HOW THE PILGRIMS’ STORY MIGHT CHALLENGE AND CONVICT US

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you know that in past years I’ve bombarded readers all November long with essays on the history of Thanksgiving, most of them drawn from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  Because I’ve been taking a “sabbatical” from my blog this year, I’ve spared you that fate this time around, but I find that I can’t bring myself to let the holiday pass without sharing just a few of my favorite Thanksgiving posts.

Anytime I’m interviewed about the history of Thanksgiving, the interviewers always seem to try to direct the conversation to popular myths about the “First Thanksgiving,” with the tiresome result that we end up mostly talking about what the Pilgrims had to eat.  For my part, I’d rather discuss the far more important misconceptions most of us have about the Pilgrims: we tend to misunderstand why they came to America in the first place, how they saw themselves, and how they understood the celebration that we–not they–labeled the “First Thanksgiving.”  This week I am sharing some past posts that speak to those foundational questions.  I hope you enjoy.

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"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” George H. Boughton, 1867

Showing Us our Individualism

From where I stand, the most crucial things the Pilgrims have to say to us have nothing to do with Thanksgiving itself. For one thing, the Pilgrim ideal throws into bold relief the supreme individualism of modern American life. The Pilgrims saw the world in terms of groups—family, church, community, nation—and whatever we think of their view, the contrast drives home our own preoccupation with the individual. It was with Americans in mind that French writer Alexis de Tocqueville employed the term later translated as “individualism,” and the exaltation of the self that he observed in American society nearly two centuries ago has only grown relentlessly since.

The individual is now the constituent unit of American society, individual fulfillment holds sway as the highest good, individual conscience reigns as the highest authority. We conceive of adulthood as the absence of all accountability, define liberty as the elimination of all restraint, and measure the worth of social organizations—labor unions, clubs, political parties, even churches—by the degree to which they promote our individual agendas. In sum, as Christian writers Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon conclude, “our society is a vast supermarket of desire, in which each of us is encouraged to stand alone and go out and get what the world owes us.”

From across the centuries, the Pilgrims remind us that there is another way. They modeled their own ideals imperfectly, to be sure, for as the years passed in New England, they learned from experience what we have known but long ago forgotten, namely, that prosperity has a way of loosening the social ties that adversity forges. By 1644, so many of the original colonists had moved away in search of larger farms that William Bradford likened the dwindling Plymouth church to “an ancient mother grown old and forsaken of her children.”

And yet, in their finest moments, the Pilgrims’ example speaks to us, whispering the possibility that we have taken a wrong turn. Anticipating Hauerwas and Willimon, they observe our righteous-sounding commitment to be “true to ourselves” and pose the discomfiting question: “What if our true selves are made from the materials of our communal life?”

“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” by Henry A. Bacon, 1877

Showing Us our Worldliness

I think that meditating on the Pilgrims’ story might also show us our worldliness. “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” John the Apostle warns, referring to the hollow rewards held out to us by a moral order at enmity with God (I John 2:15). From our privileged perspective the Pilgrims lived in abject poverty, and imagining ourselves in their circumstances may help us to see more clearly, not only the sheer magnitude of pleasure and possessions that we take for granted, but also the power that they hold over our lives.

But for many of us the seductiveness of the world is more subtle than Madison Avenue’s message of hedonism and materialism. God has surrounded us with countless blessings that He wants us to enjoy: loving relationships, rewarding occupations, beautiful surroundings. Yet in our fallenness, we are tempted to convert such foretastes of eternity into ends in themselves, numbing our longing for God and causing us to “rest our hearts in this world,” as C. S. Lewis put it in The Problem of Pain. Here is where the Pilgrims speak to me loudly. It is not their poverty that I find most convicting, but their hope of heaven.

When I was three years old, my proud father, who was superintendent of the Sunday School in our small-town Baptist church, stood me on a chair in front of his Bible class so that I could regale the adults with a gospel hymn. (I know this because my mother was so fond of remembering it.) “When we all get to heaven,” I lisped enthusiastically, “What a day of rejoicing that will be. / When we all see Jesus, / We’ll sing and shout for victory.” On the whole, I don’t think American Christians sing much about heaven any more, much less long for it. I know that I do not, and I don’t think I’m alone.

