Ancient Yearnings for the New Year

John FeaOn New Year's Day 1811, Richard Wood sat down at his desk to reflect on the start of the year. It was a snowy day in the tiny southern New Jersey hamlet of Greenwich, the place where Wood, one of the town's most prominent residents, owned a store and tended his fields. Wood wrote in the pages of his almanac diary, a small, pocket-sized journal in which he recorded everyday events and business transactions from his agricultural life:

Another year has passed away, & if I can say there has been improvement made in the past year, that I may commence the present in a better situation, in point of duty toward the Great & Wise Arbiter who knows all our situations and standings, respecting our faithfulness to him, that we need not deceive ourselves by drawing favorable conclusions [that it is] better with us than it really is; & on investigation of my spiritual progress, I dare not say I have made any, though hope, through mercy there has been rather gaining ground in this very & most important of all other considerations—And my earnest desire is that I may be so favored as to be found better at the end of the present year than I begin it, if life should be continued so long unto me. But at the present feel myself very poor, & my spiritual understanding veiled from knowing my true standing respecting my situation with him, who in his infinite goodness, has extended unmerited favours to me a poor unworthy creature.

Later in the day he would host a meeting of the elders of the Greenwich Quaker Meeting. On January 3, 1811, he would kill a 554-pound bull and clean 91 bushels of wheat. The following week he would find himself blowing flies away from his most recent load of pork. These were the kinds of activities that made up his rural life, the everyday context in which such New Year's resolutions were kept.

Wood did not resolve to lose weight, quit smoking, get out of debt, make more money, or spend more time with family. He had "spiritual progress" on his mind. Wood's honest words concerning his spiritual condition, and his desire to draw closer to the "Great & Wise Arbiter," were not like the New Year's resolutions popular in American society today. In his world the start of the New Year, at least for the devout, was a season of renewal. It was a time to rededicate one's life to the things that were considered most important.

Wood's diary, which he kept consistently from 1801 to 1821, reveals the way he tried, like all of us do, to keep his New Year's Day promises. Throughout the year he was a regular attendee at the Quaker meeting, but felt extremely guilty when he skipped mid-week worship to tend to his farm and other business matters. He struggled through bouts of depression. He read profusely in the Bible, the Book of Martyrs, and a host of other Christian books. He tended to his sick wife and battled a brief illness of his own. He visited friends and neighbors and witnessed the deaths of others.

On December 31, 1811, on a day Wood described as "without any noise or disturbance that I know of," he measured his progress:

The year 1811 is gone, never to return & if I were to recapitulate the many misspent or idle hours, that has been employed in endeavouring to secure an inheritance amongst the blessed in the heavenly habitation; how should I appear before the tribunal bar, on an examination of the employment of my time and talent; for the misspent idle hours that ought to be employed in exercise of mind toward him who created us for a purpose of his own glory? On such a solemn examination I am afraid I should be wanting—rather inclining to serve myself in preference than to honour, serve and obey so great and good a master and benefactor.

In my inaugural Confessing Historycolumn, I explained how the study of history can be a spiritual discipline in which we give loving attention to figures from the past, discern the divine image within them, and find humility in the recognition of our common humanity, sinfulness, and striving after God.

Sometimes it seems like the people in the past live in a foreign country. At other times, we find their struggles and failures a lot like ours.

Happy New Year!

1/5/2011 5:00:00 AM
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    About John Fea
    John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). He blogs daily at