ANOTHER THANKSGIVING APPROACHES. It’s that day when families across America gather to watch parades and competitive sports on television and to overindulge in stuffed turkeys, creamed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and rich pies.
Every schoolchild in America knows the story of the original Thanksgiving. In 1621 in Plymouth, emigre English Calvinists struggled to make their way in the harsh climate of this New World. Wampanoag Indians helped them, teaching them to grow corn. In gratitude the Pilgrims invited the Native Americans to join in their harvest feast. On this secular holiday, with our extended families around us at the Thanksgiving table, we may be moved to give thanks not only for the feast but also for our families, our country, and our many other gifts.
But this modern version of Thanksgiving would horrify the devout Pilgrims and Puritans who sailed to America in the 17th century. The holiday that gave rise to Thanksgiving — a “public day” that they observed regularly — was almost the precise opposite of today’s celebration. It was not secular, but deeply religious. At its center was not an extravagant meal, but a long fast. And its chief concern was not bounty but redemption: to examine the faults in oneself — and one’s community — with an eye toward spiritual improvement.
A thanksgiving day, as actually celebrated by 17th-century Americans, was a communal day of fasting, meditation, and supplication to God. Both thanksgiving and fast days — jointly referred to as “public days” — served as replacements for Roman Catholic holidays (from “holydays”) such as Christmas, Easter, and saints’ days, which the Puritans rejected along with stained glass and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. This was part of their goal of simplifying and purifying the rituals of the Christian Church, which explains the term “Puritan.” When they emigrated they brought the public-day tradition from Calvinist Europe.
Thanksgiving’s real roots, then, are deeper and more spiritual than the popular image — and lie in Europe, not America.
Colonial governments called for public days several times a year, often in response to political, social, agricultural, and meteorological changes, especially disasters. Though the Puritans were aware of randomness in nature, they tended to see a sign of divine vengeance in frightening occurrences such as droughts, epidemics of smallpox, and children’s deaths. During a drought, for instance, the court in Boston would declare a public fast day, calling for people to repent for their sins and ask God for help. Once the drought was over the colony would share in a public day of thanks. On these days families prayed at home, reading Scripture aloud and singing psalms, and then attended compulsory lecture services at their meeting houses. In the cycle of fast and thanksgiving days, the community alternately pleaded with and expressed thanks to God.
At the heart of these ceremonies was repentance — or, more specifically, the hope of redemption through repentance. Despite the seeming bleakness of the core Calvinist belief that humanity is fundamental depraved, Puritan theology always left a door open to sinners: If a sinner would only repent, he might return to grace. Repentance is a change of mind and heart after the fact. The word comes from the Hebrew for “to return” or “to feel sorrow” and from the Greek metanoia, meaning “a change of mind,” “to think again,” or “to see in a new way.”
Public atonement played an important role in the Puritan devotional repertory. During fast-day services, penitents often covered themselves in ashes or wore sackcloth over their clothes, both Biblical symbols of repentance.
In January 1697, for example, the Massachusetts government called a public day so the community could repent and beg God’s forgiveness for the disaster of the Salem witch hunt, in which a Colonial court had executed 20 innocent women and men. One of my ancestors, Judge Samuel Sewall, was one of nine judges who had presided over the 1692 witchcraft trials. On Jan. 14, 1697, during the fast-day service at Boston’s Third Church, now Old South, 44-year-old Judge Sewall stood up from his bench and bowed his head as his minister read aloud Sewall’s public statement of acceptance of “the blame and shame” for the witch hunt. Sewall donned a coarse penitential hair shirt on that fast day and wore it, according to family lore, for the rest of his life, as a constant, painful reminder of his sin.
During the long period of repentance that followed, Judge Sewall tried to improve not only himself but also his society. He became an unlikely spokesman for the advancement of civil rights and individual liberties. In the summer of 1697, not long after the fast day, he published an essay, “Phaenomena quaedam Apocalyptica,” that portrayed America — and Native Americans — as virtuous and godly. In 1700, when one in five families in Boston owned African or Native American slaves, Sewall composed and published the first abolitionist statement in America, “The Selling of Joseph,” which argued that slavery was immoral. His 1725 essay, “Talitha Cumi,” or “Damsel, Arise,” stated the “right of women” and women’s fundamental equality to men.
