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6. Periodical observance

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XXII. Sacred Seasons of the Puritans

6. Periodical observance

A question, not unfrequently asked, is. When did fasts and thanksgivings, in New England, become periodical? By the term periodical, as here applied, we understand the following: When did fasts begin to be appointed-or kept in the spring of every successive year, by order of the legislature; and thanksgiving, in like manner, in the fall? For an answer to these inquiries we must not rely altogether, as some have, on what are called the General Court Records, now extant. There is but a solitary minute, and this relative to land, on such records of Plymouth colony, for the first three years. After this, till near the close of their separate jurisdiction, the designation of their fasts and thanksgivings was seldom placed with their legislative transactions. It is matter of fact, that such days were appointed by their public authorities, as have no mention made of them among the proceedings of these rulers. No legislative records of Massachusetts, before the arrival of governor Winthrop in 1630, are known to have been preserved. Those of them which succeed, fail to notice a number of fasts and thanksgivings, the observance of which was enjoined by the civil government. Similar facts apply to Connecticut and New Haven. Only three of each sort of these days are found on the books of the Connecticut general assembly before 1650. The Journals of New Haven make not even a reference to such religious occasions, as before stated, for about sixteen of their first years. But other sources of information prove, that there was no real deficiency of this kind. The printed Laws of New Haven show that fasts and thanksgivings were common with them, from their very commencement as a colony, and had all the conservative restriction of the sabbath. Who could reasonably suppose, that for such periods, so deficient in being recorded as to fasts and thanksgivings. New England would consent to deprive themselves of these interesting seasons? No person, correctly acquainted with their views, desires, habits, and condition. And yet, were we reduced to the necessity of relying altogether for testimony, in the present case, on their general court Journals, we should conclude, that they did thus forget their obligations to God and to some of their best influences and interests.

But here the inquiry may be made, Why were the registers of their legislative doings so at fault? Several causes for this may be assigned. The appointment of these days was so in accordance with the opinions, wishes, and practice of the whole country, there was no call for a special record to be made of them among the transactions of the legislature. If a parallel case of this kind be asked for, it may be found in the total omission of noticing such an appointment, on the records of Massachusetts General Court, since the adoption of their Constitution in 1780. Another cause was, that after deputies or representatives in Plymouth and Massachusetts made a part of their legislatures, they were, oftentimes, not in session so as to unite with the assistants or council in ordering fasts and thanksgivings; and, therefore, a record failed to be made of such an act more frequently than would otherwise have been. Besides, when the representatives were in session seasonably enough to participate in this act, they sometimes left it to the direction of the assistants. In omissions of this sort, we should naturally think, that the periodical fasts and thanksgivings would be more frequently unnoticed on the records, because generally known and expected, than those of more special occasions at other parts of the year. If the query is put, whether these omissions were all, which are either suspected or known, we reply in the negative. There must have been, for instance, particular orders for the emission of one-penny pieces of the Pine-Tree money and of the Good-Samaritan shillings, at an early period, from the Massachusetts mint. But no orders of this class are visible on the Journals of General Court. In view of the preceding considerations, we are justified in not restricting the number of fasts and thanksgivings, publicly ordered by our ancient authorities, to the numerical notices of them on the pages of their legislative proceedings. Indeed, the great probability is, that many more of such seasons were so appointed in the first periods of New England, than at present, though this position is not confirmed by the records of their legislatures. An opinion of this kind is favored by the fact, that, in some years, wherein these days are mentioned by such records, two or three of each kind were kept in the course of one year. As instances on this point, Massachusetts Journals give two fasts in 1639, and three in 1664; two thanksgivings in 1633, and two in 1637. These were distinct from those often observed by the churches either individually or collectively. A disposition, so manifested, must have been cherished and indulged from the remarkable trials and deliverances, experienced by our fathers in their early history, as well as from their deep feeling of dependance on God and of their obligations to him. It would be absurd to conjecture, that the pilgrims would keep so many of these seasons in one year, and then neglect them altogether for several successive years, in which they are not once alluded to by their legislative Journals, when there were similar calls for a like observance every year They were a people chargeable with no such inconsistency as here implied; not eaten up of zeal for a dutiful and salutary custom at one period, and then entirely neglectful of it at another. Hence, we have a confirmation of the statement, that we should not make up our minds solely on the existing legislative records of New England, as to the number and dates of their fasts and thanksgivings.