After decades of talking with Christian young people about the afterlife, Wheaton College professor Wayne Martindale concluded that, “aside from hell, perhaps,” heaven “is the last place we . . . want to go.” This should give us pause, shouldn’t it, especially when we recall how largely heaven figures in New Testament teaching? “Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven” (Matthew 6:20), Jesus taught His disciples. On the very night He was betrayed He promised His followers that He would prepare a place for them and asked the Father that they might “be with Me where I am” (John 17:24). Paul reminds us of this “hope which is laid up for [us] in heaven” (Colossians 1:5). Peter writes of the “inheritance incorruptible and undefiled” that the Lord “has reserved” for us there (I Peter 1:4).

There are surely many reasons why we find it so hard to “set [our] minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2), including our misperceptions of heaven and our fear of the unknown, but one reason must also be how well off we are in this world. If “churchgoing Americans . . . don’t much want to go to Heaven,” Martindale conjectures, it may be because we feel so “comfortable” on earth. Our creature comforts abound, and for long stretches of time we are able to fool ourselves about the fragility of life. Modern American culture facilitates our self-deception through a conspiracy of silence. We tacitly agree not to discuss death, hiding away the lingering aged and expending our energies in a quest for perpetual youth.

Here the Pilgrims clearly have the advantage on us. In the world as they knew it, material comforts were scarce, daily existence was arduous, starvation was possible, and death was always near. Readily might they echo the apostle Paul: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (I Corinthians 15:19). What a consolation to believe that, when their “earthly house” had returned to the dust, they would inherit “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (II Corinthians 5:1). What a help, in time of heartache, to “lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country.” What a balm to their souls, to quote Bradford’s poignant prose, that “they knew they were pilgrims.”

“The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth,” Currier & Ives, 1876.

Reminding Us That We are Pilgrims

What difference would it make if such a realization were to penetrate our hearts today? I don’t think it would require that we become “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good,” as naysayers have sometimes suggested. Asserting that “a continual looking forward to the eternal world” is “one of the things a Christian is meant to do,” C. S. Lewis found in history the pattern that “the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” Indeed, in Lewis’s estimation, “It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in,’” he concluded. “Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

Rather than amounting to a form of escapism, “aiming at heaven” might actually enable us to see both ourselves and the world around us more clearly. To begin with, to know we are pilgrims is to understand our identity and, by extension, where our ultimate hope lies. This is something we struggle with, in my opinion.

American Christians over the years have been tempted to confuse patriotism and piety, confounding our national identity as citizens of the United States with our spiritual identity in Christ. We are to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), Paul enjoins us, and yet never forget that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:19). We should thank God daily for the blessings he has showered on our country, but to know we are pilgrims is to understand that our hope of “survival, success, and salvation” rests solely on our belonging to Christ, not our identity as Americans.

In contradiction to this truth, American culture calls us to be “well-adjusted citizens of the Kingdom of this world,” as Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft trenchantly observes. We who name the “name above all names” have all too often acquiesced, in part by convincing ourselves that, given America’s “Christian culture,” there were no hard choices to be made—that our religious and national identities were mutually reinforcing, if not downright indistinguishable.

But if knowing we are pilgrims means that our true citizenship is in heaven, it also means that we are “strangers” and “aliens” here on earth—yes, even in the United States—and this means, in turn, that we should expect the values of our host country to differ from those of our homeland. American Christians have adopted numerous ploys to obscure this reality, but one of the most influential has been the way we have remembered our past. One example of this is how we have distorted the Pilgrims’ story, clothing them with modern American values and making the future United States—not heaven—their true promised land.

THE PILGRIMS’ “FIRST THANKSGIVING” WAS NOT THE ONE WE REMEMBER

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you know that in past years I’ve bombarded readers all November long with essays on the history of Thanksgiving, most of them drawn from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  Because I’ve been taking a “sabbatical” from my blog this year, I’ve spared you that fate this time around, but I find that I can’t bring myself to let the holiday pass without sharing just a few of my favorite Thanksgiving posts.

Anytime I’m interviewed about the history of Thanksgiving, the interviewers always seem to try to direct the conversation to popular myths about the “First Thanksgiving,” with the tiresome result that we end up mostly talking about what the Pilgrims had to eat.  For my part, I’d rather discuss the far more important misconceptions most of us have about the Pilgrims: we tend to misunderstand why they came to America in the first place, how they saw themselves, and how they understood the celebration that we–not they–labeled the “First Thanksgiving.”  This week I am sharing some past posts that speak to those foundational questions.  I hope you enjoy.

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In forty-eight hours families all across America will celebrate Thanksgiving, 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.

