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.

A Contentious People

PuritansThe New England Puritans were a remarkably contentious people. It doesn’t take much digging to discover that they argued over just about everything. Their early town records are full of reports of extended disputes over everything from the location of the meeting house to acceptable hairstyles. Many of the most heated quarrels were over religious practices. Though – or perhaps because – the Puritans were bound in covenant together, they struggled to see eye-to-eye. But it was not always easy.

Disagreements included:

Music in worship: “old style” (singing lined out psalms to any tune the individual wished) vs. “regular way” (singing all together in an ordered way to specified tunes).
Wearing wigs: Although many viewed wigs as “worldly fashion” the clergy led the trend to wear them. Ministers were considered the most eminent gentlemen in the colony and wigs were status symbols in Restoration England. This devolved into a small-town/big-town dispute and was part of a general debate over the wearing of fancy clothes.
Organ music: a new variation of the music controversy erupted in the late 1600s with the introduction of musical instruments in churches. For many Puritans, the organ symbolized the hated Roman Catholic services but its music was undeniably beautiful, “a snare to the soul and an uncommon danger.”
Baptism and church membership: Should “unregenerate” (ie: unconverted) children of baptized members have full church membership privileges? This was called the “Halfway Covenant” and was one of the most heated controversies of the 17th century.
Same-sex dancing versus mixed-dancing: Puritans weren’t against dancing per se. After all, it was in the Bible. But they argued over how restricted it should be and some towns forbade organized dancing, especially between men and women (which was considered “lascivious.”) When dancing schools opened in Boston in the late 1600’s, Increase Mather became nearly apoplectic in denouncing it, proclaiming that it was a “regular madness” and the Devil was its first inventor. However, when Massachusetts became a royal colony in 1692, dancers rebelled and balls and dances became very popular, spreading throughout the colony and beyond.
Christmas: early New England Puritans forbade the celebration of Christmas, and even made it a crime not to do regular work on Christmas Day. But as time went on and more and more English migrated to the colonies, and there was increased disagreement over observing the holiday.
Funerals: In Massachusetts Bay Colony, first-generation funerals were secular events; loved ones were buried quickly without ceremony. But twenty years later English rituals and practices were surfacing and people began to argue about appropriate funeral customs, including refreshments following a funeral, the use of caskets and gravestones, the presence of ministers, and the wearing of “funeral finery,” including gloves, scarves, ribbons, and rings.
Theater and plays: The theater arts were at the popular center of Elizabethan entertainment culture, but the Puritans associated it with monarchy and homosexuality. Many argued that it encouraged heresy and religious sedition.

Although the issues are different, this long tradition of arguing over local issues continues to this day and is alive and well in that emblem of New England community life: the annual town meeting.

quakers

The Congregational Way

pulpitIt’s nearly impossible to talk about the early Massachusetts Bay Colony without mentioning the Congregational Way. In Massachusetts, the ordained clergy and colonial magistrates worked together to ensure that order and Christian standards prevailed. Like England and the rest of Europe, it never occurred to the people of Massachusetts Bay that religion ought to be a personal choice. Rulers had always guided and regulated their people’s religious practices.

The Puritans were reformers, committed to purifying the Church of England. One of their most radical and far-reaching ideas was their conviction that each congregation should be independent, joined together in a covenant of believers.  Each member was responsible to every other member under the covenant they’d signed on joining. This became the system of “mutual watch,” wherein individual church members were under a religious obligation to keep their neighbors on the straight and narrow. And the church membership decided everything, including the selection of a minister and disposition of finances.

Thus, there was no authority over the local church; individual churches weren’t overseen and regulated by the hierarchy of bishops and archbishops they knew in England. This was, in part, an adaptation to the sheer physical distance between the colony and England, which meant the church hierarchy was too far away to effectively oversee them. But there were times when conflicts and other problems became too big for a local church to handle. They had to figure out a way to regulate themselves and each other.

John Cotton

John Cotton

What they came up with were “associations.” Local churches conferred with others in nearby towns in deciding theological and other issues, such as who was qualified for ministry, how to appropriately discipline church members, and so on. This was basically an extension of “mutual watch.”

