Turkey, stuffing, family, freedom—all good things we associate with Thanksgiving. Yet as this national holiday approaches next week, many of us will remember a portrait of the Pilgrims that skews the actual people who sailed on the Mayflower in 1620.
In his book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (IVP Academic, 2013), Robert Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College busts a number of myths about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. For example, the Pilgrims doubtfully wore silver buckles and stark black garb, instead avoiding anything resembling jewelry and gladly donning bright-colored clothes, especially at a celebration feast. Their Thanksgiving dinner would have lacked any sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pie. Rather than turkeys, they likely ate ducks, geese, and possibly even eels. These austere figures were also wont to wash down the meal with beer.
More substantially, the Pilgrims didn’t advocate the kind of religious freedom for all touted in the U.S. today. They wanted to worship according to their own conscience, for which they were persecuted in England, yet they banished even a Quaker from their colony for heterodox beliefs. When a newcomer proposed a measure that would have extended religious toleration to all men, the Pilgrim leaders, especially William Bradford and Edward Winslow, were appalled and rejected the proposal outright.
McKenzie further reminds us of the simple fact that the Pilgrims viewed themselves as Pilgrims. That is, they saw themselves as sojourners en route to their final destination. But unlike later Americans who cast the Pilgrims in the role of the first patriots en route to a new nation, the Pilgrims aimed for a new world even farther away. They were sojourners headed for heaven.
It’s no surprise that Americans regularly get these details wrong because we generally prefer to create people from the past in our own image, at least those we want to hold up to promote our platform. But just because a self-serving approach to history is expected doesn’t mean it’s excusable.
What makes McKenzie’s book stick out is that he concerns himself with addressing historical matters like this one. He’s not simply interested in restoring the historical Pilgrims; he’s interested in restoring historical thinking among people—particularly Christians—today.
In this volume McKenzie does not merely tell the story of the first Thanksgiving and correct misconceptions about that story, though he does both of these. Neither does he only give us the broader context for understanding the Pilgrims who traversed the Atlantic and whose fall feast has been memorialized as an American holiday. If he had done just these things, readers would have found much fruit in engaging the book.
But McKenzie goes further to guide readers in how to think historically. He uses the story of the Pilgrims and the history of how Americans have perceived their adventures to illustrate principles of historical analysis.
In McKenzie’s treatment of the Pilgrims readers will find several insights for thinking historically, from taking a posture of humility toward the past to developing a desire for accounts of history based on evidence rather than agenda. He hints at some of these principles for historical thinking in this statement:
“Remember that history and the past are not the same thing. Historical memory exists only in the present, and like human memory generally, it is flawed, selective, invariably influenced by perspective and constantly in need of revision” (145).
Here McKenzie cautions us to be careful with the word “revisionism,” a word that, in the popular lingo, is “more schoolyard name calling than serious critique” (147). However, among historians “revisionism” bears positive connotations. In fact, historians are always trying to bring new evidence and new perspectives to the table to further our understanding of the past. An honest assessment of human limitations really elicits the need for revision—not in the negative sense of reading an agenda into the past but in the desire to correct our misperceptions of the past.
Said another way, in revising our telling of history, we are seeking constantly to exercise the intellectual virtues of humility, honesty, and truth. Again, McKenzie captures this idea in a helpful way as he connects it with Christian beliefs:
“As Christians interested in history, we must constantly remind ourselves of the limitations of human knowledge of the past, not to invalidate our pursuit but to define it more realistically” (152).
While our understanding is “partial and provisional,” we can benefit from studying it today (152). And in his concluding chapter, McKenzie explores how we can learn both from history generally and from the Pilgrims specifically. Yet he qualifies that his answers are simply his answers because each individual must do the “inner work” of drawing moral conclusions from their study of the past (186).
I quibble slightly with this claim because McKenzie goes on to offer takeaways that are by no means meant to be applied individually but rather corporately. Many of them are quite helpful, thoughts that I hope readers will consider seriously. But while I understand that each person must do his or her own “inner work,” I think McKenzie’s answers are more than merely “his answers.” At the very least, they are suggestions for others to consider adopting for themselves, launching points for doing the “inner work” each must do—and valuable ones at that.
As these discussions illustrate, McKenzie offers scintillating thoughts about how to think historically. Reading and discussing these ideas are sure to produce fruit in the minds of those who engage his work. What’s more, McKenzie writes in a lively manner with a pleasant dose of humor thrown in.
All in all, The First Thanksgiving is a good read, well worth the time spent in reflection about the nature of history and the real story of the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving. When you sit down to Turkey and cranberry sauce next week, you would do well to set aside some time for reading and thinking about the people whose story—though often misunderstood—has inspired this iconic American holiday.