"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” George H. Boughton, 1867

The Pilgrims’ trial began with their voyage on the Mayflower, a 65-day-long ordeal in which 102 men, women, and children crossed the stormy Atlantic in a space the size of a city bus. Following that came a cruel New England winter for which they were ill prepared. (Massachusetts is more than six hundred miles south of London—on a line of latitude even with Madrid, Spain—and the Pilgrims were expecting a much more temperate climate.) Due more to exposure than starvation, their number dwindled rapidly, so that by the onset of spring some fifty-one members of the party had died. A staggering fourteen of the eighteen wives who had set sail on the Mayflower had perished in their new home. Widowers and orphans abounded.

The 1621 Celebration

That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and to heavenly hope. Yet celebrate they did, most probably sometime in late September or early October after God had granted them a harvest sufficient to see them through the next winter. This is an inspiring story, and it is a good thing for Christians this Thanksgiving to remember it. I don’t know about you, but I am always encouraged when I sit down with Christian friends and hear of how God has sustained them in hard times. Remembering the Pilgrims’ story is a lot like that, although the testimony comes to us not from across the room but from across the centuries.

And yet the part of the Pilgrims’ story that modern-day Americans have chosen to emphasize doesn’t seem to have been that significant to the Pilgrims themselves. More importantly, it fails to capture the heart of the Pilgrims’ thinking about God’s provision and our proper response. Most of what we know about the Pilgrims’ experience after leaving Holland comes from two Pilgrim writers—William Bradford, the long-time governor of the Plymouth colony, and Edward Winslow, his close assistant. Bradford never even referred to the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration (what we call the “First Thanksgiving”) in his famous history of the Pilgrims’ colony, Of Plymouth Plantation. Winslow mentioned it but briefly, devoting five sentences to it in a letter that he wrote to supporters in England. Indeed, the 115 words in those five sentences represent the sum total of all that we know about the occasion!

This means that there is a lot that we would like to know about that event that we will never know. It seems likely (although it must be conjecture) that the Pilgrims thought of their autumn celebration that first fall in Plymouth as something akin to the harvest festivals common at that time in England. What is absolutely certain is that they did not conceive of the celebration as a Thanksgiving holiday.

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.  On the eve of WWI, Brownscombe's imaginative recreation of the "First Thanksgiving" helped link Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims 1621 celebration in the public mind.  Although full of historical inaccuracies, the artist did rightly portray the feast as a large, public, outdoor event.

“First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.

“Holy Days”

When the Pilgrims spoke of holidays, they used the word literally. A holiday was a “holy day,” a day specially set apart for worship and communion with God. Their reading of the scripture convinced them that God had only established one regular holy day under the new covenant, and that was the Lord’s Day each Sunday. Beyond that, they did believe that the scripture allowed the consecration of occasional Days of Fasting and Humiliation to beseech the Lord for deliverance from a particular trial, as well as occasional Days of Thanksgiving to praise the Lord for his extraordinary provision. Both were comparatively solemn observances, characterized by lengthy religious services full of prayer, praise, instruction, and exhortation.

From the Pilgrims’ perspective, their first formal celebration of a Day of Thanksgiving in Plymouth came nearly two years later, in July 1623. We’re comparatively unfamiliar with it because, frankly, we get bored with the Pilgrims once they’ve carved the first turkey. We condense their story to three key events—the Mayflower Compact, the Landing at Plymouth Rock, and the First Thanksgiving—and quickly lose interest thereafter. In reality, the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued at least another two years.

This was partly due to the criminal mismanagement of the London financiers who bankrolled the colony. Only weeks after their 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims were surprised by the arrival of the ship Fortune. The thirty-five new settlers on board would nearly double their depleted ranks. Unfortunately, they arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as William Bradford bitterly recalled. Indeed, the London merchants had not even provisioned the ship’s crew with sufficient food for the trip home.

The result was that, rather than having “good plenty” for the winter, the Pilgrims, who had to provide food for the Fortune’s return voyage and feed an additional thirty-five mouths throughout the winter, once again faced the prospect of starvation. Fearing that the newcomers would “bring famine upon us,” the governor immediately reduced the weekly food allowance by half. In the following months hunger “pinch[ed] them sore.” By May they were almost completely out of food. It was no longer the season for waterfowl, and if not for the shellfish in the bay, and the little grain they were able to purchase from passing fishing boats, they very well might have starved.

The harvest of 1622 provided a temporary reprieve from hunger, but it fell far short of their needs for the coming year, and by the spring of 1623 the Pilgrims’ situation was again dire. As Bradford remembered their trial, it was typical for the colonists to go to bed at night not knowing where the next day’s nourishment would come from. For two to three months they had no bread or beer at all and “God fed them” almost wholly “out of the sea.”

