The familiar story of the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony was created in the 19th century and the myth is so charming we cling to it even though we know it’s a distortion of the historical facts. While the New England colonists occasionally celebrated days of thanksgiving, fast days were more common.
These days, we often think of fasting – if we think of it at all – as a way of shedding pounds gained through too much feasting. But for the Puritans, fasting was always a religious observance, with the focus was on God, not their own waistlines.
Puritans held fasts or “solemn days of humiliation” to pray for God’s mercy and help. They prayed about everything from bad weather, poor harvests and sickness, to military defeats and international tensions. On fast days no food was eaten from sundown to sundown. Daily work was set aside and people gathered at the meetinghouse to hear a jeremiad, a sermon lamenting the reasons for God’s displeasure such as greed, pride, laziness, or sensuality. After worship they were expected to spend the rest of the day in sober reflection on the problem. Sometimes, such as after King Philip’s War, a day of fasting was followed by a day of thanksgiving.
The notebook of the Reverend John Fiske of Wenham in Massachusetts Bay Colony provides a window into some Puritan fasts in the 1600s:
Oct. 19, 1644 – A solemn day of humiliation kept regarding the dominance of the Presbyterian faction in England.
Jan. 2, 1645 – A solemn day of humiliation kept because of “the extremity of the season,” and concern for the church and town.
Jan. 1, 1647 – A fast due to “the affliction of sickness and death of some in this town,” that God’s would stay his hand from “this day hence.”
Feb. 20, 1648 – A colony-wide fast by order of the General Court [the governing body of the Colony] for England, the West Indies and Massachusetts Bay Colony.
April 15, 1648 – A day of humiliation for a member who had resisted the church’s discipline.
Feb. 28, 1661 – A “day of humiliation before the scriptures” to seek reconciliation with everyone in the church.
Not many of us want to go back to Puritan days. We’d have a hard time dealing with the restrictions and rigidity of their lifestyle. But maybe we’ve discarded some of their practices at a cost. In this time of national division and material excess, maybe it’s worth considering ways we could incorporate a few periods of sober reflection into our lives.