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November 21, 2015

The roots of Thanksgiving in America
By Winfield Casey Jones

While waiting for my wife to have hospital procedures at MD Anderson Cancer Hospital, I just happened on an article, "The Opposite of Thanksgiving," by Eve LaPlante, which appeared in the Boston Globe November 18, 2007. I don't think I have ever done this before, but almost my entire column is going to be a quoting of hers! She shows us how the Puritan roots of Thanksgiving in America differ radically from our modern celebration.

She writes that our "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…..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….At the heart of these ceremonies was repentance - or, more specifically, the hope of redemption through 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. '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 [6], Elizabeth [16], 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."

Winfield Casey Jones is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Pearland. He can be reached at

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