Adding to their plight, the heavens closed up around the third week in May, and for nearly two months it rained hardly at all. The ground became parched, the corn began to wither, and hopes for the future began dying as well. When another boatload of settlers arrived that July, they were “much daunted and dismayed” by their first sight of the Plymouth colonists, many of whom were “ragged in apparel and some little better than half naked.” The Pilgrims, for their part, could offer the newcomers nothing more than a piece of fish and a cup of water.

“Oh the Mercy of Our God!”

In the depths of this trial the Pilgrims were sure of this much: it was God who had sent this great drought; it was the Lord who was frustrating their “great hopes of a large crop.” This was not the caprice of “nature,” but the handiwork of the Creator who worked “all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). Fearing that He had done this thing for their chastisement, the community agreed to set apart “a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

As Edward Winslow explained, their hope was that God “would be moved hereby in mercy to look down upon us, and grant the request of our dejected souls. . . . But oh the mercy of our God!” Winslow exulted, “who was as ready to hear, as we to ask.” The colonists awoke on the appointed day to a cloudless sky, but by the end of the prayer service—which lasted eight to nine hours—it had become overcast, and by morning it had begun to rain, as it would continue to do for the next fourteen days. Bradford marveled at the “sweet and gentle showers . . . which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn.” Winslow added, “It was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived.”

Overwhelmed by God’s gracious intervention, the Pilgrims immediately called for another providential holiday. “We thought it would be great ingratitude,” Winslow explained, if we should “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, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God.” This occasion, likely held at the end of July, 1623, perfectly matches the Pilgrims’ definition of a thanksgiving holy day. It was a “solemn” observance, as Winslow noted, called to acknowledge a very specific, extraordinary blessing from the Lord. In sum, it was what the Pilgrims themselves would have viewed as their “First Thanksgiving” in America, and we have all but forgotten it.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday, perhaps we might remember both of these occasions. The Pilgrims’ harvest celebration of 1621 is an important reminder to see God’s gracious hand in the bounty of nature. But the Pilgrims’ holiday of 1623—what they would have called “The First Thanksgiving”—more forthrightly challenges us to look for God’s ongoing, supernatural intervention in our lives.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

WHY THE PILGRIMS REALLY CAME TO AMERICA

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you know that in past years I’ve bombarded readers all November long with essays on the history of Thanksgiving, most of them drawn from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  Because I’ve been taking a “sabbatical” from my blog this year, I’ve spared you that fate this time around, but I find that I can’t bring myself to let the holiday pass without sharing just a few of my favorite Thanksgiving posts.

Anytime I’m interviewed about the history of Thanksgiving, the interviewers always seem to try to direct the conversation to popular myths about the “First Thanksgiving,” with the tiresome result that we end up mostly talking about what the Pilgrims had to eat.  For my part, I’d rather discuss the far more important misconceptions most of us have about the Pilgrims: we tend to misunderstand why they came to America in the first place, how they saw themselves, and how they understood the celebration that we–not they–labeled the “First Thanksgiving.”  Between now and Thursday I thought I would share some past posts that speak to those foundational questions.  I hope you enjoy.

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In Search of Religious Freedom?

The belief that the Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom is inspiring, but in the sense that we usually mean it, it’s not really true. I’ve shared this reality numerous times since writing The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, and I almost always get pushback from the audience. That’s understandable, since most of us from our childhood have been raised to believe quite the opposite. But if we’re going to really learn from the Pilgrims’ story, we need to be willing to listen to them instead of putting words into their mouths.

One of my favorite all-time quotes is from Democracy in America where Alexis de Tocqueville observes, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” The Pilgrims’ motives for coming to America is a case in point.

The popular understanding that the Pilgrims came to America “in search of religious freedom” is technically true, but it is also misleading. It is technically true in that the freedom to worship according to the dictates of Scripture was at the very top of their list of priorities. They had already risked everything to escape religious persecution, and the majority never would have knowingly chosen a destination where they would once again wear the “yoke of antichristian bondage,” as they described their experience in England.

To say that the Pilgrims came “in search of” religious freedom is misleading, however, in that it implies that they lacked such liberty in Holland. Remember that the Pilgrims did not come to America directly from England. They had left England in 1608, locating briefly in Amsterdam before settling for more than a decade in Leiden. If a longing for religious freedom alone had compelled them, they might never have left that city. Years later, the Pilgrim’s governor, William Bradford, recalled that in Leiden God had allowed them “to come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any other church of these later times.” As Pilgrim Edward Winslow recalled, God had blessed them with “much peace and liberty” in Holland. They hoped to find “the like liberty” in their new home.

