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.


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.

What Did the Puritans Have Against the Quakers?

quakersRecently I joined a wonderful book group in Mississippi via Skype and was asked about the differences between the Quakers and the Puritans.  I knew that the Puritans didn’t like the Quakers, and that they persecuted and exiled them from Massachusetts Bay Colony.  But I didn’t know much more than that.  So I did a little digging.

Today Quakers are known as a peaceful people who embrace nonviolence and spiritual principles and who were strong advocates for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century. But in early 17th century New England, they were outlawed, imprisoned, exiled, and sometimes executed.  Why?

Both the Puritans and the Church of England regarded Quakers as “heretics.” In Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Congregational Way (which the Puritans believed was the purified Church of England) was the only legal religion.  Every resident was required to attend Sabbath worship and to pay local taxes to support the minister and church.  Just as in England, it was treasonous to oppose the state religion.

quakers2The Quakers who came to Massachusetts in the 1650’s were as righteous and fanatical as the Puritans.  They knew very well they weren’t coming to a colony where their way of worship would be tolerated.  They were there to make points about their own religion.  And they weren’t quiet about it.  In fact, they were often uncivil and overbearing and not always truthful.  They made a practice of interrupting worship services, and of creating a raucous uproar by yelling and banging pots and pans in the streets.  They shouted people down who didn’t agree with them and humiliated public figures with name-calling and ridicule. Sometimes they even stripped off their clothes in public. The Puritans responded to these outrages with fines, which escalated into more severe punishments, including boring holes in their tongues, whippings, banishments, and even executions.

We condemn the Puritans for their intolerance and persecution of other religious groups, and rightly so.  But the 17th century Quakers weren’t quite the meek and innocent victims they’re portrayed as.  Even Roger Williams, the early proponent of religious freedom who was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony, was so irritated by Quaker incivility and lack of respect that he considered restricting their liberties. The Quakers were pretty disagreeable at times.  Not so very different from the Puritans themselves.

A Puritan’s Christmas Chronicles

In 17th century New England it was not atheists or secular humanists who declared a “war on Christmas,” but Christians themselves.  As I noted in my 2013 post, “A Long Time Coming,” [https://amybeldingbrown.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/a-long-time-coming/], the Puritans reacted to the elements of excess and paganism in Christmas celebrations by shutting it down.  Samuel_Sewall

Samuel Sewall was a Puritan judge and businessman who lived in Boston.  He kept a diary from the age of 22 until his death.  Knowing that the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned the celebration of Christmas from 1659 to 1681, I spent some time looking at his entries for December 25th.  Though his first mention of Christmas comes four years after the ban was lifted, it’s clear that the practice of “Christmas-keeping” continued to be a concern for pious Puritans.  Sewall takes pains to note that shops were open and commerce was vigorous.

Here are his entries (including his 17th century spellings) between 1685 and 1706.  (Some years are missing because he made no entry for December 25th.)

1685   Dec. 25.  Friday.  Carts come to Town and Shops open as is usual.  Some somehow observe the day; but are vexed I believe that the body of the People profane it, and blessed be God no Authority yet to compel them to keep it.  A great Snow fell last night so this day and night very cold.

Dec. 28.  Cous Fissenden here, Saith he came for Skins last Friday and [there] was less Christmas-keeping than last year, fewer Shops Shut up.

Dec. 31.  Mr. Allen preaches from 2 Tim. 2. 19.  Sasith should pray for the Natives that they may name Christ.  Spoke against Observing the 25 Instant, called it Antichristian Heresie: Spokke against the Name.  Canker began in the Tongue.

1686  Satterday, ,Dec 25.  Shops open today and generally and persons about their occasions.  Some, but few, Carts at Town with wood, though the day exceeding fair and pleasant.

1687  Sabbath, Dec. 25.  Have the Lord’s Supper at the South Church, break up about noon, at which time I heard that Mr. Mater was, on Saturday between 1. and 2. PM, Arrested by Larkin, to answer for trespass on Mr. Randolp, 500 £. damage.  Major Richards and Capt. Turell bound.  Just as Morn-Exercise ends Mr. Cotton Mather’s child dies; yet he preaches at Charlestown in the afternoon.

1691   December 25, 1691.  Mr. Moodey takes his journey towards Portsmouth this day.  Cold and Snowy.  Shops open and business carried on as at other times.

1694  Tuesday, Dec. 25.  Shops are open, men at work; Carts of Pork, Hay, Coal, Wood come to Town as on other days.  Mr. Mccarty’s shop is open.