In 1648 the clergy of Massachusetts Bay met to standardize church practices. The document they came up with was called The Cambridge Platform. It spelled out procedures for ordaining ministers, accepting new members and appropriate ways for churches to cooperate with each other.

The Congregational Way is still functioning in the institutional polity of churches directly descended from the Puritans – the United Church of Christ, the Unitarians, and the National Association of Continuing Congregationalists.

Some have pointed to the Congregational Way as the beginning of American democracy. It probably didn’t seem very democratic unless you were a white, male Congregational landowner. But at the same time it was more democratic than other institutions in that era. Under the Congregational Way ordinary citizens had the power to make decisions about property and finances, to choose their own leaders, and even to dismiss those leaders when they disagreed with them. And this approach to church governance impacted their way of governing themselves in their towns, in their colonies, and in the association of states that eventually became the United States.

Aftermaths

Wars have aftermaths, and King Philip’s War was no exception.  Few families in Massachusetts Bay Colony were untouched by King Philip’s War and its aftermath.  Although the English colonists considered the war over with the death of Metacomet in August of 1676, hostilities continued for years and bled into the French and Indian War.  Recently, when I was researching my family history, I discovered that one of my own ancestors was a victim of the war’s aftermath.

Indians_Attacking_a_Garrison_HouseAt eleven o’clock on the bright fall morning of September 19th, 1677, a group of about fifty natives attacked the north end of the frontier town of Hatfield, Massachusetts.  Even though the colonists had built a defensive stockade the year before, they were caught off guard.  The men were helping to frame a new house or working in the fields south of the palisade.  The natives never even tried to enter the stockade, instead attacking the houses outside the twelve-foot walls.  Some men standing on top of the new house were shot and fell; others were captured and bound.  Thirteen homes were invaded; seven were burned.  Women and children were killed or captured. The men in the fields saw the smoke and rushed back to the village, but by the time they got there, the Indians had marched their seventeen captives across the fields and turned north on the Poctumtuck path toward Deerfield.  They were bound for Canada.

Among the twelve dead was my ancestor, Mary Meekins, wife of the selectman Samuel Belding.  She left behind seven children, ranging in age from eight to twenty-two.

I imagine that Samuel was shattered.  He no doubt mourned the death of his wife and probably considered her innocent.  Chances are this reinforced the belief he likely shared with many of his fellow colonists – that the Indians were savages.

But there’s always more to the story.

A year and a half before Mary was killed, Samuel had participated in a savage and brutal attack on natives at the falls above Deerfield (now Turner’s Falls).  About one hundred and sixty men launched a surprise assault at dawn which left the natives reeling.  Rushing the sleeping camp, the men fired indiscriminately into their homes, and killed those who tried to escape.  Between 130 to 180 natives were slaughtered – men, women, and children, young and old.  Others drowned in the river as they tried to flee. The native village was then set on fire and all their food stores destroyed.

Even when victory is declared and a people or a nation are encouraged to think a war is over, there are always tensions simmering just under the surface – tensions that may erupt in new violence.  It takes years – often generations – to heal from war’s horrors.  As wise people have often said, it’s easy to start a war; it’s difficult to end one.  Even when it seems to be over, it probably isn’t.

Linen and Laundry

Hausbuch_Wolfegg_18v_19r_BadehausThe 17th century brought a change in English standards of cleanliness. In the middle ages, public bathhouses were common and popular throughout Europe. But concern over the licentious behavior of patrons along with the spread of the plague put a damper on public bathing. People began to believe that it wasn’t safe to immerse their whole bodies in water as medical theories developed about the dangers posed by extremes of temperature and moisture. Hot water opened the skin’s pores, making the body more susceptible to “venomous air.” And cold water chilled the body and blocked perspiration. It seemed as if dirt on the skin was healthier than water.

But Europeans were still concerned with cleanliness. They just didn’t believe that water-based methods were a safe way to achieve it. By the 1600’s, wiping away sweat and rubbing the skin had replaced bathing as the accepted way to clean parts of the body covered by clothing. Europeans reasoned that the necessary rubbing could be done by simply wearing clothes, relying on the friction of the cloth against the skin to clean it. So the custom of wearing linen next to the skin became increasingly popular. They believed it was sufficient to remove the dirt and far better than immersing the body in water.

adc4ed86f475688226487a4353ca9e98Medical theories of the day supported this approach. Doctors believed that sweating allowed the body to expel toxins through the pores, and if they weren’t sufficiently driven out they could reenter the body and “corrupt” the blood, resulting in disease and even death. Wearing linen next to the skin protected one from disease by absorbing the toxins. Linen was the cloth of choice because it could be easily washed (unlike woolens, leather, and fur).

