Every year the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland observes a day of humiliation and prayer in all its congregations at home and abroad. The day is set apart by the Synod in order to acknowledge our personal sins and the sins of whatever nation under heaven to which we may happen to belong; also to plead with the Most High that He would grant us an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In all our congregations in Britain, the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Zimbabwe, Kenya and the Ukraine this duty has been attended to, and our hope is that an answer will be forthcoming in His time. “The duty is ours; the grace is His.” Our plea to the powers that be for the appointment of a national day of humiliation and prayer in view of the low moral and spiritual state of our own land has hitherto fallen on deaf ears.
The last occasion such a day was appointed was during the dark days of World War II, when King George VI was on the throne. And the subsequent course of events showed that its observance was not in vain. Now clouds of war are gathering again over the Middle East, and no one seems to know where the train of events will lead which such a conflict is bound to set in motion. In these circumstances would it not be well if our Queen were to call for another national day of humiliation and prayer? But that, we fear, is no more than wishful thinking on our part.
Many books have been written which have analysed the cause and the course of the American Civil War. It would appear that many good men – and even some who were noted for their godliness – were found in the opposing Union and Confederate armies. Among them, for instance, was the noted theologian Robert L Dabney, who for some time, surprisingly, served as General “Stonewall” Jackson’s Adjutant-General. Jackson, himself, was reputed to be a godly man. His biography, written by Dabney, bears testimony to that. James Henley Thornwell, another noted Southern theologian, was a fervent supporter of the Confederate cause and General Robert E Lee is generally regarded by historians as having been a man of sincere Christian convictions. The same might be said of Abraham Lincoln and others (including the Princeton theologians) who espoused the cause of the Union. God was worshipped in both camps and indeed an interesting book has been written entitled, Great Revival in the Southern Armies.
In the Lord’s providence, however, it was the Southern Army that was defeated at the end of this sad and awful episode in American history The numerical superiority of the Union forces and the greater resources available to them no doubt contributed, as analysts tell us, to this outcome. But was there more to it than that?
The November 1917 issue of the Free Presbyterian Magazine reprinted an interesting article which a Canadian friend had sent to the Editor. It points out that “after two years of bitter and costly fighting had failed to give any striking advantage to the Northern armies and they had experienced humiliating defeats . . . the Senate of the United States began to realise that they needed something more than a righteous cause in order to victory, and at their request Abraham Lincoln issued his celebrated Proclamation”. It was as follows:
“Whereas, the Senate of the United States, devoutly recognizing the supreme authority and just government of Almighty God in all the affairs of men and of nations, has, by a resolution, requested the President to designate and set apart a day for national prayer and humiliation; and
“Whereas, it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord;
“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? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.
“It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.
“Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do by this my proclamation designate and set apart Thursday, the thirtieth day of April 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer. And I do hereby request all the people to abstain on that day from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite at their several places of public worship and their respective homes in keeping the day holy to the Lord and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.
“All this being done in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the divine teachings that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high and answered with blessings no less than the pardon of our national sins and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country to its former happy condition of unity and peace.
“In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.”
“That day of prayer,” the article continues, “was not only the chronological centre of the four years of war, but it was the pivotal point. In less than a week ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, the Southern General who had never known a defeat, fell, accidentally shot by his own men. Many Southerners regard his death as the turning point of the war, believing that had he lived they would have triumphed, for while he lived, as his right-hand man, Lee was more than a match for all the Federal Generals. From that point the cause of the North steadily rose while that of the South declined until Lee surrendered.”
President George W Bush, we fear, is far from making any similar proclamation in 2003 and it may be said that, as in 1917, according to the article quoted, “Britain still fights against the use of the word humiliation in any public appeal for prayer”, and yet almost every word of confession in Lincoln’s proclamation could be used by Britain today, as well as by the United States. It seems likely that, with the strategic building up of land and sea forces, armour and weaponry in the Middle East, war with Iraq is in the offing. In such a situation the conclusion of the article on Lincoln’s Proclamation – written when World War I was at its height – seems particularly relevant: “How much longer must we go on sacrificing the flower of our manhood ere we acknowledge that we cannot win without God, and we cannot appeal to God with hands defiled and hearts that refuse to be humbled before Him?”