Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Public Days in Massachusetts Bay, 1630-1685: Reasons Behind the Ritual and the Ironic Results

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Public Days in Massachusetts Bay, 1630-1685: Reasons Behind the Ritual and the Ironic Results

Article excerpt

Humanity uses external actions to express internal realities. Emotions such as love, friendship, respect, or even hatred rely on symbolic acts for proper expression. Hugging a friend or kissing a mate means more than only the simple movements involved. Similarly, on a larger scale, corporate rituals can reveal such truths as the meaning of existence. A good ritual system enables individuals to find meaning in the universe and in their own lives. Religious ritual defines one's relationship with God and humanity.

More than many people, Puritans relied on physical actions and experiences to convey inner or unseen realities. They viewed religion as a mental choice that led to certain behaviors. An individual's actions or lifestyle revealed whether he or she was among the elect. Although the Puritans protested the Catholic belief in the efficacy of forms themselves and disagreed with the Anglican belief that one could be saved strictly through their use, the Puritans were strongly conscious of the purpose and power of ritual. Their anger lay not so much in the use of forms as in the improper use of them. Because they believed the rituals of the Catholic and Anglican churches stifled rather than revealed God, Puritans sought to replace them with a system that more accurately expressed their view of the proper relationship with God. As part of that effort, the Puritans abandoned the former church holiday system in favor of the more accurately expressive fast and thanksgiving day arrangement.1

Puritans' denied the repetitive, cyclical relationship between God and man that the contemporary system of set-date holy days portrayed. They abandoned the commonly observed Christological festivals because of their pagan origin and lack of explicit scriptural directive. Saints' days were deemed extra-biblical and misleading about the identity of the true saints.2

For the Puritans, to worship God in a humanly devised manner was to worship the creature not God. Human invention could never suffice as sufficient warrant for keeping a day. Such days conveyed a message about the power of the church, not the authority of God. In his sermon entitled The Sinfulness of Worshipping God with Men's Institutions, Samuel Willard emphasized the point that "human inventions" detracted from God's glory. Why? Because "instituted worship ... must need therefore depend upon some authority ... and must suppose a power in him who doth enjoyn it." Humanly devised days (such as Christmas, saints' days, etc.) gave a message about the authority of the church or man, not God. Willard summarized his position bluntly when he wrote that "it is a sin directly against the Divine Prerogative" and that "for any to undertake in this matter to make any ordinances of their own heads in worship ... is an invasion upon his sovereignty." Accordingly, traditional Christological days were not legally observed under the Bay charter. In a Testimony of Prophane Customs, Increase Mather pointed out that "in Apostolical times the Feast of the Nativity was not observed" and that the "very name of Christmas savours of Superstition." Indeed, the "New-- Testament allows of no stated Holyday but the Lords-Day."3

In addition, the popularly celebrated Christological festivals emphasized the past. Christmas portrayed Christ's birth, Easter his death and resurrection -- events of more than fifteen hundred years earlier. The Roman and Anglican calendars only looked back -- not ahead -- and contained nothing to emphasize God in the present. This was unacceptable to the Puritans and their dynamic view of God. To them God was alive and vitally a part of their life not an ancient God whose actions were only in the past. They saw God in every blessing and in every misfortune that befell them. Needing an appropriate ritual system to convey that message, Puritans abandoned the cyclical, Christological calendar that venerated events of several centuries ago, for one that venerated the current, daily actions of God in their lives. …

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