Fasting and Feasting -- The Puritan Way

Nov 19, 2012, 05:00 ET from Millersville University

MILLERSVILLE, Pa., Nov. 19, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The first Thanksgiving was in 1621, right?  According to Dr. Francis J. Bremer, professor emeritus of history at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, Puritans were fasting and feasting way before that time.

"Indeed, they were so common that many such fast and thanksgiving days were never recorded – they simply weren't noteworthy enough," explained Bremer.  "The Europeans who came to America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made no distinction between the natural and supernatural orders and believed that God was an active force in everyday life. In times of danger – the plague, the Spanish Armada, etc. – they commonly fasted and prayed to God to aid them in surmounting the threats they faced.  Frequently governments and church officials appointed special 'fast days' for these purposes.  Likewise, when good things happened, they gave thanks to God, again on days specially appointed for the community to gather and offer thanks and prayer.  These days of thanksgiving were celebratory and in addition to religious observances often included feasting and games."

Despite spotty documentation, there were undoubtedly thanksgiving celebrations before the Pilgrim event in 1621. Bremer points to several earlier celebrations including when Catholic Spanish settlers in St. Augustine (in what became Florida) celebrated a thanksgiving service in 1565, and when in 1619 a group of Virginia colonists dropped to their knees and thanked God for delivering them from the dangers of the ocean passage and bringing them safely to America.

What makes the Pilgrim event in 1621 so iconic?  "First it was well documented," said Bremer. "And because the Pilgrims and Puritans were the most clearly faith-directed of early Americans, those who wished to uphold that tradition found the 1621 Thanksgiving an important prop.  By 1621 the Pilgrims themselves had experienced tense times with the natives.  But they had also signed a treaty with Massasoit. By sharing a meal with Massasoit and his followers, they provided future generations an example of how different cultures could come together. The ideal of inclusiveness provided by the story of the "First Thanksgiving" is one that deserves to be commemorated."

Bremer is the author of 14 books including two released this year, First Founders: Puritans and Puritanism in an Atlantic World (2012), and Building A New Jerusalem: John Davenport, a Puritan in Three Worlds (2012).

SOURCE Millersville University