Revisiting Thanksgiving

Jonathan Den Hartog

Back in March, on this blog, Mark Edwards offered a review of the collection Confessing History, edited by Fea, Green, and Miller. That post received some great feed-back through an extended conversation in the comments section. The book also received sustained attention over at the US Intellectual History blog.

In Confessing History, Wheaton College professor R. Tracy McKenzie offered a chapter that I very much appreciated entitled "Don't Forget the Church." McKenzie argued that Christian historians needed to prioritize reaching out to the faithful of their own denominations and movements. Thus, academic historians needed not only to be in conversation with other academics, but in local churches and venues that would communicate to fellow believers. For McKenzie, those in the pews were as necessary an audience as those in the seminar room. A real value could come as scholars shared their historical insights with the believing public.

The First ThanksgivingAs with many such agenda-setting articles, the challenge that usually returns is "What does this look like in practice?" McKenzie has not waited long to demonstrate the fruits of his approach, with his recent book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, published by IVP Academic (2013).

The book offers a very fruitful way of communicating about American history, American religious history, and historical thinking for a general audience. And, since it's early November, there's still time to brush up on the actual facts of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving before the 4th Thursday rolls around.

On one level, the book works to retell the story of the Pilgrims, their development as a Separatist congregation, their journey to New England, and the "first" Thanksgiving. The celebration of the 1621 Pilgrim Thanksgiving has generated so many popular memories and myths that it's fairly easy to poke holes in them. For that matter, I've given a couple of demythologizing talks about Thanksgiving myself. McKenzie definitely hits those notes (no pumpkin pie! eels, geese, and ducks, but probably no turkey!) to show that what most people think they know about the Pilgrims' thanksgiving is largely imagined, but he does so with generosity and good humor. By presenting what early Americanists actually know about the event, McKenzie gives the reader a more solid and--"thankfully"--a more complex picture of what happened in the fall of 1621. For the specific details, you could flip ahead to chapter 6 on "Discarding False Memories" to get his narration of the celebration.

McKenzie also does a quick overview of the development of Thanksgiving as first a regional and then a national holiday. Again, this has been covered before, but McKenzie treats these developments briskly. He describes how New England did develop a tradition of annual Thanksgivings that New Englanders tried to export to other regions of the country. These thanksgivings, though, had no genetic connection to what the Pilgrims had done in the early 1620s. Although (perhaps because it was) established as a national holiday in the Civil War, Thanksgiving remained politically charged. Not until the turn of the twentieth century did it become a truly national holiday. Even by that time, though, it had begun its movement out of the churches to a privatized, feminized celebration tied to recreation, consumption, and public sporting events. In this section, I thought McKenzie might have brought a little more jeremiad-like criticism, perhaps mixing in a few declension-motivated critiques. Keeping with the rest of the book, however, he maintained a generous tone, even as he documented these problematic developments.

The amusements of Thanksgiving overshadow the church steeple in this 1912 print by Udo Keppler. Source:

On a second level, McKenzie uses the Thanksgiving story as a case-study for understanding how historians work and what solid historical understanding is all about. Each chapter illustrates one component of the historical enterprise through the grist of trying to understand the Pilgrims. Thus, chapter 1 considers the evidence the Pilgrims left about their Thanksgiving celebrations (please remind your friends how strikingly little we have), the next chapter considers context, another warns about ignoring the alien character of the Pilgrims' outlook, and still another examines the concept that interpretations of the Pilgrims has changed over time. This approach seems to work very well, and I could see it making sense to people who haven't thought much about what historians actually do (apart from gathering "facts").

Two illustrations that McKenzie uses I intend to work into my presentations (with proper attribution, of course!). Regarding the strangeness of the past, McKenzie uses the story of Marco Polo's discovery in Sumatra of a black beast with a single horn in its forehead. Polo called it a unicorn, although we would recognize the description of a rhinoceros. When we draw analogies between past and present too easily, we import our own assumptions and paper over the foreign nature of the past, which robs historical study of the ability to challenge our present preconceptions.

On the second note, McKenzie attempts to banish the word "revisionism" from public usage. Outside of professional historical usage, it's usually used as a rhetorical club to mean "an interpretation I don't agree with." McKenzie thinks that's not helpful and so tries to describe the process of changing interpretations without using the term. This seems most sensible and a healthy contribution to our public discourse.

In his conclusion, McKenzie offers an explicit answer to the "So What?" question. He believes the Pilgrims can prompt readers to moral and even spiritual reflection. In this, McKenzie is careful and uses the insights of many professional historians to argue against drawing black and white lines or selectively condemning the Pilgrims (passing "moral judgment"). Rather, he believes that the Pilgrims' beliefs and actions can prompt individual reflection, both positively and negatively. On the positive side, McKenzie definitely appreciates the Pilgrims. He sees them as potential heroes that can encourage and inspire--while warning his readers never to set them up as idols or absolute authorities who could do no wrong (they definitely did). On the other hand, McKenzie believes their communal ethos and personal sacrifices could challenge extreme American individualism and consumerist worldliness. This is rich reflection and deserves careful attention.

And yet, this approach raised several questions for me. First, is this the best articulation of how to relate past and present? This is a theoretical issue that seems to me to deserve more consideration from historians generally. Second, I wonder how McKenzie's conclusions would be read by those who don't share his religious presuppositions. Can the Pilgrims generate constructive moral reflection outside of McKenzie's frame? Finally, McKenzie's suggestions for reflection are primarily for the individual. Could moral reflection produce not only individual reform but also structural reform? That is, might taking the Pilgrims seriously affect not only how I celebrate Thanksgiving with my family later this month but about how larger groups think about and participate in the holiday?

And, if I'm raising questions, let me raise one more general question, and that has to do with how the book might be read. What's the environment for this book to get traction? It could definitely appeal to that hypothetical general reader, but I fear it might work only for the individual citizen interested in history. I'm not sure you could convince a Sunday School or Small Group to study this for multiple weeks--although that would seem to be a presumed audience. Also, I've been wracking my mind to figure out how to work all or even part of the book into one of my courses, but so far without success. I might be able to get a chapter into a colonial America or historiography class, but that might even be a stretch. The Pilgrims show up too early in my survey to use the entire book. So, I'm a bit stymied, and if any Commentators have suggestions, I would love to hear them.

Still, this is an interesting model, and it's worth reading whether or not you agree with McKenzie's presuppositions. This is a valuable attempt at communicating academic concepts to a broader public. And, if nothing else, you can brush up on the points you want to use to debunk some myths when the history of Thanksgiving comes up over turkey and stuffing or while watching football waiting for the tryptophan to wear off.


Jonathan said…
Jay Case offered his appreciation of the book here:

Michael said…
This american history and thanks giving was wonderful to read.