"Landing of the Pilgrims," Henry A. Bacon, 1877

“Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877

“Licentiousness” and “Hardness”

But that is not all that they hoped to find. Boiled down, the Pilgrims had two major complaints about their experience in Holland. First, they found it a hard place to raise their children. Dutch culture was too permissive, they believed. Bradford commented on “the great licentiousness of youth” in Holland and lamented the “evil examples” and “manifold temptations of the place.” Part of the problem was the Dutch parents. They gave their children too much freedom, Bradford’s nephew, Nathaniel Morton, explained, and Separatist parents could not give their own children “due correction without reproof or reproach from their neighbors.”

Compounding these challenges was what Bradford called “the hardness of the place.” If Holland was a hard place to raise strong families, it was an even harder place to make a living. Leiden was a crowded, rapidly growing city. Most houses were ridiculously small by our standards, some with no more than a couple hundred square feet of floor space. The typical weaver’s home was somewhat larger. It boasted three rooms—two on the main floor and one above—with a cistern under the main floor to collect rainwater, sometimes side by side with a pit for an indoor privy.

In contrast to the seasonal rhythms of farm life, the pace of work was long, intense, and unrelenting. Probably half or more of the Separatist families became textile workers. In this era before the industrial revolution, cloth production was still a decentralized, labor intensive process, with countless families carding, spinning, or weaving in their own homes from dawn to dusk, six days a week, merely to keep body and soul together. Hunger and want had become their taskmaster.

This life of “great labor and hard fare” was a threat to the church, Bradford repeatedly stressed. It discouraged Separatists in England from joining them, he believed, and tempted those in Leiden to return home. If religious freedom was to be thus linked with poverty, then there were some—too many—who would opt for the religious persecution of England over the religious freedom of Holland. And the challenge would only increase over time. Old age was creeping up on many of the congregation, indeed, was being hastened prematurely by “great and continual labor.” While the most resolute could endure such hardships in the prime of life, advancing age and declining strength would cause many either to “sink under their burdens” or reluctantly abandon the community in search of relief.

In explaining the Pilgrim’s decision to leave Holland, William Bradford stressed the Pilgrim’s economic circumstances more than any other factor, but it is important that we hear correctly what he was saying. Bradford was not telling us that the Pilgrims left for America in search of the “American Dream” or primarily to maximize their own individual well being.

"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” George H. Boughton, 1867

In Bradford’s telling, it is impossible to separate the Pilgrims’ concerns about either the effects of Dutch culture or their economic circumstances from their concerns for the survival of their church. The leaders of the Leiden congregation may not have feared religious persecution, but they saw spiritual danger and decline on the horizon.

The solution, the Pilgrim leaders believed, was to “take away these discouragements” by relocating to a place with greater economic opportunity as part of a cooperative mission to preserve their covenant community. If the congregation did not collectively “dislodge . . . to some place of better advantage,” and soon, the church seemed destined to erode like the banks of a stream, as one by one, families and individuals slipped away.

So where does this leave us? Were the Pilgrims coming to America to flee religious persecution? Not at all. Were they motivated by a religious impulse? Absolutely.  But why is it important to make these seemingly fine distinctions? Is this just another exercise in academic hair-splitting? I don’t think so. In fact, I think that the implications of getting the Pilgrims’ motives rights are huge.

Scorching Sun or Strangling Thorns?

As I re-read the Pilgrims’ words, I find myself meditating on Jesus’ parable of the sower. You remember how the sower casts his seed (the word of God), and it falls on multiple kinds of ground, not all of which prove fruitful. The seed that lands on stony ground sprouts immediately but the plant withers under the heat of the noonday sun, while the seed cast among thorns springs up and then is choked by the surrounding weeds. The former, Jesus explained to His disciples, represents those who receive the word gladly, but stumble “when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake” (Mark 4:17). The latter stands for those who allow the word to be choked by “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:19).

In emphasizing the Pilgrims’ “search for religious freedom,” we inadvertently make the primary menace in their story the heat of persecution. Persecution led them to leave England for Holland, but it was not the primary reason that they came to America. As the Pilgrim writers saw it, the principal threat to their congregation in Holland was not the scorching sun, but strangling thorns.

