With all those fast days in colonial New England – as many as nine a year from 1620 to 1700 – no wonder cases of Puritan anorexia cropped up from time to time.
The Puritans fasted to assuage God’s wrath. The purpose of fasting was to imbue people with a sense of humiliation so they could grasp their insignificance and depravity in light of God’s power and justice.
Samuel Hopkins, a Puritan theologian, urged his parishioners in Newport, R.I., to fast in order to live a godly life.
Perhaps he offered good spiritual advice, but not especially wise medical guidance. A Newport girl developed a case of Puritan anorexia after the religious revival known as the First Great Awakening . A college student caught up in Puritanical fervor went into a fasting frenzy during the Second Great Awakening. And a future president of Yale nearly starved himself to death after his conversion crisis.
“Fasting assisted the saint in becoming a selfless, empty vessel, a receptacle for God’s spirit and love,” wrote Julius H. Rubin in Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America.
… evangelicals reapplied themselves with obsessive repetition, fasting again and again until they enjoyed the inner illumination that told them God had forgiven their sins. If they could still not find relief, many became convinced that they had committed the unpardonable sin and began fasting unto death.
During the First Great Awakening in 1740, 14-year-old Susanna Anthony suffered a conversion crisis that lasted for years. She desperately tried to conquer her worldliness and turn to God in a transcendent moment of surrender.
It wasn’t easy.
She bit her flesh, twisted her arms, wrung her hands and refused to eat. She was sure the devil had led her to the sin of eating. And she remembered the passage from Romans that said, ‘he that doubteth is damned if he eat.’ In a letter to a friend, Anthony wrote,
I had been so long harassed and terrified with the dismal apprehension of certain, unavoidable damnation, that though I took only enough to preserve life, yet every mouthful seemed to seal up my condemnation. And therefore I seemed ready to give up, and wholly abstain, rather than endure the distress of every mouthful I took filled me with.
God at Yale
Her letters were posthumously bound into a book, held by the Yale library. There they were discovered by a careless, fun-loving young student named Elias Cornelius.
Cornelius associated with irreligious students until the last term of his senior year in 1813. The college experienced a religious revival under President Timothy Dwight, a leader of the New Divinity faction of Congregationalism.
His biographer described him as ‘fond of company and amusement, his society was coveted by the inconsiderate and irreligious portion of his fellow-students.’
I perfectly recollect his making his first entrance into the Moral Library, of which I was librarian, and selecting the ‘Memoir of Susanna Anthony’ … From this time I do not believe a smile appeared on his countenance, till his conversion. He lost flesh rapidly…”
Cornelius survived to become a well-known minister.
It is probably fitting that a descendant of the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards should come down with a case of Puritan anorexia. Edwards, who sparked the First Great Awakening, was Dwight’s grandfather.
Timothy Dwight was born in Northampton, Mass., on May 14, 1752, the son of Mary Edwards and Timothy Dwight III, a farmer, merchant and Yale graduate.
He supposedly read the Bible before he turned four and taught himself Latin by the age of six. He graduated from Yale at 17.
Joshua Kendall described what happened next in The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture.
…[H]e suddenly became concerned that too much food was dulling his mind. He began to reduce his intake to twelve mouthfuls at each meal; after six months of this experiment, he upped the ante, cutting out all meat and eating only vegetables–primarily potatoes.
By the summer of 1774, Timothy Dwight weighed 95 pounds, and his father took him home to die in Northampton. A doctor ordered him to avoid all study and to drink a bottle of Madeira wine every day. He slowly returned to health after a few months.
Dwight went into the ministry and eventually served as president of Yale College. He belonged to the leadership of the Second Great Awakening.
Today Yale has a room unironically named the Timothy Dwight Dining Room.
This story was updated in 2019.