1696  Dec 25, 1696.  We bury our little daughter.  In the chamber, Joseph in course reads Ecclesiastes 3, a time to be born and a time to die – Elisabeth, Rev. 22, Hannah the 38th Psalm.  I speak to each, as God helped, to our mutual comfort I hope.  I order’d Sam. to read the 102 Psalm.  Elisha Cooke, Edw. Hutchinson, John Baily, and Josia Willard bear my little daughter to the Tomb.

1697   Decembr 25.  97.  Snowy day: Shops are open and Carts and sleds come to Town with Wood and Fagots as formerly, save what abatement may be allowed on account of the wether.  This morning we read in course the 14, 15, and 16th Psalms.  From the 4th v. of the 16th Ps. I took occasion to dehort mine from Christmas-keeping and charged them to forbear.

1703  Dec. 26, Sabbath; very sore vehement Storm of Snow; exceeding high Tide, which did much hurt in Cellars and lower Rooms, and carried many Stacks of Hay quite away.  It seems Roxbury Meeting was held at Mr. Walter’s Dwelling-house.  The Christmas keepers had a very pleasant day, Gov and Mr. Dudley at Church, and Mr. Dudley made a pretty large Entertainment after.

1704  Dec 25. Monday, a Storm of Snow, yet many Sleds come to Town, with Wood, Hoops, Coal &c as is usual.

1705  Tuesday, Dec. 25.  Very cold Day but Serene Morning, Sleds, Slays, and Horses pass as usually, and shops open.

1706  Mid-week, Dec. 25.  Shops open, carts come to Town with Wood, Fagots, Hay, and Horses with Provisions, as usually.  I bought me a great Tooth’d Comb at Dwight’s; 6s.

A Puritan Hero

Orchard House snowAbout a decade ago, I worked for a few years at the Orchard House Museum in Concord, Massachusetts.  Best known as the home of Louisa May Alcott and the place where she wrote the classic novel, Little Women, the house has an impressive history of its own.  When I was there the 300-year-old building, renovated by Bronson Alcott in the 1850’s, was in the midst of a massive preservation project, so I had the opportunity to see, up-close, some of the details of the colonial construction.  Ever since, I’ve been fascinated not just by how historical houses are decorated, but how they’re constructed.

At that time, I was finishing work on my novel, Mr. Emerson’s Wife, about the Transcendental circle in19th century Concord.  Little did I know that a few years later, I’d encounter the house again, as I researched a 17th-century Concord lawyer for my new novel, Flight of the Sparrow.

John Hoar, the man who built the home that the Alcotts purchased, was the colonial negotiator in the ransom of Mary Rowlandson.  He was the man who escorted her back to the English towns after her release.  Rowlandson writes about him in her narrative, and describes visiting his house on her return to Boston.

Despite his prominence in his own tumultuous time, Squire Hoar remains an obscure figure to us, hidden in the shadows of history. I had learned about some of his remarkable descendants when I was studying the Concord Transcendentalists, but there was little about the man himself – just the tantalizing suggestion he didn’t fit neatly into the Puritan mold.

When I began digging, I discovered a hero.

John Hoar was a principled and independent-minded man, who spoke his mind regardless of the consequences.  He began having trouble with the authorities in the mid-1660s when he tried to expose the judicial corruption of Massachusetts Bay magistrates.  He petitioned the governor for justice and received a hearing in October of 1665.  It probably did not surprise him when his complaints were ruled “groundless and unjust,” since some of the judges he accused were sitting on the court.  But even Hoar was surprised when they fined him and sentenced him to prison—to set an example for any who dared to challenge their authority.

Furious, Hoar stormed out of court.  When he was arrested and hauled back in, his bond was set at 100 pounds (an extraordinarily high fee for that time), and he was disbarred.

The next spring, Hoar petitioned the court for relief and he was released and his fine was reduced, but his lawyer’s standing was not restored.  Though he returned to Concord and his family, Hoar was not a man to remain silent.  He told his neighbors exactly what he thought about the authorities.  He was soon back in court, subjected to more fines, and the demand for a formal apology.  When he was released with a warning, he went back to practicing law – and criticizing the authorities.

In 1675, when King Philip’s War broke out, Hoar offered to protect a group of friendly

Possible site of palisade to protect natives.

Possible site of palisade to protect natives.

Nipmucs who lived near Concord.  He set aside some of his own property and, at his own expense, built a workshop and palisade for their defense, and helped them harvest their food.

Some of Hoar’s Concord neighbors, frightened by the close proximity of natives, even though they were friendly, secretly contacted the army captain, Samuel Mosely, a man known for his brutality.

