WWP The Project Newsletter Volume 4, Number 2

From the Textbase

From Reasons for National Penitence, Recommended for the Fast by Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1794)

We are again commanded to supplicate a pardon of our sins, and to implore the future protection of the Divine Being. A whole people, united in one general act of religion, and impressed with a general sense of their dependence on Providence, exhibit an awful and magnificent spectacle. But if the solemnities of the day are only calculated to display a pompous scene of national worship, their purpose might very justly be derided, and their utility safely denied. There would be a species of pride, even in our acts of humiliation and penance, if they did not generate a train of serious and sober reflections, suited to the present aspect of the times, as well as to our participation in the events which they have produced. We shall not reap any instructions from this religious exercise, unless our attention be directed to the circumstances which rendered it necessary. There are, indeed, in the history of nations, as in the lives of individuals, seasons of sorrow and calamity, when no employment is so pleasant, or useful, as that of "lifting the eyes upwards," and of counting, as it were, the links of the chain, that connects us with heaven. We are, however, performing a service, as displeasing to God, as it is uninstructive to man, if, upon such an occasion, we neglected to enquire into the causes of the misfortunes we lament, or if we did not feel the sincerest penitence for the sins, whose pardon we implore.

It is necessary, therefore, that we should not join in the appointed duties of the day, but with rational and proper conceptions of the end of such an institution. If we imagine that we ought to enter our churches, to pour out our spleen, and express our malice to our enemies, to mingle execrations against them with our prayers for ourselves, we have grossly misunderstood its purpose and its principles. Let us not be deceived. It is not surely an act of public expiation, which is intended to absolve us, as it were, from our former accounts with heaven, and to give us courage and vigour in the future perpetration of our crimes. Nor let us reason with ourselves: -- "The atheists of France never offer up a prayer, nor proclaim public fastings. Surely, then, our austerity and abstinence will obtain the divine assistance and co-operation in our cause." -- We cannot subsidize the Deity, as we have subsidized his majesty of Sardinia. Unless our hearts be penitent, the solemn repetition of liturgies, and the formal confession of our sins, will avail us nothing against the judgements which a whole year of slaughter and devastation has stored up against us. We cannot bribe him into complacence, after having laid waste, and destroyed the fairest scenes of his creation. But when we approach the altar of Peace, with our arms streaming with blood, and our hearts swelling with meditations of still more complete and bloody vengeance, we are only displaying to the world a disgusting alliance of the fiercest barbarity with the most abject superstition. Let us, therefore, clearly apprehend the nature, and the object of the duties, which have been enjoined us, by the public authority of the nation.... A verbal acknowledgement of our errors, however, and an idle and whining lamentation over our misfortunes, is as inconsistent with our duty, as it is unworthy of our dignity. We must resolve to turn from our evil conduct; and we must listen to a lesson of instruction, under the pressure of affliction. Unless we do this, the confession of our crimes will resemble the timid and superstitious devotion of savages; and our sorrow for our calamities will be the voice of effeminate, and even of guilty complaint. He who sins, in spite of experience, incurs an aggravated and severer punishment.

We are, my brethren, a great nation, if we are considered with regard to our power, our resources, our connections, and dependencies. Whatever, therefore, may be the part which we act in the great drama of the world, it is not at least an unimportant, or trifling part. If we have conducted our affairs with imprudence, or temerity; if our measures have been dictated by passion, instead of being conceived in wisdom, the effects of our misconduct must be very extensively and severely felt. We have had it in our power, by moderate and enlightened, or by violent and precipitate counsels, to add to, or to diminish considerably, the general bulk of human happiness. If, instead of availing ourselves of our natural strength, and our acquired greatness, that qualified us to sit as the judge and arbiter of surrounding nations, we have communicated to them a passion for war, and an ambition for conquest, our sin is grievous in proportion to our means of avoiding it. If the measures, which have been fruitful of so much destruction and slaughter, might have been averted by a temperate and conciliatory spirit, we are awfully responsible to Providence for the neglect, or abuse of the trusts communicated to us. If, in our conduct of war, we have been guilty of unnecessary acts of perfidy; and if, while our own island is resounding with exclamations against anarchy and sedition, we ourselves have been industrious in seducing the subjects of another government from their allegiance, we stand convicted before God, of hypocrisy, as well as treachery. If, at home likewise, we have been guilty of intolerance and oppression, and if we have punished, with the same undiscerning severity, the exertions of mistaken zeal with the most base and ignominious crimes, we have abundant reason for national penitence. These are some of those offences, of which, as they stand the foremost in the catalogue, it behoves us seriously and earnestly to repent.

About the Author

Anna Laetitia Barbauld (Aikin) was born in 1743 into a prominent Dissenting family in Leicester. Skilled at languages from an early age, she first learned French and Italian, and then convinced her father (the headmaster of Warrington Academy, the principal Dissenting school) to let her learn Latin and Greek. Her first published work was a volume of poems that appeared in 1773 and ran to four editions, followed in the same year by a volume of prose pieces written by herself and her brother. Following her marriage in 1774, she and her husband established a boarding school for boys, at which she taught literature and geography; during this time she also wrote several books for children, including the highly influential Hymns in Prose.

Reasons for National Penitence was written in 1794, after England had joined the continental war against France, a period when Barbauld, though anonymously, boldly pursued an active interest in political events, writing in favor of the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts, and in favor of abolishing the slave trade. In Reasons for National Penitence, she delivers an impassioned critique of England's "impotent and unfortunate crusade against France," considering at length the nature of political responsibility and national culpability. The excerpt quoted here is the first five pages of the text.

In later years Barbauld also prepared editions of a number of English authors, including Collins and Richardson, and the first omnibus collection of The English Novel. She died in 1825.

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