Front Page Titles (by Subject) 363.: THE GENERAL FAST MORNING CHRONICLE, 23 MAR., 1847, P. 4 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
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363.: THE GENERAL FAST MORNING CHRONICLE, 23 MAR., 1847, P. 4 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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THE GENERAL FAST
Queen Victoria had issued a Proclamation setting 24 Mar. as a day of General Fast (London Gazette, 12 Mar., p. 1025, from which Mill quotes). Several groups, including the Society of Friends, refused to observe the day. This first leader (following the parliamentary report) is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A leading article on the General Fast, in the Morning Chronicle of 23d March 1847”
(MacMinn, p. 68).
to-morrow has been appointed for what is called a “public fast and humiliation,” in consideration of “the heavy judgments with which Almighty God is pleased to visit the iniquities of this land, by a grievous scarcity and dearth of divers articles of sustenance and necessaries of life.” The extraordinary document in which this observance is enjoined—copied, we suppose, from some similar notification in the reign of Henry VIII or Elizabeth,1 with the omission only of the strength of expression which in that time was given by sincerity—not only assumes such familiarity with the Divine councils as to threaten all “who contemn and neglect the performance of so religious and necessary a duty” with the “wrath and indignation” of God, but menaces them, in addition, with temporal punishments which the authors of the proclamation perfectly well know that they have not the power to inflict. Perhaps it is well that a manifest untruth should thus stand on the threshold, as a stumbling-block to those—they must be very few, we think—who might be in danger of supposing that there was any sincerity in the remainder of the exhibition. We do not share the opinion, that those who have ordained the fast will not observe it: this would be contrary to good taste, and to the spirit of the time, which being a spirit of minute criticism on all persons who are before the public, requires a certain consistency in that assumption of being what they are not, which friends call by the name of decorum, and enemies by that of hypocrisy. But whoever has any knowledge of the opinions of the educated classes of the community, is quite aware of the real state of the case. The authors of the proclamation just as much believe that the potato failure is a judgment on our national sins, or that fasting will be any help towards averting the Divine anger, as they believe that “punishment may be inflicted on all such as contemn and neglect the performance” of the farce.
No persons with any pretensions to instruction now see a special interposition of Providence in a blight, any more than in a thunder storm. The only difference is that we now know something about the physical causes of the one, and do not yet know those of the other. That it has physical causes is just as certain as that thunder, a century ago, was as much a mystery as the potato disease is now. We do not imagine that there is one person in the Court or Cabinet, or fifty in the House of Commons, who in private would affect to believe that the potato failure is a miracle, or who does not look upon this so-called religious observance as a piece of empty mummery, and upon the notion of propitiating Heaven by ascetic practices on the occasion of a public calamity as belonging to an entirely gone-by order of religious ideas.
If the Government had thought that there was any reason or meaning in the observance, would they have waited for the prompting of Mr. Plumptre?2 The portion of the public of whom that gentleman is the spokesman, is not one whose lead the present or any other Government is accustomed to follow. The fast is ordered, as so many other things are done, to avoid a discussion in the House of Commons; and because our public men shrink from the responsibility of asserting the good sense of the community against the nonsense of an unimportant section of it, the same who regard the scarcity as a Divine judgment on the nation for increasing the grant to Maynooth,3 or some other enormity of that description, committed by anybody but those on whom the calamity has fallen.
The line of the Gazette which preceded the Order in Council is a comment on the bonâ fide character of this national “humiliation.” It announced that the drawing-room, which was to have been held on the day following that appointed for the fast, would be held not on that day, but two days later.4 When people, believing that for their “manifold sins and provocations” they are under the wrath of an infinitely wise and just Being, manifested by a “sore punishment,” rush to make confession of those sins, and with “contrition and penitence of heart” “humble” themselves before this Being, and implore that, in consideration of their repentance, He will “withdraw his afflicting hand,” do they, three days after, go flaunting in the pomps and fopperies of the emptiest form of human vanity? Was it thus that people acted when they believed in the reality of judgments and in the efficacy of fasts? If there were any sense in the words used by the proclamation, if it entered into the mind of any person to understand them seriously, would there not be something actually monstrous in having gala days and Court receptions until the judgment had been taken off? Could such things be if men believed what this proclamation asserts? Would not the theatres be closed, all amusement suspended—would there be any balls or dinner parties, any marrying or giving in marriage5 —would any one set out on a journey of pleasure, or undertake projects either of recreation or of worldly advancement, while labouring under this deep sense of guilt and of Divine wrath, and unknowing as yet whether the prayer and atonement had been accepted? The agony and distress of Wednesday, with the levity and frivolity following by pre-arrangement on Saturday, seem to show the absence of any intention to make the demonstration appear more than a form. There is the grimace of deep religious feeling, but there is not the affectation of its actual existence.
The Government probably thought that the nodus was not dignus vindice,6 and that it was better to reserve their strength for more practical matters. We think this wrong; for there are few things more practically mischievous than giving the countenance of authority to the religious notions characteristic of a rude age. It is to such notions, and the deference paid to them, that we owe the wreck of all good schemes of Government education, a thing far otherwise important than the obsolete ceremonies announced for to-morrow’s representation.
[1 ]The wording is close to that of a document of Charles I, issued 14 Feb., 1629: A Proclamation for a Generall Fast to Bee Held Throughout This Realme of England (London: Bonham, et al., 1629).
[2 ]John Pemberton Plumptre (1791-1864), banker, M.P. for East Kent 1832-52, who in his concern for the plight of Ireland had urged in his Speech on the Address to Her Majesty (21 Jan., 1847), the adoption of an “act of general humiliation before God” (PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 89, cols. 203-4).
[3 ]An annual parliamentary grant to Maynooth College, a seminary in Ireland for training Roman Catholic priests, had been substantially increased in 1845, against considerable Protestant complaint, by 8 & 9 Victoria, c. 25.
[4 ]The item preceding the proclamation, headed “Lord Chamberlain’s Office, March 9, 1847,” announces the postponement.
[5 ]Cf. Matthew, 24:38, with reference to the days just before the Flood.
[6 ]Horace, Ars Poetica, in Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica, p. 466 (191).