On a Sunday morning in February, Mosely and his soldiers marched into the meeting house. After worship he addressed the congregation.  He announced that he’d heard there were “some heathen in the town” that he believed were distressing people, and that if they wanted, he would remove them.  Most people said nothing, though “two or three” encouraged him.  So, over Hoar’s vigorous objections, he ordered his soldiers to break down the door and take the Indians.  They followed his orders, destroying Hoar’s property, seizing the Indians and plundering their food and clothing.  The Indians were then marched to Charlestown and sent to Deer Island.

But Hoar was not a man to be defeated.  In late April, he volunteered to negotiate with the Indians over Rowlandson’s ransom.  This was a remarkable act of courage, especially given the tenor of the times.  Even though Hoar was known to the natives, there was no guarantee that he would succeed in his efforts to secure Rowlandson’s release.  In fact, when he reached the Indian encampment at what is now Redemption Rock, shots were fired in his direction (over and under his horse), he was threatened with hanging, and was confined to a wetu for days before an agreement was reached.

But John Hoar had never let fear rule him, and he successfully negotiated Rowlandson’s release.  He returned to Concord and continued to be a thorn in the side of the Puritan authorities.

The next time you’re in Concord, Massachusetts, I urge you to visit Orchard House.  Not only to see the place where Louisa May Alcott lived and wrote, but also to honor the memory of a man of persistence and principle—a Puritan hero.

Ten Little-Known Facts about New England Puritans

1. They opposed the use of musical instruments in worship services, especially organs. They believed such music distracted worshipers from their spiritual concentration.

2. A Puritan’s certainty of salvation was a sign he or she was probably damned. Uncertainty about salvation was a core doctrine.

3. Early Puritans were hostile to traditional funeral rituals. The dead were buried quickly and matter-of-factly, without ceremony or mourning.

4. All able-bodied men owed their town several days’ labor on roads each year.

5. Men socialized more often than women did.

6. Clergy did not officiate at weddings; magistrates did. The Puritans did not consider marriage a sacrament.

7. Moderate alcohol consumption was seen as socially beneficial. They drank alcohol regularly at meals.

8. Fishing was their most popular sporting pastime.

9. The Puritans enjoyed playing cards. The most popular card game was whist. They also played cribbage, quadrille, all-fours, and piquet.

10. They believed that married partners should have sex for pleasure. Sexually pleasing one’s spouse was a duty. Impotency was grounds for divorce, and women were expected to have orgasms.

A Puritan Looks at Thanksgiving


early sn2It’s deer hunting season here in Vermont.  A few days ago it snowed and the ground is still white, making tracking a little easier for hunters.  It’s a time of year that has a beauty of its own, a bridge between late fall and deep winter.  Yet, there’s something about the sere black-and-white dignity of the landscape that evokes in me a strange mixture of stillness and sorrow.


I’m not sure where that comes from; it’s a visceral, intuitive response.  It may be some sort of hardwired, biochemical foreboding about the coming of winter and mortality.  It might be my consciousness that, deep in the forest, beyond my range of vision, some hunter is visiting death on a healthy young buck.


Tomorrow my husband and I will travel to Massachusetts to celebrate Thanksgiving with our children.  I grew up loving Thanksgiving- the warmth and laughter of the gathered family, the familiar scents and flavors of the traditional foods, the cozy satisfactions of the hearth.  It was always a special day, partly because – unlike so many other holidays – it was simple and non-commercial.  But this year, especially as I think about the Puritans, I’m also aware of an undertone of sorrow.


English: "The First Thanksgiving at Plymo...

English: “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like it or not, Thanksgiving is part of our national mythology; we learn the story of the first Thanksgiving when we’re very young and we’re reminded of it annually.  And Indians are an integral part of the story.  The truth is that, when we start looking at the history of Indians in this country, it doesn’t take long to get to a place of sorrow.


The so-called “First Thanksgiving,” celebrated in Plymouth Colony, was likely a three or four-day event marking a peace treaty between the colonists and the Wampanoags.  It was a native tradition to seal treaties by sharing food and playing games.


By the middle of the 1600’s, the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut colonies had established an annual autumn thanksgiving.  However, usually thanksgiving days were observed in response to specific events. Overall, there were many more days of fasting and humiliation than there were of thanksgiving.  During King Philip’s War, the Bay Colony forswore thanksgivings until the end of the hostilities.  On June 29 1676, they held a “day of solemn thanksgiving.”  The proclamation read:


“The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present War with the Heathen Natives of this land, written and brought to pass bitter things against his own Covenant people in this wilderness, yet so that we evidently discern that in the midst of his judgments he hath remembered mercy, having remembered his Footstool in the day of his sore displeasure against us for our sins, with many singular Intimations of his Fatherly Compassion, and regard; reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy, and giving us especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them, without such Disadvantage to ourselves as formerly we have been sensible of, if it be the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed, It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible people, as not standing before Him with thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions.”


