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 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.