A couple of years ago I came across an article by Dr. John S. Uebersax, National Days of Prayer: A Historical Comparison, in which he makes this significant observation:
Since 1952, the President of the United States has, by law, annually issued a proclamation recommending a National Day of Prayer. This seeks to revive a similar practice that emerged in Revolutionary times, and again in the Civil War. The modern proclamations, however, differ in important ways from the earlier ones. The main difference is evident in the change of titles — from the earlier ‘Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer’ to the modern ‘National Day of Prayer.’ The earlier proclamations emphasized humiliation — understood as including a deep conviction of God’s Providential sovereignty in all things, recognition that calamities may express God’s chastisements, expression of guilt, sorrow for sins, and earnest pledge for reformation.
The first thanksgiving of the Pilgrim Fathers followed a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer. Both days were appointed and set, not by the church, but by their governor. Our holiday is modeled after their harvest celebration of 1621. But the year of 1622 brought a poor harvest followed by a wretched winter during which people died of starvation and cold, William Bradford recorded these events of the summer of 1623.
I may not here omite how, notwithstand all their great paines and industrie, and the great hops of a large cropp, the Lord seemed to blast, and take away the same, and to threaten further and more sore famine unto them, by a great drought which continued from the 3. weeke in May, till about the midle of July, without any raine, and with great heat (for the most parte), insomuch as the come begane to wither away, though it was set with fishe, the moysture wherof helped it much.
Yet at length it begane to languish sore, and some of the drier grounds were partched like withered hay, part wherof was never recovered. Upon which they sett a parte a solemne day of humilliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervente prayer, in this great distrese.
Think about the context of that day—the privation and death they had recently suffered—their utter dependence upon God for help and deliverance.
And he was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, both to thier owne and the Indeans admiration, that lived amongest them.For all the morning, and greatest part of the day, it was clear weather and very hotte, and not a cloud or any signe of raine I to be seen, yet toward evening it begane to over- cast, and shortly after to raine, with shuch sweete and gentle showers, as gave them cause of rejoyceing, and blesing God.
It came, without either wind, or thunder, or any violence, and by degreese in that abundance, as that the earth was thorowly wete and soked therwith. Which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed come and other fruits, as was wonderfull to see, and made the Indeans astonished to behold; and afterwards the Lord sent them shuch seasonable showers, with enterchange of faire warme weather, as, through his blessing, caused a fruitfull and liberall harvest, to their no small comforte and rejoycing. For which mercie (in time conveniente) they also sett aparte a day of thanksgiveing.
Edward Winslow gave this account:
These and the like considerations moved not only every good man privately to enter into examination with his own estate between God and his conscience and so to humiliation before him but also more solemnly to humble ourselves together before the Lord by fasting and prayer. To that end a day was appointed by public authority and set apart from all other employments hoping that the same God which had stirred us up hereunto would be moved hereby in mercy to look down upon us and grant the request of our dejected souls if our continuance there might any way stand with his glory and our good.
But O the mercy of our God who was as ready to hear as we to ask for though in the morning when we assembled together the heavens were as clear and the drought as like to continue as ever it was yet our exercise continuing some eight or nine hours before our departure the weather was overcast the clouds gathered together on all sides and on the next morning distilled such soft sweet and moderate showers of rain continuing some fourteen days and mixed with such seasonable weather as it was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived such was the bounty and goodness of God.
Of this the Indians by means of Hobbamock took notice who being then in the town and this exercise in the midst of the week said. It was but three days since Sunday and therefore demanded of a boy what was the reason thereof which when he knew and saw what effects followed thereupon he and all of them admired the goodness of our God towards us that wrought so great a change in so short a time showing the difference between their conjuration and our invocation on the name of God for rain theirs being mixed with such storms and tempests as sometimes instead of doing them good it layeth the corn flat on the ground to their prejudice but ours in so gentle and seasonable a manner as they never observed the like.
Having these many signs of God’s favor and acceptation we thought it would be great ingratitude if secretly we should smother up the same or content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end wherein we returned glory honor and praise with all thankfulness to our good God which dealt so graciously with us whose name for these and all other his mercies towards his church and chosen ones by them be blessed and praised now and evermore. Amen.
After this day of thanksgiving on the very next day the ship Anne came in, bringing many of those from Leyden who had been left behind when the Mayflower sailed in 1620. What joy and excitement they must have known for this added blessing, and what gratitude for God’s providential timing! After analyzing the accounts of that time William Love believes July 16, 1623 would have been the day of fasting and prayer, and July 30, 1623 the day of thanksgiving.
It is also noticed that these days were appointed by public authority that is by an order from the governor as the civil magistrate. We believe they were the first so ordered in New England certainly we have no record of any earlier.
Dr. Uebersax opened his article with Jonah 3:5.
Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast.
In our days of need may we remember their example and turn to God in humiliation, fasting, and prayer. In His mercy and grace may He hear our cry and send us sweete and gentle showers.
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good,For His lovingkindness is everlasting.–He changes a wilderness into a pool of waterAnd a dry land into springs of water;And there He makes the hungry to dwell,So that they may establish an inhabited city,And sow fields and plant vineyards,And gather a fruitful harvest.Psalm 107:1, 35–37
Of Plymouth Plantation, An Electronic Edition, William Bradford 1590-1657 (232). Original Source: Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, 1606-1646. Ed. William T. Davis. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908. Copyright 2003. This text is freely available provided the text is distributed with the header information provided.
Edward Winslow and William Love references via Wikipedia from The fast and thanksgiving days of New England” By William DeLoss Love, Houghton, Mifflin and Co., Cambridge, 1895. Books.google.com. Jan 28, 2009. Retrieved 11-20-2012. I’ve added paragraph breaks in all quotes for easier reading.
Rain on grass, adrian.benko: GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
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