowledged that the nation has sinned. This confession is the antithesis of the doctrine of American Exceptionalism that is so powerful today.

 Now, I don’t want the President of the United States or Congress to declare a national day of fasting, prayer, and humiliation. What I’d like to see is a movement by Christian leaders—not Congress—to name and declare an annual day of fasting for the nation’s sins.

No, not for a collection of individual offenses and for what persons do (or are imagined to do) in private. I am thinking more of the big stuff, the public sins of omission and commission that are stains on the history, soul, and present life of the nation.

For my next and last blog in this series, I’ll draft what I think belongs in a “call for a day of fasting” for the sins of the U.S.A.


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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