Faculty Experts: Did You Set a New Year’s Resolution? Your Ancestors May Have, Too

Historian and theologian weigh in on the annual practice’s roots

Monday, January 1, 2018

The New Year has arrived, and with it, hours of reflection, list-making and Pinterest searches to one annual end: a resolution. The current obsession with self-improvement overwhelms. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” one thinks, “to go back a few hundred years, when people focused on what really mattered?”

Only to come face-to-face with a truth of human nature: Your ancestors probably made New Year’s resolutions, too.

“It’s natural to set aside time for reflection and self-assessment,” says Alison Williams Lewin, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

The practice’s ancient roots are murky: Lewin describes the occasional mention of similar goal-setting customs in Babylonian (1895-539 B.C.) and Roman (27 B.C.-1453 A.D.) times. However, the first concrete mention of a New Year’s resolution can be found on January 2, 1671, when Scottish writer Anne Halkett (1623-1699) recorded her pledges.

“Though it’s two days after the New Year,” says Lewin, “I’m willing to give it to her. The diary entry was even titled, ‘Resolutions.’”

Most of Halkett’s goals were derived from Bible verses, such as “I will not offend anymore,” suggesting to Lewin the religious nature of resolution-making.

“The tradition of starting the New Year — however it is measured or whatever calendar one is following — with a fresh start has a long cultural and religious history,” says Millicent Feske, Ph.D., associate professor of theology at SJU. “The two were woven together in the ancient Western world in ways that are not clearly understandable in our country with its separation of church and state.”

A retired United Methodist minister, Feske confirms a strong association between New Year’s resolutions and Methodism. Founder John Wesley believed in the annual renewal of one’s covenant with God, and on New Year’s Eve in 1755, he held his first Watch Night Service. According to Feske, the covenant renewal service includes reaffirming promises to God for one's life as a Christian in the year to come. The practice continues in the Methodist Church today.

Though perhaps of religious origins, resolutions are often ridiculed (and abandoned) — and have been historically. Lewin cites that the first mentions in print of the ritual appear in the early 1800s in pieces that mock the custom.

“One Boston newspaper in 1813 cynically notes that people behave abominably all December,” says Lewin, “and then suddenly vow to change their ways.”

Media Contact

Associate Professor of History Alison Williams Lewin, Ph.D., is an expert in medieval, renaissance, reformation and early modern history. Millicent Feske, Ph.D., associate professor of theology, specializes in contemporary Christian, feminist and liberation theologies. They can be reached for comment at lewin@sju.edu and mfeske@sju.edu respectively, or by contacting the Office of Marketing and Communications at 610-660-3240.




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