FAST DAYS, or days of humiliation and days of thanksgiving, were, in colonial New England, officially dedicated to seeking the forgiveness of or expressing gratitude to God. Puritans opposed not only saints' days, but also all regular observances outside the Sabbath, such as Christmas and Easter, because of their highly developed sense of divine providence. They saw every event as an immediate act of God, where His will was continually manifesting itself either in adversities (punishments of sin) or advantages (blessings upon His people). In this theological context, no annual feast could bear any relation to His unpredictable dispensations or express true repentance or joy.
Puritan theory invested the power to designate such days in the churches, but, in the colonies, the churches asked the sanction of the legislature to enforce universal attendance at their services. The civil authorities soon assumed the initiative in proclaiming the days. The governors and councils were given legal power to name days in the absence of the general courts, while the courts determined them during their sittings. Meanwhile, individually or collectively, churches kept local or cooperative fasts and thanksgivings at will.
Both fast days and thanks giving days were celebrated with a sermon. On a thanksgiving day, the service was followed by feasting, but a fast day did not necessarily mean entire abstinence from food, although abstinence from secular pursuits was called for.
Days of humiliation were given legendary consecration in New England by the startling experience of Plymouth in 1622: after two months of drought the church called for a fast, and the day after the fast rain fell. The church then ordered a day of thanksgiving. Similar apparent instances of divine response did occur, but there were also times when a fast was followed by affliction, particularly during King Philip's War. The clergy explained such failures on the ground that God was still offended, and urged for the reformation of manners. Fasts were appointed upon any public loss or affliction, such as plague, earthquake, crop failure, or drought. They were also decreed during social or political commotions, as during the Antinomian controversy.
In the latter half of the century, ministers tried every means to awaken the languishing zeal of the people. They held fasts in the churches and persuaded the governments to order repeated public days of fasting and prayer for specific abuses. In the 1670s, the clergy began "renewing" the church covenant at such fasts, a custom that became common in community life and contributed to the growth of revivalism.
Although the original colonists abhorred fixed solemnities as an abomination of Satan, they generally held a fast in the spring before the planting and a thanksgiving after the harvest. These days gradually became annual events—the thanksgiving feast in Connecticut by the 1650s, and Massachusetts by 1660. The spring fast took a little longer—in Connecticut in the 1660s and in Massachusetts by 1694. Throughout the eighteenth century, public days were proclaimed by the governors, as were local ceremonies by particular churches. At critical moments preceding the Revolution and during the war, fasts were appointed by the clergy, by the states, or by the Continental Congress, and were used to rally the people and spread propaganda.
Hall, David D. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Love, William DeLoss. The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1895.
"Fast Days." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 26, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/fast-days
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