In 1804, Great Britain and her colonies were under threat of attack by French forces. As a call went out for a season of prayer and fasting, the Rev. Archibald Gray delivered the following sermon on this day, August 10th, in 1804. To read the full sermon, click here. The last paragraph shown below in bold print, speaks of the nature of a solemn fast and provides a particularly good and useful definition.
“Shall we despond in the present state of our country? Shall we rashly distrust the care of an overruling Providence, which has upheld her in many a perilous contest? . . . ‘It is good to hope, and quietly wait, for the salvation of the Lord.’ In His mercy the means of our safety will be found.”
A Sermon, preached on 10th August, 1809, the day appointed, by Government, for a General Fast, by Archibald Gray, minister of the Church of Scotland, and pastor of the Protestant Dissenting Congregation, Halifax, Nova-Scotia. Halifax: Printed by John Howe, 1804.
“Praise thy God, O Zion, for He hath strengthened the bars of thy gates.”
Among the nations of the East, a disposition has always prevailed to express the sentiments of piety and devotion by some correspondent external act. Thus a sacrifice was offered by the sinner, not as an atonement for his offences, but, as an acknowledgment of his unworthiness and guilt; a tacit confession that he deserved, himself, to suffer that death, which was inflicted on the victim thus substituted in his room. From the altar, reared by the hand of the grateful worshipper, the smoke of incense ascended to heaven, along with the praise of his Creator, for some recent, and signal, instance of divine goodness. And, on occasion of great calamities, or where such appeared to threaten them, nations, as well as individuals, have set apart, in token of their humiliation before God, certain seasons for solemn fasting.
It may not be improper, considering the purpose for which we are assembled, this day, to premise a few words on the nature of a fast. The greatest, and warmest, disputes have ever arisen from the merest trifles. Mankind have often been divided about external ceremonies; yet external ceremonies are of very little consequence. Whether a man should sit, or stand, or bend the knee, in the presence of his Maker, when he addresses Him in the language of praise and adoration; whether or not he should appoint, for periodical and solemn approaches to the throne of grace, some particular day, the twelfth or fourteenth of the moon; whether he should repeat certain prayers, in white garments or black, with his head covered or bare, appear, at first view and while the passions are yet uninflamed by the heat of controversy and the strife of words, matters of the greatest indifference. That the heart should be sincere, and the affections truly devout, see, to a man of plain sense, the only circumstances which, in such cases, demand our serious attention, as what the Almighty will, undoubtedly, require.
In like manner, in fasting, the external observance can be of little consequence, if considered separately from the affections of the mind. An abstinence from our usual indulgences may be a proper expression of humiliation, but it can be nothing more. In itself it has no claim to merit; it can prove of no avail; it can only be acceptable to heaven as it is connected with the sentiments of sorrow for sin, and sincere resolutions of penitence. “To break the bands of wickedness, not to bow down the head like a bullrush,” saith the Spirit of God, by the voice of the prophet, “is the fast that the LORD hath chosen.”
We are called upon as individuals, and as members of society who hold the welfare of their country dear, to confess, with deep and unfeigned contrition, our private and our national sins, which might, long before now, have justly drawn upon us the judgments of heaven. We should be sensible, indeed we cannot but be sensible, that in many respects we have frequently and heinously offended. While we form, therefore, the virtuous resolutions of penitence and amendment for the time to come, let us humbly implore, through the merits of our powerful Mediator, the pardon and remission of the past. Let us pray that the Father of mercies would deal with us rather “according to the multitude of His tender mercies,” than after our own demerits; that He would “still pity us as a father pities his children,” but forbear to “chasten us in His wrath,” or “visit us in His hot displeasure.” What created being, alas! is able to stand before Omnipotence incensed? When the measure of the sinner’s iniquities is full, and he endeavours not, by penitence and reformation, to cancel his transgressions, or to appease the Judge of the world, if that God whom he appears to brave, but raise His voice in indignation, for a moment, certain destruction overtakes him—sudden and fearful as falls the thunderbolt from heaven. Not on us, O Lord, not on us, sinners, we confess, but repentant sinners, let the weight of Thine indignation fall. We confess, with sorrow, our sins and humbly deprecate thy wrath. O Thou First and Last, Thou greatest and best of beings, what are we? Blind, feeble, and erring mortals, creatures of yesterday, who tomorrow shall mingle with the dust from which we sprung; what are we that Thou shouldest chasten us in Thine anger? Is not man but as an atom in Thy universe; and the son of man but as a worm before Thee? Or if our own insignificance be insufficient to shield us from Thy wrath, hear, we beseech Thee, the voice of intercession from Him whom Thou hearest always; and look on the blood that flowed from the cross to wash away the sins of men and of nations.
Abstinence from food is nothing; nor are any outward marks of humiliation of the least importance, but so far as they are undissembled and faithful tokens of the affections which prevail within. We have, this day, assembled to make confession of our sins, and to implore, for ourselves and for our country, the pardon of heaven, and the continuance of that protection and favour, by which, above every other land, ours has been long and eminently distinguished. To the prayer of unfeigned piety the God, whom we serve, refuseth not to listen. But let us beware of deceiving ourselves; of “approaching Him with our lips, while our hearts are far from Him.” No secrets can be hid from His all-searching eye. And though He rejecteth not the sighing of a contrite heart, neither desireth the death of a sinner, though He is ready to aid, by His good Spirit, the struggles of returning virtue, and to receive, like a tender father, with favour and indulgence, His repentant, though prodigal son. He cannot view, without indignation, the presumptuous boldness of those weak mortals who substitute a show of devotion in the room of sincere virtue, of good and holy resolutions, who bow down before Him as it were in mockery, and approach Him “with a lie in their right hand.”
The folly of such an attempt can be surpassed only by its danger. Sensible of guilt and of frailty, we should seek, in all humbleness of mind, some means of expiating our past offences, some prop to sustain our weakness, in time to come, against the temptations which surround and will infallibly assail us. For the faithful disciple of the Saviour, this atonement and support are abundantly provided. Let us come unto God, through Him, and every stain shall be wiped away, with which sin hath polluted our souls. TO all who earnestly solicit it, divine assistance shall be given. To the weak, who are conscious of their weakness yet desirous of persevering in virtue, wisdom and strength shall be imparted from on high. By hypocrisy all our former offences shall be dyed in indelible crimson. Instead of securing an interest in the merits of our Lord, or winning the Spirit of truth to take up His abode in our hearts, by a semblance of piety, while we are strangers to its power and benign influence on our temper and conduct, we shall quench the Spirit of God, crucify our Redeemer afresh, and put Him to open shame. Encumbered with a load of guilt voluntarily incurred, we may “strive to enter,” according to the expression of our Lord, “the strait gate of life, but shall find to our confusion, that we are finally and for ever excluded.
The nature of a solemn fast, then, appears to be the humbling of ourselves in the presence of our Creator, attended with the confession of our sins, an earnest solicitation of pardon, and a faithful and steady determination to amend our lives. As an individual learns, in the hard school of affliction, to reflect on those blemishes in his character, which the dazzling sunshine of prosperity had wholly prevented him from discerning; so societies and nations, who, blessed with a long train of fortunate events, are almost ready to forget God, when calamity overtakes or appears to menace them, call to mind with profound regret, their national iniquities; and the nation, like the individual, conscious of guilt and humbled by chastisement, sinks in the dust before her Judge and seeks by humble supplication to avert or to mitigate the sentence of avenging justice.