A man’s undergarment was a shirt, while a woman’s was known as a shift. White linen became the standard fabric for these. But linen production was labor-intensive; flax had to be grown, rotted, beaten, combed and spun before it could be woven into cloth. As a result it was expensive, and linen cloth was often valued more highly than any other household possession.

Because linens, especially undergarments, were supposedly swarming with toxins after a day’s work, they had to be washed often. From the beginning, laundry was regarded as women’s work. It was an exhausting, lengthy process, rarely done alone. The practice of weekly washing didn’t emerge until the late 1700’s; instead it was a seasonal, group task. Large amounts of water had to be heated for both washing and rinsing; the linens had to be beaten (or “bucked”) Stains were removed by soaking clothes in urine overnight. Soap-making was also a lengthy process that took a week or more, using tallow (rendered animal fat) and lye (made from ashes).

Though the English colonists valued cleanliness, the natives regarded them as dirty and smelly. Natives bathed their bodies regularly and didn’t make a connection between water and disease. The skins and furs they wore were weather-resistant. Over the generations, we seem to have combined both approaches to cleanliness – we bathe regularly, wear weather-resistant clothing, and also do loads and loads of laundry.

piles of laundry

Love and Marriage Among the Puritans

PilgrimsThe Massachusetts Bay Puritan understanding of marriage was governed by strict laws and customs. Couples were required to publish marriage “banns” – an announcement of their intention at three successive public meetings – or attach a written notice to the meeting house door 14 days before the wedding. They did not consider marriage a religious sacrament, but a civil matter, regulated by the state. The officiant at a wedding was a magistrate, not a minister, a practice that continued until 1686.
Feasting was common after the ceremony, and there was always more than enough cake, rum, and “sack” (fortified wine) to go around. The marriage had to be sexually consummated to be considered valid. If a man was impotent, the marriage was annulled.

Once married, any kind of permanent separation was strictly prohibited. A man who refused to live with his wife was subjected to severe punishment, even flogging. If a man or woman came to the colony and it was discovered they had left a spouse behind in England, they were promptly sent back.

Divorce, though rare, was allowed if it could be proven that either the husband or wife had neglected a fundamental duty. The grounds for divorce included adultery, desertion, and nonsupport by the husband. Massachusetts granted 27 divorces between 1639 and 1692.

ScarletHusbands and wives were not only required to live together, but must do so peacefully. The law forbade them to beat, curse, or quarrel with each other.  Adultery was technically a capital offense, but offenders were executed rarely. More commonly they were fined, whipped, or branded. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter showcases the Puritan practice of public shaming including wearing the letter “A” and on the gallows with a rope around the neck.

Late Summer 061A married Puritan woman gave everything she owned to her husband, and focused on running his household. According to the early Puritan cleric John Cotton, her duties included “to see that nothing be wasted or prodigally spent.” She was completely under her husband’s authority and was expected to be submissive and obedient. She was not allowed to make any important decisions without his knowledge and approval. Husbands were cautioned not to expect too much of their wives, who were viewed as “weaker vessels,” both physically and mentally.

It’s tempting to wonder where love comes into all this. Actually, love was considered central to a Puritan marriage. It was viewed as a duty and an obligation required by God of all who entered a marriage covenant.

However, love was regarded as the product of marriage – not the reason for it. Love was more rational than romantic, and most marriages were arranged. Social rank was more important than affection in deciding who would be a good mate. A proper marriage didn’t start with two people falling in love, but with two people separately deciding it was time to marry and choosing someone suitable.

Contrary to the popular stereotype, the Puritans weren’t prudish, and there’s plenty of evidence that, once married, they thoroughly enjoyed sex and romance. The works of Anne Bradstreet are widely noted as good examples, as is Thomas Hooker’s description of a devoted husband:

“The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves, he dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at table, walks with her when he travels and parlies with her in each place where he comes . . .”

