Feasting and Fasting in Puritan New England

thanksgivingThe 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 img_0936defeats 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.

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7 thoughts on “Feasting and Fasting in Puritan New England

  1. You are on to something. My husband is a deacon in the Eastern Catholic Church (Melkite) and they celebrate the Byzantine Rite. There is much fasting in this tradition — a few weeks before Christmas to prepare, and all during Lent. I am no cook and was not raised in this tradition so we don’t observe the absolute (no meat, no dairy, only shell fish, etc.), plus I need calcium and my husband is type 2 diabetic. Anyway, we observe a modified version of these fasts (we eat no meat but have fish and dairy). I admit that I struggle with the spiritual benefits of fasting but do it anyway because somewhere along the way I feel I will finally learn the value of fasting. Intellectually I know what those benefits are but they are yet to be revealed to my heart. There is something in my gut that says it is worthwhile and someday it will be revealed. I look forward to that day.

  2. Good history, and history is a solid baseline for examining not only human behavior and the human condition at a certain time but for measuring our course through time and culture since then. Equally interesting and important is how and why we transform historical fact. As the philosopher–economist Nassim Taleb says, predicting the past is sometimes more difficult than predicing the future. That is to say, I think, that because we have so many facts about the past, knowing the right way to put them together and what to make of them is more difficult than predicting the future about which we know little.

    Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves about history are both more revealing and/or more important than the facts of history. But to understand our stories and ourselves as narrative confabulating minds, we need the kind of history you’ve provided.

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