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.


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.

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 . . .”

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.

How They Lived

15_13I’ve always been as interested in the day-to-day lives of people in other times as I have in the dramatic events of history.  So I spend a good deal of time researching domestic details.  Here are a few of the many facts I uncovered about the lives of the New England Puritans:

  • Rooms were lit by tallow-candles, made by dipping spun wicks of cotton or tow into melted tallow. Tallow is made from beef or mutton fat, and can be stored for long periods of time without decaying.
  • Wheeled vehicles, except for ox carts, were rare. While there were coaches in Boston in the late 1600’s, stage-coaches, carriages, and “riding chairs” (a chaise body without a top) didn’t appear until the early 18th century.
  • Women did not wear jewelry, not even wedding rings.
  • The first shelters for the colonists were not log cabins but caves or modified wetus. The homes they constructed were modeled on English houses of time.  Depending on the wealth of the owner, they ranged from single-room wattle-and-daub cottages with thatched roofs to two or four room frame houses with an entry room and staircase.
  • Two of the seventeen capital crimes in Massachusetts Bay Colony were for speech: blasphemy and cursing a parent. The penalty was death.
  • Breakfast usually consisted of leftovers or other foods that were quickly prepared. A typical breakfast was corn mush or milk, though a large breakfast could also include cheese, bread, beer, and leftover meat.
  • For over fifty years, it was a crime to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Even though that law was repealed in 1681, disapproval of Christmas celebrations continued until after the Civil War.
  • First marriages required parental permission. The Puritans did not consider marriage a sacrament and prohibited ministers from performing wedding ceremonies. Instead they were informal events which took place in the bride’s home and were presided over by a magistrate.
  • In 1647, the Old Deluder Satan Law required towns with 50 families to provide for the education of children.
  • Everyone drank alcoholic beverages, including hard cider, ale, rum, and wine. There were more arrests for public drunkenness than for any other crime.


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.

The Puritan Meetinghouse

The iconic spired, white-clapboard churches that overlook the green in so many New England towns bear little resemblance to the first houses of worship erected by the Puritan colonists.  They didn’t call them churches, preferring instead the term “meetinghouse.”  It was a descriptively accurate term,  for they did indeed use the same building for both civil and religious meetings. They were so focused on stripping away everything that reminded them of the Church of England and Roman Catholicism that they even refused to display a cross—the chief symbol of Christianity for centuries.

By Timothy Valentine [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Old Ship Meetinghouse, Hingham, MA, By Timothy Valentine [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The exterior of a meetinghouse was indistinguishable from the houses that surrounded it.  The first meetinghouse in Haverhill, Massachusetts, was only twenty-six by twenty feet.  As the colony grew, they built larger meetinghouses—square, unpainted wooden buildings.  Sometimes, if the town had enough money, they were topped with a small turret containing a bell.  A prime example of this Puritan architecture is the “Old Ship” meetinghouse in Hingham, Massachusetts.

The meetinghouse was the center of the community, not only spiritually but physically as well. Early colonists were required by law to build their homes within half a mile of the meetinghouse. Though that law was no longer enforced as more and more Puritans migrated to New England, the centrality of the meetinghouse in community life did not change.

Often the top of a hill was the chosen location for the meetinghouse, which served as a watch-house and a landmark.  Sometimes the hill was so steep that horses had to be tethered at the bottom of the hill, requiring congregants to walk up a precipitous path to attend public meeting.  There were no trees in the immediate vicinity, since they had been cut down because of fire danger, so they were usually blazing hot in summer and freezing in winter.

Pulpit - Plimoth Plantation

Pulpit – Plimoth Plantation

People were summoned to the meetinghouse by a beating drum.  Inside they sat on backless benches (box-pews came later) facing an elaborately-carved raised pulpit over which hung a sounding board.  To reach the pulpit, the minister had to climb a flight of narrow stairs.  The pulpit Bible would sit on a cushion of green velvet with long tassels hanging from its corners.

Meetinghouses were not considered sacred.  They were simply places to assemble.  On Sunday, people gathered to hear the word of God.  On town meeting days, they gathered to vote on public issues.  They believed that God’s presence was an all-encompassing experience and could not be separated from ordinary life and relegated to special places and times.  Though their stringent regulations didn’t last, their sober piety had a long-lasting impact on the New England character. This impact is still reflected today in New Englanders’ respect for hard work, community, and pragmatism, as well as their appreciation for unpretentious architecture.





The Law of the Land


When the Puritans migrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century, they brought their English legal mindset with them.  Between 1630 and 1700, they enacted hundreds of laws, ordering people’s lives from cradle to grave.  Everything from the proper gait of horses in Boston to the wearing of lace was regulated.  As they saw it, these elaborate rules helped them create an orderly, Christian society.  Today we find many of their laws amusing for their outdated and controlling perspective.  But some are surprisingly progressive in their focus on protecting the weak and less fortunate members of their communities.  Overall, they give us a glimpse into the Puritan mind and help us better understand the society they were trying to build.

Here are just a few, with updated spellings.  (Note: the monetary fines are in British currency; “s” stands for shilling; “d” stands for pence; and £ stands for pound.)

  • No surgeon, midwife, or physician shall practice on any without consent of the person or nearest relation.
  • All persons not worth 200 £ wearing gold or silver lace, or buttons, or bone lace above 2 s. per yard, or silk hoods, or scarves, may be presented by the Grand Jury and shall pay 10 s for every offence.
  • The selectmen of every town may assess those who dress above their rank, at 200 £ estate, and make them pay as those to whom their dress is suitable, except the magistrates, their wives and children, officers, civil or military, soldiers in time of service, or such as had had a high education or are sunk from a higher fortune.
  • All parents to teach their children to read, and all masters to acquaint their families with capital laws on penalty of 20 s., and to catechize them once a week.
  • A son of 16, accused by parents of rebellion and other notorious crimes, shall be put to death.
  • Fornication is to be punished by compelling marriage, fines, or as the Court sees fit.
  • Everyone to fence according to his proportion of the corn-field in common, and not to put in cattle while any corn remains.
  • Every householder has free fishing and fowling in any river, bay, etc., within the precincts of the town where they dwell, so far as the sea ebbs and flows, unless it be appropriated by the Freemen.
  •  No horse to be sold to an Indian, on penalty of 100 £.
  • Any may pass on another’s land, not trespassing on corn or meadow.
  • Whoever publishes a lie to the prejudice of the public, or any private person, pays 10 s or sits in the stocks two hours for the first offense, for the second 20 s. or whipped ten stripes, for the third 40 s. or fifteen stripes.  Every new fault increases 10 s. or five stripes.
  • Lands in the jurisdiction not improved by Indians is the property of the English.
  • None to sell the Indians a boat, skiff, or canoe, on forfeiture of 50 £.
  • No Court can punish with above forty stripes.
  • No man must correct any under him with cruelty, or be cruel to a beast.
  • No dancing in public houses, on penalty of 5 s.
  • No one to gallop a horse in Boston, on penalty of 3 s. 4 d.
  • Married persons must live together, unless the Court of Assistants approve of the cause to the contrary.
  • No work to be done on the Sabbath on penalty of 10 s, for the first offence, to be doubled for every following one.
  • To travel to a Meeting not allowed by law is a profanation of the Sabbath.
  • Witches suffer death.