History of Fast Days in Colonial America

On John Winthrop’s trip to New England for the first time in the early 1600s, passengers aboard the Arabella were faced with the dangers of travel by sea. Participation by all passengers aboard in two fast days has been recorded, along with a thanksgiving once the ship reached land off the New England coast. A tradition that began in England, fast days and days of thanksgiving are ritual practices that survived the transition to the new world and that were used often as a way to restore proper order and to celebrate success. Many fast day and thanksgiving sermons can be seen throughout the Revolutionary period, over one hundred years after Winthrop’s successful journey to the new world, and each allowed ministers to use any biblical text seen fit to help reveal their messages.

Fast and thanksgiving days are an important part of colonial America’s history. Also known as occasional preaching, the practice of preaching these sermons began to increase dramatically in the generation after the founders and then on into the 18th and 19th centuries. Increase Mather constructed a sermon in 1671 that served as a challenge to the upcoming generation to maintain the same covenant with Christ that their founding parents had forged before them. Mather’s sermon emphasized that their success was to be solely attributed to the founding generation, but that their failure was to fall on their shoulders completely. Mather promoted Christian love as a means of continuing this covenant with God, both by seeking a closer relationship with God and with one another. Mather emphasizes the idea that covenant is not inherited from generation to generation, but rather was born anew with each generation and required much of the same trials and tribulations that the generation before had to endure in order to be successful and gain God’s providence. William Stoughton of Dorchester pushes this idea further in his 1668 election sermon, claiming that New England was the second generation’s “inherited covenant”, and that they were in a unique position as a collective group of people born in the colonies – they did not have a homeland like their parents did, and so they “invested all their hopes and identity in New England”. For this reason, occasional sermons were much more popular and necessary in the generations that followed the founders.

Within the broader category of occasion sermons, fast sermons were a rhetorical device that accompanied proclaimed fast days in the colonies. The fast day’s primary purpose was “for publically recognizing these times of trouble”, allowing ministers to address all members of their communities and “integrate the theory of federal covenant into the public life”. Fast days were called for when the people of the colonies felt that God was angry with them or punishing them for failing to stay true to their covenant promises. Fast sermons were effective because they could be preached multiple times a year, whenever the colony agreed it was necessary, and could be very specifically aimed at the sins of each individual community. Since the fast days were proclaimed throughout the concerned colony and required that no one go to work, they were also very widely attended. Most of the fast sermons dealt with the topic of corporate sin, or the sins of the entire community, as the cause of whatever calamity was distressing the colony at any particular moment. The actual gathering of colonists in their respective churches allowed them to pray together, as one, for forgiveness of their sins. The concept of the generation was important, and ministers would use it to compare the founding generation to the subsequent ones and to point out any and all missteps that might contribute to the troubling times – even inclement weather patterns could be attributed to the sins of the generation.

Fast days took on a new meaning with the start of King Phillips War in the summer of 1675, the end of peaceful relationships between the colonists and local Indians. For the ministers of New England this was somewhat of a good thing as the war provided “the evidence they needed to confirm their prophecies”, and allowed them to increase the number of fast day sermons being written and delivered. Fast day sermons were also what the ministers could contribute to the war effort on a spiritual basis.  The sermons during this time emphasized that the war was a divine punishment for the colonist’s sins and shortcomings, but this emphasis on asking for forgiveness and repenting sins was not enough – early in the war, fast days were not helping the success of the colonists over their Indian enemies. The ministers took this as a sign that God was no longer content with His people’s efforts to repent their sins alone and decided that the continuing colonial defeats would only cease if the covenant people also “reformed their hearts and lives”. The magistrates of the colonies got involved to pass moral reform laws, and the end result was the colonists’ victory over King Philip. The end of the war and the colonists’ success was celebrated in a day of thanksgiving throughout the colonies, and ministers used this opportunity to emphasize the providential deliverance of the colonists due, in part, to their repentance and reform.

Occasion and fast day sermons served many purposes in colonial America. The sermons were able to change in theme and topic with the changing times. The sermons served both religious and political purposes in many cases, as in the case of King Philip’s War – the sermons preached during that calamitous time served to support the war effort and boost morale among the colonists, but were also very focused on the war as a result of the colonists’ sins and failings. Both the main focus of the fast day sermons as well as their duality in the realms of religion and politics will continue to be evident into the 18th century, especially during the time of the American Revolution.