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.
In telling this story, McKenzie clears up a host of misconceptions about the Plymouth settlers, who certainly did not wear buckled hats or black clothes (those were a 19th-century sartorial invention). He demonstrates that the quest for "religious freedom," in the modern sense, did not really animate the Pilgrims. Yes, they wanted to find a place where they could worship God according to Scripture and the dictates of conscience. But they had already discovered those conditions in Holland, where a number of English dissenters had gone in the early 1600s.
The most pressing concern that led the Plymouth Separatists to leave Holland was that they found the Netherlands "a hard place to maintain their English identity and an even harder place to make a living." They did not worry so much about religious persecution (at least not since they left England), but about "spiritual danger and decline." They worried about the cultural corruption they saw around them in foreign Dutch culture, and struggled to find profitable employment that could nourish their common identity. America seemed to offer both better opportunity and a place to preserve their sense of covenanted community.
McKenzie's focus here is not so much how America was founded as a refuge for religious freedom. The real lesson has to do with maintaining Christian commitment in the midst of a worldly, permissive culture. "The Pilgrims grappled with fundamental questions still relevant to us today: What is the true cost of discipleship? What must we sacrifice in pursuit of the kingdom?" To what lengths should we go—how far should we go—to maintain a proper separation from the world? The Pilgrims decided they should traverse the dangerous Atlantic to do so, yet they found that the New World had many of the same challenges as the Old, plus some new ones, such as relating to Native American neighbors.
I'm struck by how distinctively Christian McKenzie's concerns are—more so than much of the "Christian America" literature, where you're never sure if the nation or the Kingdom gets first billing. The priority for McKenzie is faithful thinking and living as Christians, and history can help by providing examples from which we can learn. But we have to balance learning from people in the past—and even embracing them as heroes—against turning them into "idols." All people, past and present, have their limitations and failings.
We should remember, McKenzie cautions, than not long after the first Thanksgiving—which was indeed a peaceful, if tense meal between the English and their Wampanoag neighbors—the Pilgrims launched a preemptive assault on local Massachusetts Indians that resulted in violence and bitter resentments. The English even placed the severed head of one Native American on a pike outside their fort. Recalling this is telling the truth, not revisionist history. Even one of their dismayed former pastors wrote from Holland that he wished they had converted some Indians to Christianity "before you had killed any!"
Some readers may find McKenzie a bit dismissive about the Pilgrims' relevance as moral and cultural guides. We need not agree with everything that the Pilgrims or the Founding Fathers did to regard them as a trove of historical wisdom in their views on liberty, moral responsibility, and the grounds of government (as articulated in the Mayflower Compact).
I'm also not sure that the Pilgrims are the most obvious candidates for correcting historical idol-making among evangelicals. How many evangelicals—or Americans generally—actually know any of the Pilgrims' names, aside (perhaps) from Myles Standish or William Bradford? Yes, for the past century Americans have vaguely celebrated the Pilgrims' memory in November, but it is harder to make idols of people we barely know.
The temptation toward idol-making seems much more pressing with the titans of America's national history, those who line the mall in Washington, D.C. Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington: These are the ones that, despite limited evidence of orthodoxy, many of us want—or need—to be evangelical Christians, just like us. We desperately need help to know how to think about those Founders.
But those are subjects for other books and other times. McKenzie has done an enormous service by writing an engaging, morally reflective story about the Pilgrims and the problems of history. May there be many more books like McKenzie's, which might inspire a new evangelical generation toward greater intellectual and ethical discernment about the American past.
Thomas S. Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University and the author, most recently, of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots (Basic Books).