The difference matters, particularly if we’re approaching the Pilgrims’ moment in history as an opportunity to learn from them. It broadens the kind of conversation we have with them and makes it more relevant. When we hear of the Pilgrims’ resolve in the face of persecution, we may nod our heads admiringly and meditate on the courage of their convictions. Perhaps we will even ask ourselves how we would respond if, God forbid, we were to endure the same trial. And yet the danger seems so remote, the question so comfortably hypothetical. Whatever limitations we may chafe against in the public square, as Christians in the United States we don’t have to worry that the government will send us to prison unless we worship in the church that it chooses and interpret the Bible in the manner that it dictates.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that we never ask the question. Posing it can remind us to be grateful for the freedom we enjoy. It may inspire us to greater vigilance in preserving that freedom and heighten our concern for Christians around the world who cannot take such freedom for granted. These are good things. But I am suggesting that we not dwell overlong on the question. I’m dubious of the value of moral reflection that focuses on hypothetical circumstances. Avowals of how we would respond to imaginary adversity are worth pretty much what they cost us. Character isn’t forged in the abstract, but in the concrete crucible of everyday life, in the myriad mundane decisions that both shape and reveal the heart’s deepest loves.

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.  On the eve of WWI, Brownscombe's imaginative recreation of the "First Thanksgiving" helped link Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims 1621 celebration in the public mind.  Although full of historical inaccuracies, the artist did rightly portray the feast as a large, public, outdoor event.

“First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.

Here the Pilgrims’ struggle with “thorns” speaks to us. Compared to the dangers they faced in England, their hardships in Holland were so . . . ordinary. I don’t mean to minimize them, but merely to point out that they are difficulties we are more likely to relate to. They worried about their children’s future. They feared the effects of a corrupt and permissive culture. They had a hard time making ends meet. They wondered how they would provide for themselves in old age. Does any of this sound familiar?

And in contrast to their success in escaping persecution, they found the cares of the world much more difficult to evade. As it turned out, thorn bushes grew in the New World as well as the Old. In little more than a decade, William Bradford was concerned that economic circumstances were again weakening the fabric of the church. This time, ironically, the culprit was not the pressure of want but the prospect of wealth (“the deceitfulness of riches”?) as faithful members of the congregation left Plymouth in search of larger, more productive farms. A decade after that, Bradford was decrying the presence of gross immorality within the colony. Drunkenness and sexual sin had become so common, he lamented, that it caused him “to fear and tremble at the consideration of our corrupt natures.”

When we insist that the Pilgrims came to America “in search of religious freedom,” we tell their story in a way that they themselves wouldn’t recognize. In the process, we make their story primarily a source of ammunition for the culture wars. Frustrated by increasing governmental infringement on religious expression, we remind the unbelieving culture around us that “our forefathers” who “founded” this country were driven above all by a commitment to religious liberty.

But while we’re bludgeoning secularists with the Pilgrim story, we ignore the aspects of their story that might cast a light into our own hearts. They struggled with fundamental questions still relevant to us today: What is the true cost of discipleship? What must we sacrifice in pursuit of the kingdom? How can we “shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15) and keep ourselves “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27)? What sort of obligation do we owe our local churches, and how do we balance that duty with family commitments and individual desires? What does it look like to “seek first the kingdom of God” and can we really trust God to provide for all our other needs?

As Christians, these are crucial questions we need to revisit regularly. We might even consider discussing them with our families tomorrow as part of our Thanksgiving celebrations.

First Thanksgiving

PROTECTING THE DEAD . . . ON VETERANS’ DAY AND ALL DAYS

Before Veteran’s Day is over, I thought I would repost two passages from my commonplace book that always come to mind on this day.  Both come from Wendell Berry’s marvelous novel Hannah CoulterHannah Coulter is set in the tiny hamlet of Port William and brings that fictional community to life through the memories of an aged farm wife. Chronologically, the novel spans the period from the Great Depression through the close of the twentieth century, but the emotional heart of the novel grapples with the personal effects of the Second World War.

Toward the end of her recollections, Hannah relates that she “married the war twice, you might say, once in ignorance, once in knowledge.” She married her first true love, Virgil Feltner, just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Virgil entered the army in 1942 but didn’t come home, falling at the Battle of the Bulge. In 1948 she married another local GI, Nathan Coulter, who did come home but was forever marked by what he had experienced.