Remarkably, Sewall also left us a careful record of his devotions during a private fast day, providing a glimpse of the mental world of a devout Puritan and the deeply spiritual aims of fast and thanksgiving days. Sewall’s description of a private day of prayer and fasting that he observed on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 1708, when he was 55, is “the most full and minute existing record of a private fast-day as kept by” devout Puritans, according to M. Halsey Thomas, a historian of Colonial America who edited the published volumes of Sewall’s diaries. It is also completely unlike Thanksgiving today.
First, Sewall retreated from family life. He and his 49-year-old wife, Hannah, who had watched seven of their 14 children die, still had three daughters at home. He went alone to an upper room on the second floor of his house, which occupied the southeastern corner of Washington and Summer streets in modern Boston, and was surrounded by gardens, orchards, and on one side a pond. (Shoppers who visited Filene’s Basement, in Downtown Crossing, entered a space that was once the cellar of Sewall’s mansion.) The window of Sewall’s room overlooked Boston’s noisiest thoroughfare, which is now Washington Street. He fastened the shutters and closed the door.
He may have prostrated himself on the floor, as his peer the Rev. Cotton Mather sometimes did in prayer, but he surely did not kneel, for Puritans were loath to kneel during prayer, a Catholic custom that seemed to them idolatrous.
“Dear God,” Samuel began, according to his notes, “perfect what is lacking in my faith and in the faith of my dear yokefellow,” his wife. “Please convert and recover our children, especially Samuel,” his oldest son, age 29, who was struggling in his career and marriage, “and Hannah,” his sickly 28-year-old daughter. Mentioning his other living children, he prayed, “Recover [18-year-old] Mary, and save Judith , Elizabeth , and Joseph,” a 19-year-old student at Harvard College. He prayed for two servants: “Make David a man after thy own heart. Let Susan live and be baptized with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.”
Sewall prayed for his own church. “Bless the South Church in preserving and spiriting our pastor, in directing unto [us] suitable supply, and making the church unanimous.” Moving outward, he continued, “Save the town [Boston], the college [Harvard, from which he graduated with a master’s degree in 1674], [and New England] province from invasion of enemies, open and secret, and from false brethren. Defend the purity of worship. Save Connecticut and the New York government.”
Extending his prayer beyond the world that he physically knew, he went on, “Reform all the European plantations in America — Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, and Dutch. Save this New World, that where sin hath abounded, grace may superabound...Save all Europe. Save Asia, Africa, Europe and America.”
Sewall’s goal was the reformation of the entire world — all its quarters — as well as his own small part of it. His prayer was a cry to God to help humanity.
It may be hard to see a connection between such earnest supplications and our modern Thanksgiving, but it was that Colonial holiday that America’s founders had in mind when they declared national days of thanksgiving.
Following the example of their Puritan great-grandparents, New England’s leaders continued to announce public fast and thanksgiving days throughout the 18th century. In 1777 the Continental Congress called for America’s first official day of thanksgiving, imploring Americans to give thanks and to offer “penitent Confession of their manifold Sins.” When President Washington designated Nov. 26 a national thanksgiving day in honor of the new Constitution in 1789 to thank God “for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed,” he also called upon Americans to “unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions.”
President John Adams called for national fast days in 1798 and 1799. His proclamation announcing the first “day of fasting & humiliation” was “a loud call to repentance and reformation” in the face of possible war with France. President Madison called for two thanksgiving days, but by 1815 the custom of public days in America had died out.
Our modern concept of Thanksgiving was a later 19th-century invention. During the bloody Civil War, Abraham Lincoln blended the sentimental myth of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a harvest feast with the public need for a celebration of national unity. In 1863 Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an annual federal holiday, beginning a tradition honored by every president since. By linking the day to the Pilgrim-Indian harvest feast, we focus on food rather than on the actual activities and rationale for early-American fast and thanksgiving days.
The belief in repentance — and its power to improve the American experiment — has also retreated. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that this Thursday a powerful leader will stand before the nation and admit to a disastrous mistake — or say, quoting Samuel Sewall, “I desire to take the blame and shame of it, asking your pardon, and especially desiring prayers that God would pardon that sin and all my other sins.”
Eve LaPlante is the author, most recently, of “Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall” and “American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans.” She can be reached at evelaplante.com.