Even from the foregoing considerations, it would not be paradoxical to venture the opinion, that such religious seasons have been periodical from the founding of New England. Here the question occurs, to what extent do legislative Journals and other coincident proof confirm such a position? By the Connecticut records of General Court, it appears that periodical thanksgivings, as well as fasts, began to be designated in 1650. In all reasonable probability, Massachusetts would not come short in this respect; for they were looked to rather as an example, than otherwise. The records of the latter colony, so far as preserved, show, that thanksgivings were appointed in the fall of 1633, 1637, 1638, 1639, 1654, 1656, 1659, 1662, 1665, 1666, 1667, 1669, 1670, 1672, 1673, 1676, 1677, 1680, 1681, 1682, 1684, etc. Besides these festival days, the representatives left the matter of ordering one in 1648 to the council; and a paper shows, that the latter body did designate another in 1671, of which no mention is known to have been made elsewhere. It may be proper to state, that there were other thanksgivings, during the same period, ordered at dates different from those of such days, as just now enumerated.

With regard to fasts, designated by the Massachusetts authorities in this time, though they were more in number, as contained on legislative records, than thanksgivings, yet there were less of them, as periodical, than of these festivals. But the nature of the case, the propriety of confessing human unworthiness and interceding for divine blessing on the labors of the field, the pursuits of the sea, and other avocations of community in the vernal season, and the deep religious impression of our fathers, that they ought not to omit such an obligation, force upon our minds the inference, that fasts would be even more likely to be appointed for the spring, than thanksgivings in the fall. It is very probable, that, if the regular journal of the assistants or council had been preserved, it would have supplied a large part of the vacancies, as to such holy days, which appear in the foregoing statements and remarks. For this assertion, we have the subsequent fact. From the fire of 1747, when all the minutes of the council for many previous years, except a few of general import, were destroyed, to 1765, there are notices of seventeen periodical appointments of thanksgivings, as well as the same number of periodical fasts, on the journals of this branch of the legislature, while the records of the general court contain only about five of such appointments of each kind. The reasons, so advanced to account for deficiencies of this sort in Massachusetts, would apply to similar deficiencies in the rest of New England jurisdictions. At this point, we may ask what should be our decision on the question before us? We perceive, that we ought not to depend altogether, for a reply, on the General Court records of New England now extant. We perceive from the journals of Connecticut, that fasts and thanksgivings were periodical there, and from the same authority and concurrent reasons, were very probably so in other of its adjacent colonies, by 1650. And even if Connecticut journals did not afford such testimony, there are other considerations, which forbid the surrender of this inference. As to the periodical order in view, before the year just named, we are left to judge from the character and condition of our ancestors as well as from their recorded practice. This practice, so far as notice of it has come down to our knowledge, implies nothing contrary to such order, but from the manner in which it is mentioned, and the fact, that, in several instances, no notice was taken of it, when actually existing, on the registers of legislation, strongly intimates, that this order commenced at the beginning of New England.

A single glance at the character and condition of the primitive colonists, instantly suggests, that the Puritans would almost as soon think of neglecting to cultivate the ground and still look for a harvest, as to omit a public fast in the spring, and to gather in the abundance of their fields and still expect to be fed, as to omit the appointment of a thanksgiving in the autumn. This appears to be a legitimate conclusion under all the circumstances of the case. Hence, may we not reasonably make up our minds, that fasts and thanksgivings have been periodical from the first colonization of New England?

Nor is this inference invalidated by the objection, that it involves an implication contrary to the cause, for which our fathers declined conformity with the established holy days of the Episcopal church. The truth is, had they kept their fasts and thanksgivings a single day before or after Passion week and Christmas, it would have broken up the associations of mind, which was the object of their alteration. But in allowing them the sweep of several weeks for such days, they had ample scope to rid themselves of the charge of making a distinction without any difference.

Extracts from Connecticut Records by Hon. Thomas Day.


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