A Revolutionary Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell

To punish Bostonians for the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed the Boston Port Act on March 31, 1774. It closed the port of Boston to all goods as of June 1. On May 24, 1774, after news of the punitive legislation reached Virginia, the House of Burgesses adopted a measure that ordered June 1 as "a day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer" for its members "devoutly to implore the divine interposition, for averting the heavy Calamity which threatens destruction to our Civil Rights, and the Evils of civil War."

Jefferson recollected in his autobiography that on the evening of May 23, he, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and several others (whom he could not recall), "agreeing that we must boldly take an unequivocal stand in the line with Massachusetts," met in the chamber of the Governor's Council to take advantage of its library. "We were under conviction," Jefferson wrote, "of the necessity of arousing our people from the lethargy into which they had fallen as to passing events." They purposefully reached for John Rushworth's Historical Collections, a decidedly parliamentarian documentary history of the English civil wars, "for the revolutionary precedents & forms of the Puritans of that day." From Rushworth's playbook for bringing down the entire English constitutional establishment—the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the Church of England—Jefferson and his compatriots "cooked up a resolution, somewhat modernizing their phrases," for setting a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer for June 1. Taking the language from a similar action of the House of Commons in the 1640s, their stated goal was "to implore heaven to avert from us the evils of civil war, to inspire us with firmness in support of our rights, and to turn the hearts of the King—parliament to moderation—justice." Understanding that the message would be lost on the other member of the House of Burgesses without the right messenger, the group decided that the colony's pious Treasurer, Robert Carter Nicholas, "whose grave—religious character was more in unison with the tone of our resolution" should offer it the next day. Nicholas agreed and the measure was adopted by the House without opposition as an order for its members to observe June 1 by assembling in the chamber in the morning and proceeding as a body, led by the Speaker and accompanied by the Mace, to Bruton Parish Church for prayers and "a Sermon, suitable to the Occasion" (The measure, therefore, was not, as some historians have believed, a resolution establishing the observance for the whole colony, which would have required the concurrence of the upper chamber of the legislature and the assent of the governor).

Although no one actively opposed the measure in the House, it was not unanimously approved outside of it. John Randolph, a member of the House of Burgesses and the colony's Attorney General, invoked the precepts set out in the Book of Isaiah for proper observance of fasting, prayer, and humiliation when he decried the House's action in his "Considerations on the Present State of Virginia" (1774). His son, Edmund Randolph, America's first attorney general, also subtly criticized the cynicism of the measure's authors when he recalled, "Such is the constitution of things that an act of public devotion will receive no opposition from those who believe in its effect to appease offended heaven and is registered in the cabinet of the politician as an allowable trick of political warfare." The Rev. Thomas Gwatkin, an Episcopal minister and professor of the College of William and Mary appointed by the House to deliver the June 1 sermon, declined the duty "civilly but with firmness." Although a supporter of American rights, Gwatkin had very decided views against using the Church as a forum for disputes "concerning a Matter of civil Policy."

The measure's most affronted opponent was Virginia's governor, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore. After reading the printed text of the order on May 26 (Dunmore had spent the previous day and night with George Washington at his farm outside of town), Dunmore immediately dissolved the assembly. On May 29, Dunmore explained to Lord Dartmouth, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, that the order of the burgesses declared, "what they are fond of having it thought always originates with them, a determined resolution to deny and oppose the authority of Parliament." Moreover, Dunmore believed that the order was "intended to prepare the minds of the people to receive other resolutions" that "could tend only to inflame the whole Country, and instigate the People to acts that might rouse the indignation of the Mother Country against them." To prevent "those ill effects," Dunmore employed "the only means" in his power, which he feared "will not be effectual": With the unanimous advice of the Council, he dissolved the assembly. The only silver lining that Dunmore could find were reports he "heard from many of the dissolved Members" that the religious measure was proposed and agreed to before most members could consider its political implications; had they been given more time to consider the order, "it is believed a very strong opposition would have been made to it, and probably that it might have had a different fate."

To burgesses such as Washington and Richard Henry Lee, the dissolution "was as sudden as unexpected" because Washington thought the day of fasting and prayer order was tame in comparison with resolves "of a much more spirited nature" that had been postponed until they had taken care of more important business (which were perhaps the resolves to which Dunmore referred in his letter to Dartmouth). The next day, on May 27, the former burgesses met at the Raleigh Tavern and adopted the resolves they had been holding back. They denounced the closure of the Boston port as an "attempt to destroy the constitutional liberty of all North America," adopted another non-importation association against tea and other East India Company goods, and called for a continental congress to consider "the united interests of America." Jefferson remembered that they "declared that an attack on any one colony should be considered as an attack on the whole."

On June 1, Washington and other burgesses "went to Church and fasted all day." In place of Gwatkin, the sermon was delivered by the chaplain of the House of Burgesses, the Rev. Thomas Price, who chose for his text Genesis 18:23, the answer to Abraham's question to the Lord about the destruction of Sodom: "Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?" Other burgesses, such as Jefferson, returned home to organize June 1 as a fast day in their communities. Jefferson recalled his impression that "the effect of the day thro' the whole colony was like a shock of electricity." Edmund Randolph went even further, confirming Dunmore's worst fears, when he proclaimed the order as "a cement among the colonies" that "brought home to the bosom of each colony that the apprehensions of every other." Randolph believed that if Dartmouth and the rest of the British ministry had taken a closer look at the measure, it "might have well been interpreted into the seed of a revolution."

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