The New England colonists balanced Thanksgiving feasts with petitionary fasting, known as days of “public humiliation and prayer:”
Pleas for rain during spells of drought were the most common reason for fasting. But Puritans also fasted whenever a comet, an evil portent, appeared in the sky; at the start of the Salem witch trials; and throughout the various colonial Indian wars (Mather preached that the horrors in King Philip’s War, against the Wampanoag Indians, had been sent by God to chastise colonists for the sin of wig wearing). . . Puritans believed that expressions of thanks to God for their good fortune helped keep his future punishments at bay.
It is my impression that educated Christians no longer view a twister in south Texas, say, as signifying God’s anger at human misbehavior (and no, I don’t think that global warming theory represents some atavistic religious impulse). I may be wrong here: perhaps believers simply keep out of the public realm their view that natural and human affairs refer to them, until such a view erupts from a Falwell or Robertson.
But if it is the case that God, ghosts, and ancestral spirits have been pushed increasingly towards the margins of our experience, the result is not dreariness but a still enchanted, wonder-filled world. Musicians and dancers still pursue the agony of grace. Brilliant white light fills the sky above the southern California coast. Scientists conquer the squalor of pain and disease, taking medicine out of the domain of unwitting fraud. And if there is ever a final tribunal of world culture, whereupon each nation will be called upon to document its contributions to the store of human beauty, America will stand tall, shoulder to shoulder with Austria, Italy, and other fonts of loveliness. “Schubert? Mozart?” we will say. “Yes, fine, we acknowledge their genius and bow before them. But here is Cole Porter; here is Leonard Bernstein; here is Rogers and Hart. Here is swing and the necessity of snapping your fingers to music, released after centuries of hidden dormancy.” So I am grateful not just for the exuberance of America’s entrepreneurs and for the culmination of Western liberal thought in the American polity, but also for the joyfulness of America’s spirit, so magnificently on display in the American songbook.