The First Thanksgiving
ALWYN YORK, CCCC HISTORIAN
The First Thanksgiving by Tracy McKenzie is about more than the title might suggest. The subtitle clarifies the author’s intention: “What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.” The author is professor and chair of the department of history at Wheaton College. His aim in writing this book was to do more than just give an accurate understanding of the event we remember as the First Thanksgiving. McKenzie does a critical analysis of the common picture of the First Thanksgiving as a sort of case study in how Christians can gain an accurate understanding of the past and learn from history in a fruitful and responsible way. He warns of the way we tend to color and shape our memory of history to suit our own prejudices and priorities.
McKenzie begins the book by reminding us of the importance of evidence in constructing history, which he compares to the foundation of a house. This is especially important in trying to understand the Plymouth Pilgrims, since almost everyone feels they know a lot about them, but have never considered how accurate the picture they have of them might be or what it is based upon. He gives a very helpful listing and description of the writings that have come down to us from the Pilgrims themselves. For anyone who wants to understand the Pilgrims as they understood themselves, McKenzie provides a good reading list. Reading the original sources yields some surprises. I’m sure that many are unaware that the only firsthand account we have of a harvest celebration in 1621 is a passage of one hundred fifteen words in a letter that Edward Winslow sent to the financial backers of the colony in England.
McKenzie devotes a chapter to helping us understand how the Pilgrims were different from contemporary American Christians. Our temptation is to think that they were just like us. He reminds us of how different their language was, as well as the food they ate. They prayed looking upward, and used the Geneva Bible, not the King James. Their understanding of liberty differed from ours. To them liberty meant the ability to do what is right without hindrance, not just license to do whatever you want. Another chapter is called “Discarding False Memories,” distinguishing what the celebration in 1621 would actually have been like from the embellishments that have grown up around it.
A chapter I found particularly interesting relates how the image of the First Thanksgiving has changed over time. The most surprising revelation of this chapter to me was that no one even associated the Pilgrims with Thanksgiving until 1841. The custom of regular autumn thanksgivings was common throughout New England before this, but these were not particularly associated with the Plymouth Pilgrims. It was in 1841 that Rev. Alexander Young published a compilation of historical documents about the Pilgrims entitled, Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. In his notes on Edward Winslow’s account of the 1621 harvest celebration, Young declared this the “first thanksgiving of New England.” The imagination of America took it from there. McKenzie documents how the picture of the First Thanksgiving was embellished over time.
McKenzie writes as a Christian historian. He corrects many of the misunderstandings people have about the Pilgrims, but not to belittle or scorn them. He simply wants us to be able to see them as they were. He writes that revealing how we may have misunderstood history should lead to “humility but not cynicism.” This strikes me as very wise counsel.