The 1857 Day of Humiliation
When a crisis hits a nation there are a number of things its monarch or government can do. One is to call for a day of prayer to seek the Lord. Of course, any British politician making such a suggestion today would be ridiculed, labelled a fanatic and hounded from office.
But nobody laughed at Queen Victoria and her government when they called for just such a day of prayer and humiliation in 1857. It was their response to the news of atrocities being carried out against British soldiers, their wives and children, by Indians within the British Army. Massive shock-waves reverberated throughout the country when reports of the Indian Mutiny reached these shores.
And so Wednesday 7 October 1857 was set aside. Officially it was ‘the day appointed by proclamation for a solemn fast, humiliation, and prayer before Almighty God: in order to obtain pardon of our sins, and for imploring his blessing and assistance on our arms for the restoration of tranquillity in India’.
So seriously was the call for a day of humiliation taken, that the country virtually shut down. Almost the entire population attended their nearest place of worship. The nation was stunned and people turned to prayer.
The following day the London Times carried reports from 159 different places of worship in the London area. Many held two services; some had three. The same story could have been told anywhere else in the country. The day of humiliation was carefully observed throughout the population.
No one doubted that the mutiny was a divine visitation upon the nation. Moreover, everyone agreed that those caught up in the revolt were not personally responsible for their sufferings and bereavements. But what was the sin that caused the visitation?
Here there was widespread agreement. The sermons quoted in the Times are noteworthy in their unity on this point. Britain had failed India — specifically because of shyness in promoting the gospel.
The Dean of St Paul’s told his congregation that foremost amongst Britain’s sins ‘was neglect in spreading Christianity among the idolatrous and infidel populations of India’.
The headmaster of Merchant Taylors’ School, preaching in the chapel at Gray’s Inn, said that God had put India’s vast resources at our disposal for the promotion of his glory and the good of her people. But ‘our great, our crying, sin was that we had not fulfilled this mission’.
Other sins were mentioned, such as the opium trade and the greedy acquisition of territory. But the recurrent theme was Britain’s reticence in evangelism.
At St Michael’s Cornhill the congregation were told: ‘Our wondrous empire in the East was God’s gift; we won it not by our own sword, as the history of British India made evident. It was given to us that we might teach the nations the way of salvation. We had proved unfaithful to our trust. We had rather helped idolatry than Christianity’.
The Rev. Kelly, preaching in Hoxton, said: ‘To what purpose were our great Indian possessions entrusted to us but to scatter among its teeming population the healing of the Cross? But how sorely we have failed!’
This was the almost universal conclusion, but how right was it?
Men on the make
We cannot pronounce on the purposes of God in history with any sense of certainty. It would be arrogant and foolish to do so, either regarding current or past events. But with hindsight we can make some general observations.
The first thing to say is that if evangelism in India was half-hearted in the 1850s, it was still far better than anything that had gone before or anything which followed it. The Christianising efforts may have been paltry and worthy of divine judgement, but they actually marked something of a high point.
The plain fact is that the traders of the East India Company in the previous century were men on the make. Their aim was not to Christianise or plant English culture on the sub-continent, but to establish trading centres. The seeds of empire were sown entirely with a view to reaping an economic crop.
In those early days the English had been content to integrate into the society as they found it. There was genuine curiosity and respect for Indian culture, but it meant shutting eyes to such barbarous practices as suttee, where a widow was burnt on her late husband’s funeral pyre. There was no missionary endeavour, and it was only in 1793 that William Carey sailed for India.
After the Indian mutiny had been put down, the British Government addressed the issues it had raised. One decision was that there should be no interference with Indian religions. Accordingly, direct evangelism effectively dried up.
It is therefore strange to conclude that God was punishing the nation for its half-heartedness in evangelism at a time when it was more active than before and far clearer than afterwards.
The second observation is that the verdict from British pulpits on the Day of Humiliation were markedly different from the rumours flying around India at the start of the mutiny. At the start of the troubles in May 1857 it was said that the British were enforcing their culture and religion upon native Indians.
The spark that lit the powder keg was the rumour that the British were introducing new rifles for soldiers in the Indian army. The Enfield rifle required a soldier to bite off the end of the cartridge before it could be fired. But the tallow with which these cartridges were greased was presumed to have come from either pigs or cattle.
Pigs were offensive to Muslims and cows were sacred to Hindus. The nation was suddenly united in religious outrage. The rifle may have been superior but the price of antagonising a broad swathe of northern India was massive.
The Indian mutiny was both created and fed on rumour. Both sides acted on the basis of gossip. Rumours of Indian atrocities by a few disaffected rebels were talked up and blamed on entire civilian populations. This precipitated a lust for revenge by British soldiers, and reprisals were severe and often disproportionate.
So what we have is the Indian view that their British overlords were imposing their culture, including Christianity, upon them. On the other side, the British at home widely believed the mutiny was a divine visitation for our failure to propagate the gospel.
How do we reconcile these conflicting points of view? As ever, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
A problem of attitude
The problem with the British in India in the mid 19th century was largely their attitude. Most of them hated being there and grew to resent everything about India — its culture, its religion, its climate and, perhaps above all, its people.
Often men took postings reluctantly and because there was nothing better to do. Wives and children dutifully accompanied them but passed the time counting the days to the return passage home.
Sundays may have included the rituals of normal Victorian church attendance, but other days were spent in cosseted boredom. They remained in the shade waited upon by hordes of attendants, their homes stocked with a full array of British goods.
Socialising was predictably limited to little enclaves of Europeans. The environment was a natural breeding ground for racial prejudice and an imperial arrogance that looked down on native Indians with disdain.
So it was not so much the British reticence to bring the gospel to India that was the problem, but the widespread disregard for Christian living in the context of an Indian culture that created such tension.
There were, of course, many noble exceptions. In some homes a genuine godliness prevailed, Christianity was taught in life and word, and native Indians treated with respect and affection.
But overall, the prevailing attitude was that British culture and religion were pearls that India neither needed nor deserved. Folk back home thought there was a failure when it came to proclaiming the gospel. But in reality the greater failure was the unwillingness to live anything like a distinctively Christian life in an Indian environment.
If native Indians thought the British were planning to impose Christianity on them, they were wrong. But then again, they had neither understood nor seen Christianity. Had they witnessed the genuine article they might not have feared it.
A multi-cultural world
For Christians living in a multi-cultural world full of tension, the past still has vital lessons for us to grasp. Whatever else this episode in British history teaches, it is not the lesson that the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ should be discarded along with the rest of the baggage of the empire.
In fact it teaches a wholly different message — that declaring God’s truth is not enough. To be faithful to the Lord who calls us, it must be accompanied by a Christianity which warms to, and respects, the humanity it seeks to save.