Dismantling Hassanamesit

3One of the most important “praying Indian” towns established by John Eliot was Hassanamesit, a Nipmuc village located in central Massachusetts.  Approved by the English authorities in 1654, it was a large square of land, four miles wide and four miles long and served as a buffer between the colonists and aggressive and powerful native tribes to the west and south.  Eliot chose the village as a focus for his missionary efforts west of Natick and it was one of only two praying towns that reported building a church in which converted Nipmucs could worship.

Eliot regarded Hassanamesit as a showcase village, and wrote enthusiastically about its adoption of English farming practices and future potential.  His aide, Daniel Gookin, reported that the village “produceth plenty of corn, grain and fruit; for there are several good orchards in the place . . . Their way of living is by husbandry and keeping cattle and swine . . .”

But Hassanamesit’s location made it a prime target for both native and English raiders, and in September, 1675, as the hostilities of King Philip’s War escalated, much of the village was destroyed by English troops.  Two months later, two hundred Christian natives who had gathered there to harvest what crops were left, were surprised by Philip’s warriors.  The warriors presented a choice: join them or be left vulnerable to English raiders, who would enslave or incarcerate them on Deer Island. The harvesters made the obvious decision – to go with the warriors.

Hassanamesit was empty.

King Philip’s War devastated the native population.  By November of 1676, when the remaining Nipmucs were counted so each could be assigned to English “supervisors,” there were only 42 men and 150 women and children left.  The Hassanamesit people were grouped with the Natick residents, where they were “continually inspected” and restricted from going outside the borders of the town.  Hassanamesit still existed on paper, but it was not occupied by natives for the next twenty years.

Instead, the Massachusetts Bay colonists partitioned the “empty” land for settlement, even though the Hassanamesit men still retained their claim to the village.  In 1682 a deed was executed, selling large portions of Nipmuc land to the English.  It was signed by 22 Nipmuc representatives, but only two were names associated with Hassanamesit.  Though some Nipmuc protested the sale as an illegal transfer, the English began to build farms in the former praying town.

It was not until the mid-1690s that the native people were allowed to leave their “plantation of confinement.”   Only five of the original families returned to Hassanamesit.  Among them was the remarkable Nipmuc, James Printer.

 

On the Record

old bookReading early town and church records can often be tedious, but worth the effort when it turns up interesting incidents that undermine our common ideas about Puritans.  There’s a contentious vitality just under the surface of daily life, a tension that sometimes even leaks into the official records.  If nothing else, these records prove that living in a community was no easier in the 17th century than it is today.

The early records of the town of Lancaster, Massachusetts, contain references to some ideas and behavior that may challenge our preconceptions about the Puritans.  Here are just three:

  1. In 1651 there was a controversy between groups in Lancaster over what should be held in common. As good Puritans, they looked to their Bibles for guidance in all things, and some  focused particular attention on the early church practice of holding all things in common (as described in the New Testament book of Acts).  One George Whaley reported that Goodwife Hall had asserted that all things should be held in common, “men’s wives also.”  Later, Whaley was charged with slander, though the case was never tried.
  2. In the original town covenant, there was a clause prohibiting distribution of land to any people who had been excommunicated, or “otherwise prophane and scandalus,” or any known to err against the “Doctrin and Discipline of the Churches.” This was for the “better preserving of the puritie of Religion.”
  3. On a Sunday in 1656, after worship, a woman named Mary Gates was “called forth to give satisfaction for some offense done against Master Rowlandson,” the town’s minister. Goodwife Gates defended herself, insisting that she had already given him satisfaction.  Mr. Rowlandson then replied “by sum arguments” proving that she had not done so, at which point Gates’s daughter, Marie, stood up and without permission and “very boldly in the public assembly” contradicted the minister and said she would swear an oath to it.  The case went to court and, not surprisingly, Mary Gates lost her case, was fined and ordered to pay the court costs for both sides.

