In 1623, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford proclaimed the first Thanksgiving. "The great Father," he declared, "has given us this year an abundant harvest...and granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience." He directed the Pilgrims to gather that November, "the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Plymouth Rock, there to listen to ye Pastor and render Thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all his blessings."
Except Bradford didn't write that. Someone—we don't know who—fabricated this "proclamation" in the late 20th century. (And the "first Thanksgiving" actually happened in 1621, anyway.) Yet quotes from Bradford's "proclamation" circulate around the internet and appear in books such as 48 Liberal Lies About American History and Sermon Outlines for Busy Pastors. Surviving records from the Pilgrims actually tell us little about the "first Thanksgiving," tempting folks to fill in details where they don't exist. In this, the Pilgrims join a long line of historical characters that Americans—and especially some evangelicals—have attempted to form in their own image.
In The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History, Robert Tracy McKenzie takes the historical challenges posed by the Pilgrims as his starting point. I cannot recall ever reading a book quite like The First Thanksgiving. It is an entertaining retelling of a seminal moment in American history—and a remarkable reflection on how Christians should handle history in general.
American evangelicals seem to have reached a crisis point over the study of history, especially the history of the American founding. For decades, many evangelicals have turned to popular history writers who have presented America, especially of the colonial and Revolutionary era, as a straightforwardly Christian nation. In response, a respected cohort of academic evangelical historians, led by Mark Noll and George Marsden (my doctoral advisor), have concurrently mapped out a more complex view of religion's importance in American history.
While those academic evangelicals at least implicitly disagreed with parts of the "Christian America" thesis, they have struggled to compete with the popular audience won by writers such as Peter Marshall and, most controversially, David Barton. Barton's recent book, The Jefferson Lies, which presented Thomas Jefferson as embracing relatively orthodox Christian views until late in life, unleashed an unprecedented torrent of evangelical and conservative criticism, precipitating the decision by Barton's publisher, Thomas Nelson, to pull the book from distribution in 2012. (I covered the controversy over The Jefferson Lies for WORLD magazine.)
McKenzie, professor and chair of the history department at Wheaton College, may not resolve the academic/popular rift in evangelical history, but The First Thanksgiving is a promising step forward. Written for a popular audience, the book is a great choice for anyone wanting a reliable history of what we know—and what we don't—about the Pilgrim Fathers.