Monthly Archives: November 2012

A Final Thanksgiving Reflection: We, Also, are Pilgrims

I hope that each of you had a wonderful Thanksgiving the day before yesterday.  In the McKenzie household, we were blessed to sit around the table with ten college students from three different schools and enjoy a glorious meal, good conversation, and plenty of laughter.

Before the echoes of the occasion entirely fade, I want to share one final thought about the Pilgrims.  This past Wednesday, I was privileged to be a guest on the Moody Radio Network and to have the opportunity to share some of what I have learned in my research on American memory of the “First Thanksgiving.”  (You can listen to a replay of the broadcast here.)  Toward the conclusion of the program, the host asked me if I thought that there was anything that contemporary Americans could learn from the Pilgrims’ theology that would enhance our own practice of gratitude for God’s blessings.  I think there are probably several things, but one immediately came to mind: if William Bradford’s history can be trusted, it would seem that the Pilgrims, above all, “knew that they were pilgrims.”

What do I mean by this?  I mean that they had a clear sense of their identity in Christ.  “Pilgrims” is one of those words that we have used so much that it has lost much of the power of its literal meaning.  Today, typically when we use the word, we simply are using it as a name (not a descriptor) for the group of individuals who came to New England on the Mayflower in 1620.  When William Bradford used the word in describing that group nearly four centuries ago, however, he used it to convey the Leiden Separatists’ understanding that they were merely strangers passing through this world en route to another destination.  We read this in one of the most often quoted passages in Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford’s description of the emigrants’ departure from Holland and their heart-wrenching parting from those in their congregation who would not be making the journey.  In book I of Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford describes the “abundance of tears” that was shed as the group said their goodbyes and “left that goodly and pleasant city [Leiden, Holland] which had been their resting place near twelve years.”  They could find the resolve to press on, he explained, drawing from the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, because “they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”

I am convinced that if we shared this sense of pilgrimage it would shape not only how we celebrate Thanksgiving, but also the way that we think about God’s blessings throughout the year.  Although he didn’t speak specifically of the relation between pilgrimage and gratitude, C. S. Lewis wonderfully captured what I have in mind in my favorite passage from The Problem of Pain.  Lewis observed that

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.  Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

I think the Pilgrims, or most of them, understood this.  I hope we can, too.  When we know that we are pilgrims, it changes how we approach the Thanksgiving table.  The feast that awaits us is a “pleasant inn,” and we are right to delight in it, but we must not let it tempt us to “rest our hearts in this world.”  The food we enjoy and the fellowship that warms us are mere glimpses and shadows—a taste of things to come.  It is good if they nourish and encourage us, but it is better still when they increase our hunger for a different feast, the banquet that God is preparing for those who “desire a better, that is, a heavenly country” (Hebrews 11:16).

The Pilgrims’ “First Thanksgiving”: Remembering a Different Part of the Story

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.

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.  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 four sentences to it in a letter that he wrote to supporters in England.  Indeed, the 115 words in those four 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.

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.

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.”

As we celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, 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.

Happy Thanksgiving!

P. S. If you are interested in an hour-long conversation about Thanksgiving that I had with Professor Tony Gill for his blog, “Research on Religion,” go here.

History as Mirror: Learning about Ourselves by Learning about the Pilgrims

In an earlier post, I suggested that one of the great benefits of studying the past is that history can serve as a form of mirror that actually helps us to see ourselves more clearly.  That was probably pretty abstract, I know, so I want to provide a concrete example of what I have in mind.  Since Thanksgiving is just around the corner, let me draw from the Pilgrims to illustrate the concept.

As a society, we find it pretty difficult to think deeply about the Pilgrims.  For much of the twentieth century they were a staple of grade-school curricula.  School children regularly learned about the Thanksgiving holiday by getting to know the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag neighbors and by imagining what it would have been like to join in the feast that they shared together on the coast of Massachusetts in the fall of 1621.  Educators recognized in the “First Thanksgiving” a tailor-made opportunity to teach small children the kind of virtues we want small children to have, namely, to be thankful for our blessings and to be willing to share.  As a parent, I have no problem with that.  As a historian, it drives me crazy, because few of us ever progress beyond a third-grade-level of engagement with this fascinating group of very serious adults.  Instead, the Pilgrims remain perpetually frozen in our mind’s eye as two-dimensional illustrations from children’s stories.  Indeed, I would go so far as to say that although Americans have often paid tribute to the Pilgrims—American presidents have regularly alluded to them in their official Thanksgiving proclamations, for example—we have rarely actually taken them seriously.  We’re happy to use them to reinforce values that we already hold, but we’re not that interested in learning from them.

So what would it look like for the Pilgrims to serve as mirrors to us today?  What, specifically, would we need to do to facilitate that?  My suggestion may strike you as weird: I think we start by taking their strangeness seriously.  Here’s what I mean: every human being that we encounter when we study history will resemble us in some respects and differ from us in others.  Boiled down to its essence, the past always involves some combination of the familiar and the strange, although the balance between the two will vary significantly across time and space.  When we go to the past in search of ammunition, we naturally gravitate toward those aspects that seem familiar; in particular, we tend to zero in on ways in which figures from the past reinforce our values or promote our agendas.  It’s not that we ignore what strikes us as strange.  That’s often the part of the past we find most entertaining, as the programming on the History Channel regularly attests. But to say that we find it entertaining is not to say that we find it relevant or that we are open to the possibility that what strikes us as strange might actually be something we need to hear.  This is why our task is to take seriously those things that strike us as strange.  Rather than dismissing those elements as curious or quaint or simply bizarre, we consider them as worthy of contemplation.  The paradoxical result of this exercise is often to make us more aware of our own ways of thinking and behaving.