Hannah’s reflections about her second husband remind me of my own father’s unwillingness—or inability—to share about his wartime experiences. And so I was deeply moved to read Hannah’s reflections on Nathan’s half-century-long silence:

He did not talk about it, I understood, because it was painful to remember; and for the same reason I did not ask him about it. . . . Nathan was not the only one who was in it, who survived it and came home from it and did not talk about it. There were several from Port William who went and fought and came home and lived to be old men here, whose memories contained in silence the farthest distances of the world, terrible sights, terrible sufferings. Some of them were heroes. And they said not a word. They stood among us like monuments without inscriptions. They said nothing or said little because we have barely a language for what they knew, and they could not bear the pain of talking of their knowledge in even so poor a language as we have.

If this passage speaks to me as the son of one of these “monuments without inscriptions,” a second passage now in my commonplace book speaks to anyone who wishes to take the past seriously. Much earlier in the novel, Hannah shares some of what went through her mind after news arrived of the death of her first husband, Virgil:

Grieved as I was, half destroyed as I sometimes felt myself to be, I didn’t get mad about Virgil’s death. Who was there to get mad at? It would be like getting mad at the world, or at God. What made me mad, and still does, were the people who took it on themselves to speak for him after he was dead. I dislike for the dead to be made to agree with whatever some powerful living person wants to say. Was Virgil a hero? In his dying was he willing to die, or glad to sacrifice his life? Is the life and freedom of the living a satisfactory payment to the dead in war for their dying? Would Virgil think so? I have imagined that he would. But I don’t know. Who can speak for the dead? . . .

It’s a powerful question. Who, indeed, can speak for the dead? In a sense, this is exactly what the historian is called to do, to resurrect the dead and give them voice again. And yet, as Hannah realizes, in our fallenness we will be sorely tempted to make the dead agree with us, to speak for us rather than to us. None of us is exempt. It is a temptation that Christians face just as strongly as the most ideologically driven “revisionist.” And when we succumb to it, however noble our motives, Hannah reminds us that what we are doing is preying on the weak. “I don’t mean to be quarrelsome,” she concludes, “but the dead are helpless. . . . The living must protect the dead.”

A VETERANS’ DAY TRIBUTE TO MY FATHER

Tomorrow is Veteran’s Day, and I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my father, Edwin McKenzie.

Dad graduated from high school in the spring of 1941 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy not long after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the following December. After a few weeks of basic training in San Diego, he was assigned to the destroyer U. S. S. Mahan as an electrician’s mate and headed for the South Pacific. For the next two years he served constantly in the theater of war, taking part in the campaign for Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, and a variety of smaller operations around New Guinea and the Admiralty Islands.

USS Mahan DD-364

In early 1944 Mahan was ordered back to California for overhaul and Dad was granted a thirty-day leave upon arrival. He took the train from San Diego to our little home town of Athens, Tennessee, arriving on a Sunday evening, where he was met by a host of family, friends, and Margaret Lee Hale, the woman he had proposed to countless times since leaving Athens.

My parents had met for the first time in the summer of 1937, shortly after my father’s family moved to town from California. My mom, all of twelve years old at the time, was in despair (as she told the story), because there was not a single boy in all of Athens that she was interested in marrying. That changed when she met Edwin at a town baseball game, and although she protested, she was secretly glad when her girlfriends invited him to her upcoming birthday party. Ed arrived bearing gifts—a handkerchief and Evening in Paris perfume—and won Margaret Lee’s heart.

The couple became sweethearts, and they might have gotten really serious had not war intervened. They were coming out of a movie in Chattanooga on a Sunday afternoon when they heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (Mom felt guilty about going to the picture show on a Sunday and feared that something bad might come of it, but she didn’t expect World War Two.) Within a few months Dad was halfway around the world in a global conflagration. Over the next two years the couple exchanged hundreds of love letters; 545 of them survived.  As my dad’s leave drew near he regularly raised the prospect of marriage and my mom just as regularly ignored him. He renewed his plea almost as soon as he stepped down from the train, however, and my mom couldn’t resist. Four days later later they were married.  Less than three weeks after that Dad was headed back overseas.

Edwin and Margaret Lee, 1944

In the fall of 1944 Mahan was operating off the coast of the Philippines, patrolling for submarines and assisting with an amphibious landing near Ormoc Bay. On December 7, 1944—three years to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor—three Japanese kamikaze bombers crashed into Mahan, and in short order the destroyer was in flames, one of the magazines had exploded, and a plume of black smoke was rising hundreds of yards into the air. Years later, a sailor on the U.S.S. Walke recalled the aftermath in these words:

We were heading for Mahan at high speed from about 1-2 miles away. Our Captain thought to lay us alongside to help fight fires. She was dead in the water under a huge column of black smoke. We could see flames in her bridge area. As we got closer we could see fire hoses in action. At this time our guns were firing so we did not hear, but we saw what appeared to be an explosion forward of the bridge. We were coming in on her port side when we saw her men beginning to abandon. At the same time a big raid developed and we had to pull away. During a lull in the battle, we returned to the area and began to pick up survivors. Twice we had to pull away to fight off raids, returning to pick up her people. Another destroyer was aiding in this. Some of the survivors were horribly burned and many were otherwise wounded. There was heavy fuel oil in the water and a lot of the men were sick and vomiting. I believe we got them all. . . .