 

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Starving Time

It’s been a hard winter here in New England. The city of Boston is still struggling to cope with record-breaking snow accumulations. In my corner of Vermont, we haven’t seen bare ground since early December. And the cold has been unrelenting. Last night the temperature fell to minus 24 degrees Fahrenheit.

fox hunting groundIn the last few weeks, our yard has been increasingly filled with the tracks of wild animals, which has heightened my awareness that, as challenging as this winter has been for us humans, it’s nothing compared to the life-threatening hunger faced by animals.

When our water pipes froze last week and we were without running water for about 24 hours, it also prompted me to wonder what the Puritans did for water in the winter. A simple question maybe, but when I went looking I couldn’t find a ready answer. I know they dug wells and often lived close to rivers and streams, so probably one of their many daily chores was chopping ice to access water. It’s one of those time-consuming seasonal tasks that now hardly merits a mention in history books.

We know that the settlers of Plymouth Colony suffered terribly in the harsh winter of Untitled-11620. They called it the “starving time” and nearly half of them died. Possibly they all would have perished without the help of generous Native Americans. They learned a vital lesson: in New England, you have to prepare for winter.

In the 17th century, getting ready for winter meant stocking food. Nuts, seeds, root vegetables, grains, and legumes were harvested and stored. Domestic animals were slaughtered in the fall, since it wasn’t practical to feed them through the Untitled-2winter. Their flesh was preserved through salting and smoking. The daily winter menu was bread, cheese, beans, and meat boiled with whatever root vegetables were available.

As many pundits have commented, we 21st century Americans look kind of silly packing t grocery store to stock up on bread and milk whenever there’s news of a coming snowstorm. Very few of us are likely to be snowed in for more than a day. But instead of feeling embarrassed, maybe we should see it as a variation of a long and life-giving winter tradition: be prepared.

Naming the Children

BibleYou can often find them in old family Bibles – names of generations of children, often entered proudly soon after a birth. The Bible seems an appropriate place for such a record, especially when it comes to looking at the names of early New Englanders..

In my research for Flight of the Sparrow, I looked into how New England Puritans named their children. We commonly think of Puritans as giving their children strange “hortatory” names, such as “Experience,” “Increase,” “Thankful,” and “Mindwell.” But in Massachusetts Bay Colony in Mary Rowlandson’s time, the children were given traditional English names, such as “John,” “Elizabeth,” “Samuel,” and “Ann.”

I was not surprised when I discovered that oldest boys were often named after their fathers, but what did surprise me was that the oldest daughters were frequently named after their mothers. In fact, in Mary’s generation, between 50% and 75% of firstborn daughters were named after their mothers. Surprisingly, it was actually more common than naming oldest sons after fathers.  childrenMary’s mother, Joan (or Joane) White, followed this custom, as did Mary herself.

It was also common to name children after an older sibling who had died. (This practice continued well into the 18th century.) Mary Rowlandson did this.  Her oldest daughter, (named Mary), died at the age of two. When her second daughter was born, eight years later, she was given the same name.

Interestingly enough, this was not a pattern that was common in England, or in other English colonies, such as Virginia, where firstborn children were usually named for their grandparents and/or godparents. (In fact, in England it was considered inappropriate for a mother to name her first daughter after herself.) This parent-centered naming – especially daughters – seems to have been unique to New England Puritans.

Why this change?

The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony wanted to worship as they chose but they weren’t trying to invent a new society. They brought most of their English customs with them to the New World. They wore English clothes, built English houses, and even considered themselves members of the Church of England (albeit “purified” members).

One scholar has pointed out that mothers who named their daughters after themselves were breaking a cultural “taboo,” and that something in their religion allowed them to defy the cultural norms. This may have been the importance of “covenant theology” in the Puritan colony, with its emphasis on the spiritual role of parents in the family. Or it may have arisen because the Puritans banished godparents from the baptismal ceremony. They connected godparenting with Catholicism, labeling it “popish” superstition. With no godparents to honor, a mother naming a daughter for herself at baptism was using one way to claim God’s protection.

One thing that became clear as I researched the first few generations of New England Puritans: social changes were almost always carved out of their religious understanding. Whenever they were in doubt about how they should act, individually or as a society, they turned to the Bible. We might frown at some of their practices, but it’s hard not to admire the fact that they always tried to stay true to their faith as they understood it.  And occasionally that faith took them in new and liberating directions that affirmed the power and importance of mothers.