Christian Reflection on the First Thanksgiving with Historian Tracy McKenzie

Thanksgiving is here! Bring on the turkey and the culture wars, then spend black Friday with a bad case of indigestion. Americans are as preoccupied with sweet potato controversies – with or without marshmallows – as we are with arguing over what kind of country those reforming Pilgrims wanted to jump start. Were they hoping to inaugurate a Christian nation guided by Scripture? Or were they pioneers for religious freedom, carving out a land with a clear separation between church and state? Maybe they just wanted to be left alone, free of all government interference in all aspects of their lives and so were perhaps more like libertarians than anything else. It seems whatever you believe America is all about, the long dead Pilgrims can be harnessed to support your position. Seekers after the truth want to believe the truth is out there somewhere. But with all of the culture warriors claiming the truth for themselves, the truth seeker can be forgiven for grabbing a Tums and a cold compress and retreating from the whole brouhaha for a tryptophan-induced nap.

 Just the Facts: Of the 115 words that refer to the harvest celebration in 1621 there is no mention of turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes or pumpkin pie. Nobody used forks and it is highly probable that the Indians were uninvited party crashers.

But don’t despair just yet, friends, for help is on the way. Historian Robert Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College has written a new book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About loving God and Learning from History, and it’s the perfect cure for the heartburn of partisan bickering. Though the subtitle is a mouthful (Thanksgiving pun intended!), it tells us why McKenzie mustered the courage to enter the fray: he’s hoping we can learn how to do history with a Christian spirit. He does not mean that Christians should turn to American history for confirmation of their religious identity. Equating our national identity with our Christian faith is a dangerous preoccupation for too many of us. To the contrary, McKenzie cautions us against looking to the past for confirmation of our positions, what he calls the history-as-ammunition approach. When we do that, we project our own values onto people no longer able to speak for themselves, and “we learn nothing beyond what we already ‘know’”. (Read McKenzie’s reflection on what it meant to the Pilgrims to be a pilgrim at his blog, Faith and History.)

Just the Facts: The Pilgrims sought to purify the Church of England of regularly scheduled holy days. They believed that a holy day of Thanksgiving should always be called as a response to God’s “special providence” and as such could not be set in advance.

Robert Tracy McKenzie, chair of the department of history, Wheaton College

By doing history with Christian sensibility McKenzie means that we relax our grasp on the truth and approach the past with a spirit of humility and charity. Humility in the sure knowledge that anything we say about those who have gone before us will be tentative and incomplete; charity as the practice of treating them with the courtesy we would want for ourselves. In other words, McKenzie argues that Christian reflection demands that when we look to the past and find values deeply held and vigorously defended that differ from our own, “the burden of proof is on us to justify what we believe and how we behave, rather than the other way around.” What he is hoping we will see is that the study of history should “engage the heart” and “change who we are”.

Just the Facts: None of the Pilgrims ever wrote a word so much as hinting that they were in search of greater religious freedom.

Frankly, I wonder if any of us really want to change who we are. When it comes to our convictions about American values, very few of us are open to persuasion. But if we value honesty (that’s still a core American value, isn’t it?), then perhaps we should be prepared to admit that it’s possible that occasionally we make mistakes about our history and even perhaps give it too much importance in how we approach our present. As McKenzie points out, studying our ancestors does not obligate us in any way to accept their answers as our own. “God has given them no moral authority over us,” he writes, “and we must not forget that. Our goal is to learn from our adopted ancestors, not to turn them into idols.”

I hope you can sense that McKenzie is not only a rigorous historian, but a trustworthy guide who can help us avoid the pitfalls of self-congratulatory “discoveries” about our past. I’ll leave you with his gentle yet authoritative coaxing for us to be honest about our own failure to see how we have used our Pilgrim ancestors for self-serving purposes.

[When we offer] evidence of the Pilgrim’s religious motives for migrating to America, we may be tempted to think (or say, or even demand) that because faithful Christians “founded” this country we should be bound by their vision today. Setting aside the dubious accuracy of the original premise… Whether conscious of it or not, we are implicitly claiming that what was in the past dictates what should be in the future…

Here’s a good thought experiment. If we believe that the Pilgrims’ religious vision should continue to guide the United States today, are we prepared to submit to the totality of that vision? For example, should we prohibit (as they did) church marriages? Outlaw the celebration of Christmas? Banish Quakers? Put men in the stocks when they propose to our daughters without permission? If the answer is no… we’ve gained from the experiment valuable insight, not so much into history as into our hearts. We see that, deep down, we were never truly willing to clothe the Pilgrims with genuine authority over our lives, even when we were citing them authoritatively as a weapon against others. There is something disingenuous in the practice that should trouble us.

More broadly, we’re reminded how readily, in our fallenness, we interpret the past in self-serving ways. Regarding the Pilgrims, or any other individual or group from the past, we can freely admire their example to the degree that it embodies scriptural precepts, but we err when we act as if that example is authoritative.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Could someone please pass the sweet potatoes?

Join the live chat with Wheaton professor of history Tracy McKenzie on Monday, November 18, at 1:00pm Central. To find out more and to register for the call, visit Teaching Nonviolent Atonement here on Patheos. 

Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation , where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.


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