The context for that thanksgiving wasn’t a celebration of the autumn harvest, but relief that the English had triumphed in the bloody and devastating war with the Wampanoag-Nipmuc-Pocasset-Narragansett alliance.  Despite all their posturing of meekness and humility, the fact was that the Puritans believed that God considered them a chosen people, and that it was God who had destroyed their “enemies.”


Just as the beauty of the snow-blanketed forest can conceal the life and death struggles of its occupants, the conventional memes of Thanksgiving can obscure the ugly history of the Puritan treatment of Native Americans. This is just as much a part of our national story as the famous First Thanksgiving.  If we are to begin to understand who we, as Americans, truly are, we must acknowledge and embrace its ugliness as well as its beauty.




The Forgotten War

ImageWe Americans like to remember our wars, especially the wars we win.  We celebrate Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, and label those who came of age during World War II as our “greatest generation.”  References to those who sacrificed their lives in our many wars are a part of every political speech.  It’s sometimes said that every generation of Americans has its own war.  But one of our earliest and most transformative wars is left out of our history books.  And even though it is, to this day, the bloodiest war per capita that’s ever been waged on American soil, most of us have never even heard of it.

King Philip’s War began in June of 1675, fifty-five years after the Pilgrims landed on the shores of New England.  A lot had happened in that half century, most significantly the Great Migration of Puritans from England.  They came by the thousands, fleeing the hostile political and religious climate in England. Whole families boarded ships setting sail for New England and the West Indies.  Between 1630 and 1640, 20,000 settled in towns along the New England coast.  They were literate, educated, and pious people who risked their lives and health to make the dangerous journey across the Atlantic to pursue religious freedom.  They wanted to be free of English religious restrictions and to worship in the way they chose.  And they wanted land.

It’s estimated that there were about 7,000 natives living in New England at the time the Pilgrims landed.  Not long before 1620 there had been tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands more.  The population had recently been devastated by European diseases, carried by fishermen who’d been visiting the New England coast for nearly a hundred years.

The Puritans saw the unused (“unimproved”) land – the remnants of native fields and villages – and believed that God had “opened” the way for them. They quickly settled in.  As their families expanded and more and more people flooded in from England, they sought to expand their land holdings through barter, trade, and the English King’s charters.

The natives who had occupied this land for millennia were not a unified group, but an assortment of tribes loosely linked by a family of similar languages usually labeled “Algonquian.” These tribes had a long history of shifting alliances and political tensions.  When the Wampanoag sachem, Massasoit, befriended the Pilgrims, he was acting strategically.  He viewed the English as allies who would help strengthen his people against their Narragansett enemies.  With his death in 1661, and the passing of the sachem role to his son, Wamsutta, the era of peace between the colonists and natives drew to a close.

Metacomet (a.k.a. Philip) was Massasoit’s second son; he took over as sachem when Wamsutta died suddenly after a brief imprisonment in Plymouth.  His warriors blamed the colonists and pressured Metacomet to go to war against the English.  When the body of one of his advisors was later found under the ice in a pond, three Wampanoag men were arrested, tried, and executed.

Soon after, a group of Wampanoag warriors – probably without Metacomet’s approval – raided several English homes in Swansea, set two of them on fire, and killed nine colonists in retribution. Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, which were separate colonies at the time, quickly united and dispatched several companies to destroy Montaup, Metacomet’s base of operation.  Metacomet made a daring escape north, and eventually united with the Pocasset, Nipmuc and even the Narragansett, (who had long been the Wampanoags’ traditional enemies) to drive back the colonists.

Though the war lasted until the spring of 1678, the worst hostilities were over by August, 1676, when Metacomet was killed .  The toll in human life was high on both sides; it’s estimated that the English lost about 800 people out of a population of 52,000.  The natives, however, fared far worse.  One source estimates that about 3,000 natives were killed in battle, out of a total population of 20,000.  More were sold into slavery or “relocated” in widely scattered places throughout New England.

After the war the English colonists were no longer motivated to continue pursuing peaceful coexistence with native tribes.  They firmly established themselves as the dominant culture in the region.  It was a pattern that would be repeated many times in the years to come as Americans confronted indigenous people.

They say that those who do not remember their history are condemned to repeat it.  It’s past time that we remember King Philip’s War.  Though it’s too late to restore the Wampanoag and other native people to their full strength and power, it’s still appropriate for us to learn and take to heart the lessons of this forgotten war.