One of the ways I tend to approach the various holidays we are given is to try to invest them with greater meaning, to establish and celebrate traditions, to discover their roots and nurture their fruit. At Thanksgiving, our least commercialized holiday, we gather with family for a meal, watch the Macy's Day parade, think about the Pilgrims and Squanto, and consider, albeit briefly, that for which we are thankful.
I didn't read Robert MacKenzie's The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning From History to dispel such efforts, but to enlarge them. I had been schooled sufficiently in a post-modern skepticism to doubt that we had much of the original story correct, and yet I wanted to know what that first thanksgiving was all about, if we had any of it right or had manufactured it out of whole cloth. I received all that and more from MacKenzie's well-documented, widely accessible book.
The author, a Professor of History at Wheaton College, while documenting his work carefully, has not written an academic tome. The style is engaging and warm, and if he occasionally lapses into the first-person, it is only to demonstrate the profound impact that these ancestors of the past have for him. He disciples us both historically and spiritually, providing not only historical information but schooling us in a Christian view of the past, of how we have misused the past and yet how our reflection on it may be redeemed. In a time that suffers from "presentism," when history is dismissed as irrelevant or suffers Chesterton's "chronological snobbery," he reminds us of how important is its study, particularly for Christians, reminding us that
[h]istory is utterly central to Christianity, for its core doctrines rest on theological interpretations of historical events, such as creation, the fall, the incarnation, the cross and the resurrection. (Go back to the Apostles’ Creed and note just how many of its statements are historical claims.) Through eyes of faith we recognize all of human history as “a story with a divine plot”—not cyclical, as many of the ancients believed, but linear, with God at its beginning, the cross at its center and the return of Christ to mark its culmination. And because God is the author and Lord of human history, we should see it as a sphere that he has created—and thus a form of natural revelation—every bit as much as the physical world around us.
So as the author looks at the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving, don't think of it as history, if that hurts too much. Think of it as a primer on how we are to remember and speak of fellow human beings. . . in this case those who just happened to have died before any of us or anyone we ever knew were born.
What we learn, of course, is that our limited knowledge of that first Thanksgiving in the Fall of 1621 is really derived from all of 115 words written by Edward Winslow, assistant to William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Plantation. Ready? Here goes:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.
That's it. What we know is that there was a celebration, that Indians came, and that there was a meal. What we don't know is whether the Indians were invited or just, as Winslow puts it, "came up among them." What is now billed as a multi-cultural love-fest likely would have been tense, given that all of two years later the Pilgrims' fort was adorned with a severed Indian head and in light of the misconceptions that they had about each other. We also know that the meal bore little resemblance to what we eat today (and likely did not include turkey), and nowhere did it receive a billing as a Thanksgiving (though undoubtedly the devout Pilgrims did offer thanks, glad as they were not to face starvation as they did the previous Winter, their ranks thinned by 50% in that time.)
While such autumn harvest festivals appear to have continued, the Pilgrims reserved Thanksgiving Days for a special event, not a yearly celebration, as they would have regarded it as presumptuous to designate a special day for thanksgiving before its time. Rather, thanksgiving days arose from special proclamations and were solemn days of prayer, not festivals.
That brief summary does not do justice to the evidence-check that the author does, one that tempers our belief in the traditional story of Thanksgiving, yet Professor MacKenzie is not out to burst our holiday bubble or set aside our celebrations. Rather, he goes on to tell us how he finds the Pilgrims inspirational, encouraging, challenging, and convicting. In doing so he offers us a primer on Christian moral reflection and displays a gracious if unsentimental view of those who have come before us, counseling humility when drawing conclusions. As he reminds us:
To say that we see the past “as through a glass, darkly” only begins to capture the magnitude of our inadequacy. But there is One, the architect and Lord of history, who comprehends that incalculable expanse perfectly and exhaustively. When we realize this, it should cause us to drop to our knees and declare with the psalmist, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me” (Psalm 139:6). In this sense, gazing into the past is like gazing into the night sky. Our natural response should be one of wonder and awe and a humbling awareness of our own limitations. Authentically Christian education always promotes such awareness. If an integral component of wisdom is self-knowledge, “the first product of self-knowledge is humility,” as Flannery O’Connor reminded us.
He is interested not in making idols of our ancestors but in seeing them as heroic and yet very human people. He is interested in honesty, accuracy, and in how study of the past reveals God's glory --- and the latter, in his view, comes from seeing the power of God manifested in the weakness and frailty of humanity.
While the actual details and educated speculations about the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving are interesting, I found myself more drawn to their legacy, to what they bequeathed us. Here the author's reflection on what we know of the Pilgrims is rich. He finds that the Pilgrims inspire by their communal perseverance in the face of trials more arduous than most of us will ever face. He is encouraged by the fact that these "plain men" of "moderate abilities" (using their own words), though flawed and weak by worldly standards, were used by God in powerful ways. Finally, he is challenged and convicted by their implicit indictment of the radical individualism of our American lives as well as the worldliness of the church, our preoccupation with this world and its ways as opposed to the one to come.
The Pilgrims remind us that we are all of us pilgrims, "strangers and aliens" in the world. As the author says, "It is not their poverty that I find most convicting, but their hope of heaven." His extended reflection on our history ends with humility and doxology, on our "littleness" and His "bigness" --- the only right place for the Christian to stand after reflection on both Word and World.
I highly recommend The First Thanksgiving. Read it to learn more of our history. Read it to learn how to think about history. Better yet, let it school you in humilty and awe before the mystery of what has been and what will come. Let it free you from yourself. In the end, the book became for me a work of devotional literature, a meditation on God's providence, a school of humility, and an aid to worship. Finished, something like this prayer drifted upward frome a heart unsprung from what my mind absorbed: "Come Lord Jesus, come, and deliver me from my hellish preoccupation with myself, from the petty, puckish, and paltry preoccupations of my days, from the ill-formed judgments of others past and present, from presumption and pride. Teach me what it means to be a pilgrim. Keep before me the hope of Another Country. Yes, "come Lord Jesus, come."