I confess that I accepted with some reluctance the invitation to participate in the Patheos Book Club about Robert Tracy McKenzie’s book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History. It wasn’t that I thought it wouldn’t be interesting. I just wondered whether I could really afford the time to read a book about a subject so far removed from my research and teaching interests, when I have a backlog of books to review related to the study of the New Testament.
But as it turns out, this book is directly relevant to the things that I normally work on. While its subject is Thanksgiving and what if anything it has to do with the Pilgrims, its focus is on how we study history, what its relevance is to the present, and much else that I think and talk about often. (This is presumably important to emphasize not only so that potential readers will be aware that it is of interest, but also so that potential readers will know that it is worth reading even after Thanksgiving has passed!)
McKenzie begins by noting that there were other thanksgiving celebrations in the “New World” prior to that in Plymouth. The Plymouth celebration could be called the “First American Protestant Christian Thanksgiving North of Virginia and South of Maine” but he doubts it will catch on (p.9). In fact, the event that is the focus of Thanksgiving lore does not, in the evidence available to us, provide a basis for many of the claims that are made about it and the practices which are allegedly based upon it. Over the course of the book, we see evidence for the retrojection of a later practice in New England onto the Pilgrims, who were also rarely so designated until much later.
But that is getting ahead of ourselves. McKenzie first explains the academic study of history, and throughout he is concerned with how Evangelical Christians ought to approach the subject. Although the book has much that will be of interest to just about anyone, McKenzie writes as an Evangelical for other Evangelicals, and one ought to know that when diving into the book. Even if some readers may not share certain theological views of the author, that won’t detract from the soundness of his advice for everyone. For instance, McKenzie writes that “we must beware of the temptation to go to the past for ammunition instead of illumination – more determined to prove points than to gain understanding. We fall into this trap whenever we know too definitely what we want to find in the past, when we can already envision how our anticipated ‘discoveries’ will reinforce values that we already hold or promote agendas to which we are already committed” (p.16). Other emphases include the importance of evidence and of nuance. “Our society asks for easy lessons and uncomplicated truths, and if our primary reason for studying the past is to win arguments in the public square, we will be sorely tempted to provide them – to our detriment” (p.19). The historian is not wholly objective, but is nonetheless constrained by the evidence (p.27). And an appropriate balance should be maintained between sympathy and skepticism (p.32).
Among the misperceptions of the Pilgrims that McKenzie challenges is that they came to America seeking freedom. The truth is that they already had freedom, having fled England to Leiden. What they sought was freedom coupled with the ability to work to earn a living, maintain their English language and identity, and pass their values on effectively to the next generation (pp.64-70). As an academic, I was struck by the mention of the fact that, already in their time, Leiden was a major city for academic publishing (p.60).
Other interesting points relevant to modern appeal to the New England Puritans include what could be called their “war on Christmas” (they opposed the celebration) and their rejection of the King James Bible (p.103). Also important is that they sought freedom to practice what they were convinced was true religion, and not freedom for anyone to follow their conscience no matter what their beliefs, convictions, or practices (pp.109-110).
Yet McKenzie also makes an appeal that we stop talking about “revisionists,” not because it is not apt but because we need to realize the penchant we all have to not merely study but rewrite history in light of our own assumptions and standpoint, and to offer more than mere name-calling when that tendency is allowed to severely distort or even attempt to rewrite the evidence (pp.146-148). His exploration of false memories and hoaxes, and of how later practices were projected onto these early settlers, is of obvious relevance not only to those who study American history, but to those seeking the historical figure of Jesus as well. The author clarifies why people in the later United States found it natural and appealing to connect an increasingly popular national holiday with figures who could be viewed as (to give one example) exemplary immigrants who could be held up to a new wave of newcomers as examples – or used as a standard by which to find them supposedly wanting.
Overall, McKenzie does an excellent job of helping the reader to recognize that “the chances are good that the understandings we cling to as sacred are themselves revisions of earlier verities. Taking this truth seriously can produce in us a much-needed measure of intellectual humility” (p.170). While the history of Thanksgiving and that of the Plymouth settlement are used as examples, the book is broader in its message, tackling the nature of historical inquiry and the balance that is required if one is to engage the past in conversation in an effort to learn from it without turning its figures into idols and spokespersons for our own views.
I highly recommend the volume to any Christians interested in history – and perhaps even more so, I recommend it to those Christians who are not interested in history except perhaps as a place to turn for ammunition in the latest culture wars. The author and I would both agree, I think, that such people need to hear its message more than anyone.