The First Thanksgiving

Historian Robert Tracy McKenzie shows us how to "think Christianly" about the holiday.

It has become unfashionable to consider the pilgrims at Thanksgiving. The Mayflower, William Bradford and the rest, we assume, are a myth–perpetuated in first-grade classrooms–spun to sing the praises of white people at the expense of Native Americans and probably women too.

Historian Robert Tracy Mckenzie’s book The First Thanksgiving is different from the many right-wing reactions to the leftist vision of history. Instead, his project is to “think Christianly about history” which is not to reject revisionism (indeed, he wishes the term “revisionist” would be retired altogether) but to move beyond viewing history as “ammunition”–that is, information primarily meant to back up our own preferred political narrative of history–and instead to allow ourselves to be surprised, challenged, and humbled by honest and disinterested reflection on the past. Christians believe that history is God’s story, so we need only study it with clear eyes and allow him to teach us.

As to Thanksgiving, Mckenzie’s account reminds us that, despite the persistence of our skepticism or vitriolic patriotism (which are probably only different forms of ennui) the broad strokes of the tale are intact: the Pilgrims did indeed set out on a perilous journey from Holland and end up, after a time of death and tribulation, come to hold a feast day giving thanks to God. McKenzie thinks we ought to remember them, but not to hold them up simply as heroes to be emulated. From McKenzie’s blog:

Tomorrow families all across America will be celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday, and some, at least, will link what they are doing to the Pilgrims’ celebration on the coast of Massachusetts in 1621.  Although frequently embellished and sometimes caricatured, the story of the Pilgrims’ “First Thanksgiving” is rich with insight and inspiration.  The Pilgrims were human, which means that they bore the imprint of the Fall with all its attendant sinful consequences: they were ethnocentric, sometimes judgmental and intolerant, prone to bickering, and tempted by mammon.  They were also people of remarkable faith and fortitude—common folk of average abilities and below-average means who risked everything in the interest of their families and their community of faith.

But the real story is even more interesting, illuminating, and inspiring, says McKenzie. It turns out, the Thanksgiving feast that we commemorate did happen, but a holiday (to the Pilgrims, literally a “holy day”) of “thanksgiving” meant something very different to the Pilgrims than it does to us today.

Both Winslow and Bradford wrote at length about the occasion that the Pilgrims would have remembered as their first Thanksgiving Day in America.  It occurred nearly two years after the occasion that we commemorate tomorrow, in the summer of 1623.  During that summer, a prolonged drought, exceeding two months in duration, threatened to wipe out the Pilgrims’ crops and presented them with the real likelihood of starvation in the coming winter.  In response, Governor Bradford “set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress.”  The Pilgrims gathered for a prayer service that lasted some 8-9 hours, and by its end, a day that had begun hot and clear had become overcast, and on the morrow began fourteen days of steady, gentle rain.  “But, O the mercy of our God,” Winslow exulted, “who was as ready to hear as we to ask.”  Having this sign of God’s favor, Edward Winslow explained, the Pilgrims “thought it would be great ingratitude, if secretly we should smother up the same, or content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained.  And therefore another Solemn Day was set apart and appointed for that end: wherein we returned glory honour and praise, with all thankfulness to our good GOD, which dealt so graciously with us.”

It is all well and good to question or even reject the mythology that inevitably forms around historical events. But if we stop there and refuse to look deeper, either because we care nothing for the lives of dead white men or because we would rather the grand old patriotic myths remain comfortably intact, then we will miss out on many lessons and opportunities for fruitful reflection. Worse, baser appetites inevitably rise to fill the vacuum of an abandoned festival. Where history is absent, Black Friday starts early.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and take some time after your turkey to remember the lives of God’s children of the Mayflower. Tradition, Chesterton said, is the “democracy of the dead” and the Pilgrims ought to have a vote in how we spend our holidays.

Robert Tracy McKenzie is professor and chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He blogs at and I encourage everyone to take a look at it, especially today.


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