J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

John Adams’s Days of “Solemn Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer”

To spot what might have been controversial about John Adams’s proclamations of Thanksgiving holidays on 9 May 1798 and 25 Apr 1799, it’s useful to compare them to others issued before he took office:

Beliefnet has Congress’s resolution of 1777. Pilgrim Hall has the texts of five presidential proclamations from 1789 to 1814. (The last came from James Madison.)

One difference pops up right away from the dates. Adams declared holidays in back-to-back years. Though that tradition didn’t continue in 1800, the Adams administration made such proclamations at a higher rate than any previous national government.

Some analysts say people saw Adams’s messages as ominous because they got into political matters, suggesting Americans pray that “our public councils and magistrates may be especially enlightened and directed at this critical period“ in 1798, and that “the United States are still held in jeopardy by the hostile designs and insidious acts of a foreign nation” in 1799.

But Washington’s proclamations also mentioned politics, both generally (“render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed“ in 1789) and specifically (“the suppression of the late insurrection” in 1795).

I think the crucial difference is what Adams asked people to do. He proclaimed a day of “solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer,” with “fervent thanksgiving” as an afterthought. In contrast, the Congress and Washington asked Americans to pray and give thanks, but they didn’t mention humiliation or fasting.

Fasting was the basis of the New England Puritans’ Thanksgiving tradition. The big dinner came only at the end of a day spent in church while eating little and feeling sinful. Adams’s holiday proclamations weren’t meant to produce “an Establishment of a National Church,” as he claimed his enemies said, but they did try to spread one form of worship nationwide. (I should acknowledge one difference: New England’s Thanksgivings were usually late in the year, after harvest, but Adams pegged dates in the spring.)

The New England Thanksgiving had also developed a political dimension during the build-up to the Revolutionary War. As I discussed last year, observing the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Thanksgiving in December 1774 became a dividing line between Patriots and Loyalists, and thus between the majority Congregationalists and smaller sects that supported the Crown for religious reasons.

That division came on top of ongoing distrust of New England’s Congregationalist establishment for a variety of reasons: old oppression (Quakers, Catholics), being taxed to support someone else’s church (Baptists), too much fervency (Anglicans and Enlightenment skeptics). The Puritan fast day was thus a symbol for a bigger issue about the freedom and equality of faiths.

Finally, religious orthodoxy was also a dividing line between Adams and his rival Thomas Jefferson, at least as the Federalist press portrayed the two men. (In reality, they weren’t far apart in their beliefs.) The 1799 proclamation’s warning about “principles, subversive of the foundations of all religious, moral, and social obligations,” clearly tried to claim all religion and morality for one side—the anti-French Revolution side—of the U.S. of A.’s politics.

In the end, John Adams’s holiday declarations probably did not decide the election of 1800, despite his later grumbling about “the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings.” They were simply another irritant in a series of political disputes.

And what controversy they kicked up didn’t come from their call for “thanksgiving,” but from the “fasting” and “humiliation.” Which, not coincidentally, are the aspects of the New England Thanksgiving that we’ve most thoroughly discarded.


RJO said...

I've always wondered about the technicalities of Puritan fasting. Did their fast days run from sundown to sundown, or midnight to midnight? (If Wednesday is a fast day, does eating stop on Tuesday at sundown, or on Wednesday at 12:01am?) Did they allow drinking on fast days? Water only?

J. L. Bell said...

In The fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England (1895), W. DeLoss Love, Jr., wrote: “Until the present century two services were maintained in most communities, and these occupied the major portion of the day. In early times, indeed down to the general breaking up of old customs by the Revolutionary war, the people usually abstained from food until after the second service,—a very ancient interpretation of this duty. Then, as the day declined, they sat down to some simple repast of cold meats, bread or ‘hasty pudding,’ and milk. Many are now living who remember when fasting was commonly practiced.”