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.


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.

Pilgrims and Puritans

PilgrimsIt’s easy to get them confused. From our 21st century vantage point the Puritans and Pilgrims look much the same. They were both from England, braving the dangerous Atlantic crossing to the new world in pursuit of religious freedom. Both had issues with the Church of England and were looking for a place where they could worship according to their beliefs and principles. They both settled in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims in Plymouth in 1620, and the Puritans in Salem nine years later. Both were part of the Protestant Reformation and they both wanted change.

But they weren’t the same. Puritans and Pilgrims were distinct groups with fundamentally different approaches to the religious issues of their day.

In England, the Church of England was the only legal church. Everyone who lived in England was a member of the church parish in their community whether they wanted to be or not. The worship services were read and there was little or no preaching. Parish priests were assigned to communities and individual priests were often their “living” as a political favor to a family. Church members had no voice in this.

It’s not surprising that there were calls for change. The difference between the Puritans and Pilgrims was their approach. Puritans wanted to reform, or “purify” the Church of England from within, while the Pilgrims were “separatists” who had given up on the possibility of reform and wanted to establish their own separate church.

In Plymouth Colony, the separatists favored a congregational approach to church government, which came to be known as the Congregational Way. Instead of including everyone who lived in a community, no matter their belief or personal character, the Pilgrims believed that only committed Christians should belong to a “gathered” church. These believers were bound together by a covenant with God. Instead of a church hierarchy and appointed priests, each congregation had the power to choose and ordain its own minister, and to accept or dismiss individual members.

In Massachusetts Bay Colony, however, the Church of England was still the official church and everyone was under the jurisdiction of the parish. But since there were no bishops or other hierarchy in the colony to support the Church of England bureaucracy, they became, in a sense, de facto separatists.

Eventually, both Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies embraced the Congregational Way. Despite their differences, their faith and their physical distance from England drew them together in a new land.

John Pory’s Letter

Plimoth Plantation Palisade

Plimoth Plantation Palisade

For three years John Pory served as Secretary to the Governor and Council of Virginia.  On his way home to England in 1622, he stopped to visit the fledgling Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.  A perceptive, scholarly man, Pory recorded his observations in letters two years after the colony was founded.  In his descriptions of the native peoples and colonists in the area, he demonstrated an awareness of the complexities of the two cultures, and the possible challenges to forging a peaceful coexistence. He contrasts New England with Virginia, and finds Virginia wanting.  He praises the New England colonists for their morality and industry, expressing the wish the Virginians were “as free from wickedness and vice as they are in this place,” and admires the strength of their buildings, particularly the “substantial palisade” and “a blockhouse which they have erected in the highest place in town in mount their ordnance upon.”  He comments on the abundance of seafood and the wholesomeness of the climate.  And then he describes the natives:

“The people seem to be of one race with those in Virginia, both in respect of their qualities and language.  They are great lovers of their children and people, and very revengeful of wrongs offered.  They make their canoes, their arrows, their bows, their tobacco pipes and other implements far more neat and artificially than in those parts.  They dress, also, and paint leather; and make trousers, buskins, shoes with far greater curiosity.  Corn they set none in their parts toward the   north, and that is the cause why Indian corn, pease and such like is the best truck [barter] for their skins—and then in winter especially, when hunger doth most pinch them. . . Their babes here also they bind to a board and set them up against a wall, as they do in the south.  Likewise, their head they anoint with oil mixed with vermillion; and are of the same hair, eyes and skin that those are of.”  He also describes the history of the political machinations between tribes and between colonists and natives and is open about the damage created by sea captains who took Indians captive in 1614 and 1620 and sold them into slavery.

Of course, Pory wrote his letter more than fifty years before tensions between colonists and natives had grown to the point of open violence.  But I find his account especially noteworthy because he puts the New England colonists and natives in a larger context.  Even in those days when transportation and information flow was so slow that we would find it unbearably frustrating, he was able to see the larger picture.  He was able to see the virtues and value the practices of people he did not live among.  It suggests he nurtured the seeds of a global mindset—a way of seeing the world beyond immediate, personal interests.  A mindset that we desperately need today.





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.