Praise be to God, Dad survived the attack.  Dad was willing to share that much, but no more. What he felt when he heard the crash of the Kamikazes, what he thought when the forward magazine on the Mahan exploded, what he saw as he headed toward the side, what went through his mind when he jumped into the oil-coated bay, what, perhaps, he prayed as he bobbed in the water while the battle continued to rage—these are things that Dad never once offered to share.

In a heart-wrenching “snafu,” the Navy Department inadvertently released the news of the sinking of Mahan before all of the crewmembers’ families could be notified, so my mother heard on the radio that Dad’s ship had gone down before she heard from Dad that he was OK. I cannot imagine the extremes of emotion she must have felt, although Mom always insisted that she knew in her heart that Dad would come back to her. And so he did.

My mom passed away on Christmas Eve 2011.  The last picture I have of them together shows them wearing matching shirts and holding hands–seventy-three years after their first date.  The picture’s a bit fuzzy, but if you but if you look closely, you may also be able to tell that my dad is wearing a ball cap commemorating the Mahan (DD-364). Next to his family, Dad’s service to his country was his greatest source of pride.

Mom and Dad in 2010.

Dad passed away not quite three months ago at the age of ninety-five.  Thanks for letting me tell you his story.

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

GREAT HOLIDAY READING

Yes, I’m still alive.

I hope to return to semi-regular posting with the new year, but it occurred to me just now that Thanksgiving is only two and a half weeks away, so I thought I would take the time to engage in some shameless self-promotion.

On the possibility that some of you might be interested in a book about the history of the holiday, I will be bold and suggest that you consider my own: The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

The book came out in the fall of 2013 from Intervarsity Press, and it was a labor of love.  For years I had been gradually developing a new sense of vocation.  I believe that academic historians write too much for each other, leaving the public to learn about the past from pastors, talk-show hosts, rap musicians, and other public celebrities.  As a Christian historian, I have come to believe that part of my calling is to be a historian for Christians outside the Academy.  If you are a Christian who is interested in American history, I want to be in conversation with you about what it means to think Christianly and historically about the American past.  That is why I started this blog a few years back, and that is why I spent several years conducting research on the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving.

I didn’t write The First Thanksgiving primarily because I was enamored with the story and wanted to re-tell it accurately (although I hoped to do so).  Rather, it gradually dawned on me that this familiar story provided the perfect framework for exploring what it means, from a Christian perspective, to remember the past faithfully.  The story of the First Thanksgiving is central to how we, as Americans, remember our origins. The subsequent development of the Thanksgiving holiday speaks volumes about how we have defined our identity across the centuries. As Christians, our challenge is to “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5), including our thinking about our national heritage.  Thanksgiving is a good place to start.

THE MARKS OF “A GREAT POLITICIAN”–A VIEW FROM 1776

Hello!  If you are a regular subscriber to this blog, you know that I have been on sabbatical this year and that my posts have been few and far between.  I am looking forward to interacting with you regularly come autumn, but for now I am trying to make as much progress as I can on a book on the rise of American democracy, tentatively titled “We the Fallen People.”

John Adams

I did come across a passage in my reading today that seemed timely, however, and I couldn’t help sharing it.  I spent a glorious morning at nearby forest preserve, and as I sat in the sun on one of my favorite benches, I encountered this from our nation’s second president, John Adams.  The date was January 8, 1776, and Adams, at the time a member of the Second Continental Congress, was writing to Mrs. Mercy Otis Warren, the sister and wife of distinguished patriot leaders and an accomplished political writer in her own right.  In context, Adams was sharing his preference for a republic over a monarchy, as well as his doubts whether Americans possessed sufficient virtue for a republic to survive.  Listen to his conclusion:

It is the Part of a great Politician to make the Character of his People; to extinguish among them, the Follies and Vices that he sees, and to create in them the Virtues and Abilities which he sees wanting. I wish I was sure that America has one such Politician, but I fear she has not.

As timely in 2016 as in 1776.