When was the last time you poured yourself a cup of tea, snuggled into an easy chair, picked up that history book you’d been longing to devour, eagerly turned to the first page and said to yourself, Oh, I do hope this is meticulously researched?
Tracy McKenzie organizes his book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God & Learning from History around eight key principles that help us think well as readers of history. A rollicking good yarn can be historically true, and might make history “come alive” as if you were really there, as if we were seeing history directly, face to face. But that’s an illusion. The first step in learning to think historically, then, is to admit that:
- The past itself is gone forever. Historians tell stories built on — and limited by — the evidence that remains, McKenzie reminds us; interpretation of historical evidence is at the very core of the historian’s task.
Sometimes that evidence is thin indeed. We have various documents that can tell us about the Pilgrims in general; but in the case of the first (American Christian Protestant) Thanksgiving (north of Virginia & south of Maine), our direct evidence is just 115 words written at the time, part of a cover letter written by Edward Winslow to accompany reports of the Pilgrims’ activities to their investors in London. That’s it!
Historical evidence — diaries, letters, newspapers, legal records, passenger lists, investor reports, archeological remains — is often hard to find, fragmentary, and ambiguous. Putting together a coherent story from evidence is hard work. No wonder we reach for story first and evidence after, unless the discipline of History can teach us better habits!
Reaching for evidence is a good first step — and how many other areas of life would benefit if we really made that a habit? – but it’s not the only thing we need to think historically. McKenzie makes the case for seven more principles for sound historical thinking:
- Everything is interrelated; historical facts are meaningless without their proper context.
- Pursue and expect authentic education, listening to the voices of the past and letting them challenge us.
- By all means, seek heroes in the past — but not idols!
- Never underestimate the strangeness of a familiar looking past.
- Be willing to discard false memories, however dear and familiar.
- Understand & resist revisionism — the temptation to shape history to our own ends.
- Receive the gifts history offers; use them to practice moral reflection, rather than judgement.
We’ll take a look at each of these, and the real story of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving in the weeks ahead.
- If you are in the Madison, Wisconsin area, leave a comment below rather than ordering online, and I can hand-deliver your copy of The First Thanksgiving for free! ↩