Revising the Story of the First Thanksgiving

This past Sunday our church & UW-Madison’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship hosted an after-service Thanksgiving meal for international students. The organizer asked me, along with another homeschooling dad, if we had anything in our homeschool materials on the story of the first Thanksgiving that we could share at the event.

This was a challenge, since one of the things we’ve learned in studying history is that the brief story as told by Linus, and the traditional vision of Pilgrims & Indians sharing in plenty and simple harmony, is more a rose-tinted 19th Century nationalistic origin myth than a faithful picture of what was going on in 1621. It is true that a widespread American tradition of proclaiming occasional public days of thanksgiving (or of fasting & repentance) goes back at least to the Pilgrims; but we owe the establishment of a national Thanksgiving Day holiday to the lobbying of semi-historical romance novelist and magazine publisher Sarah Josepha Hale and the need in 1863, following the Battle of Gettysburg, to find some story, some ritual communion, that could help unify and heal the wounds of a nation (again, still) torn by violence. For that purpose, we’ve idolized the Pilgrims.

And it is true that Wampanoag Native Americans and English Separatists from Scrooby, Nottinghamshire  (via Leiden, Holland) shared a peaceable harvest time meal in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621; but that peace was short-lived, shaped before and after by history too complex and brutal to be done justice in a single fable. And it is true that those Pilgrims held an idealistic Christian vision of being free to build their own righteous community; but that does not mean that they were as like us as we wish them to be, or that they succeeded in separating themselves from the sins and atrocities of their day, which they themselves lamented. Not for nothing is this history commemorated by some with a National Day of Mourning.

Given all this, how can we tell this story in order to celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday, to rest in contemplation of the day and its meaning? As Robert Tracy McKenzie asks in The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God & Learning from History, how can we receive the gifts history offers and use them to practice moral reflection, rather than judgement? Here’s the story we read, having learned the history from McKenzie and other sources, and with the understanding that this is not the whole story, but only a part of the whole, a small piece of a holiday celebration in the midst of a grand sweep of history. As part of our celebration of an American Thanksgiving with church family and strangers from other shores, I hope that this piece, for all it’s small scope & focus, reflects the story truly.

In Massachusetts, in the hills by the bay, there were the Wampanoag peoples: the Nauset, Pawtuxet, Pokanoket, Pennacook, Nantuckett, and others, who lived and died, made war and peace, and grew corn & squash & beans in the land of their ancestors. When the strangers came from Europe, sickness also came, and many Wampanoag died. Where ten lived together, parents, children, husbands, wives, only one survived.

In Leiden, in Holland, there were the Separatist Bretheren, who came out from the Church of England, refugees from corruption, persecution, rumors of war, and a world so tangled up in sin. Leaving everything behind, they sailed for Massachusetts, Pilgrims seeking to build a pure and faithful people, a New Jerusalem in a new land. They landed at Plymouth, having nothing, and found fields already plowed for corn, and a village empty.

The Wampanoag land was a land of plenty, but winter was hard: where two Pilgrims lived together, parents, children, husbands, wives, only one survived. But Squanto of the Patuxet, last of his village, showed them how to grow corn, and they brought a harvest in.

That season, Chief Massasoit of the Pokanoket Wampanoag came with 90 of his people, and hunted deer to give as gifts. The Pilgrims hunted fowl, and for three days in the Fall of 1621, they feasted & celebrated with strangers in a new world. They were thankful for peace and plenty, despite their loss.

And in future years, when winters were hard, when drought withered their corn, when want & war & greed & sin still stalked them in this land, they humbled themselves and prayed to God, who provides the rain. Then they would call for a solemn day of giving thanks to God for all His mercy and His providence. We today strive to remember and do the same.


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