So here, finally, is one example from the Pilgrims, and I have chosen a very simple one: the Pilgrims did not believe in church marriage.  Their reasoning was straightforward.  As devout Puritans, they believed that both the Catholic Church and, to a lesser degree, the Church of England, had ambitiously expanded the power of the Church by clothing the clergy with unscriptural authority.  In his treatise A Just and Necessary Apology, the pastor of the Pilgrims’ congregation in Holland, John Robinson, observed that the scripture never explicitly charges pastors with the responsibility of performing marriages.  Robinson concluded that “neither ought the pastor’s office to be stretched to any other acts than those of religion, and such as are peculiar to Christians: amongst which marriage, common to Gentiles as well as to them, hath no place.”  Following Robinson, the Pilgrims’ long-time governor in Plymouth, William Bradford, agreed that marriage was a civil rite.  In his view, the Catholic and Anglican practice of declaring invalid any marriage not performed by a priest was an example of “popish” aggrandizement.  A truly devout Puritan, both Robinson and Bradford taught, would never submit to be married in a church ceremony!

Does hearing this jar your ears as much as it does mine?  I was born and raised in the midst of the Bible Belt, and I was trained to believe precisely the reverse, i.e., “genuine Christians” would always wish to be married by a pastor, while anyone who would sneak away to a justice of the peace probably had something to hide!  Let me be emphatic here: my point in sharing this is not to mount a campaign against church marriages.  I am sharing this particular Pilgrim teaching simply to highlight one of the great benefits of studying the past.  Much like traveling in a foreign country, when we go to the past we find that “they do things differently there,” as one writer has put it, and this helps us to become more self-conscious of how we do things in our time and place.  In this instance, it was only when I learned that the Pilgrims eschewed church marriage that I came to see my own commitment to church marriage as noteworthy.  And by taking them seriously—instead of just saying to myself, “Boy, those Pilgrims were eccentric”—I was constrained to think more deeply about why I thought church marriage was important.  When we go to the past for illumination instead of ammunition, history can readily serve this mirror-like function.  Over and over again the strangeness of the past can expose practices and beliefs that we take for granted, and in making us more fully aware of them, history presents us with the opportunity to think more deeply about them, to “take every thought captive to obedience to Christ” more fully than ever before.

“The Rumors of My Death . . .”

I’ve been told that the one imperative law of successful blogging is to blog regularly, which makes the lapse of the past six weeks an egregious sin.  Sorry about that.  Shortly after the beginning of the semester it dawned on me that I needed to draft a plenary address for a national meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, an organization of Christian historians of which I am honored to serve, for the time being, as president.  Before coming to Wheaton College three years ago, I was for more than two decades on the faculty of the University of Washington, a large and systemically secular research university, and the Conference on Faith and History provided the kind of community of Christian scholars that was nearly impossible to duplicate at a place like UW. 

When I first arrived at UW, I was ill prepared to think critically about what Parker Palmer has called (in To Know as We Are Known) the “invisible curriculum” of the university, with the result that my mind quickly conformed to the presuppositions of the academic community in which I found myself.  Over time, by God’s grace, I began to think more deeply about the pluralistic multiversity of which I was a part, but as I did so I also began to experience what Harry Blamires called (in The Christian Mind) “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.”  I came to see myself, as Blamires put it, as “caught up, entangled, in the lumbering day-to-day operations of a machinery working in many respects in the service of ends that I rejected.” 

Combating this growing sense of alienation was a challenge.  I had one wonderful Christian colleague among the forty-some-odd professors in the History Department, and the monthly Christian Faculty/Grad Fellowship regularly attracted another half dozen professors from other departments (from the university’s more than thirteen hundred full-time faculty).  Its meetings were greatly encouraging, but while they helped me as a Christian they did not—and could not—help me in defining my calling as a Christian historian.  This is where the Conference on Faith and History was invaluable.  The first meeting that I attended was in 2002 at Huntington University.  By that point I had been either a graduate student or faculty member for twenty years, and yet the first session of the convention that I attended was also the first time I had ever been in the same room with as many as two other Christian historians!  It was the first professional gathering I had ever experienced in which I could substantively integrate my faith in Christ with my love of history and my passion for the life of the mind.  The fellowship that I have encountered there has encouraged more than I can possibly convey. 

The opportunity to deliver a plenary address to the CFH’s biennial meeting (held this fall at Gordon College, just north of Boston) was a chance to share with the Christian historians in attendance a challenge to serve the church as well as the academy.  (For an extremely gracious commentary on the address, go here.)   While I wouldn’t trade the opportunity for anything, it did force me to suspend this conversation with you for quite some time, both while I prepared for the address and as I tried to get caught up at work after returning from the meeting.  I’m glad to be back.  Thanksgiving is only three days away, so look for a brief post about the Pilgrims in the next day or so.