Monthly Archives: November 2013


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!

First Thanksgiving


After several very serious posts about the history of the First Thanksgiving, I thought it made sense to share a few more humorous reflections.  Since I’m relentlessly solemn myself, I have nothing to offer in this regard, so here are some links that colleagues and students have brought to my attention.

* Rex Huppke, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, exhorts us not to let Thanksgiving intrude upon our celebration of NovemChristmasber.

* A student in my Civil War class called my attention to this video of random University of Colorado students answering questions about the story of the First Thanksgiving.  I am still deciding whether to laugh or cry.  (Scroll down to “Watch students tell the story of Thanksgiving.”)

* You might also check out this animated New Yorker cartoon.  As you’ll see, it shows Native American and Pilgrim women sitting at a table looking somewhat bored, while the men (both Indian and Pilgrim) are in the background playing football.  This is actually a variation on a cartoon I remember seeing years ago.  In that one, the men are plating football while the Native American women and Pilgrim women are shown working very hard to prepare the meal.  With obvious irritation, one woman turns to another and says “I sure hope this doesn’t get to be a tradition!”

* Finally, you might like this stop-animation short prepared by the folks at Intervarsity Press.

Back with a few, more serious concluding thoughts tomorrow!


Thanksgiving is now only five days away, so I thought I would return again for some reflections on the most popular Thanksgiving book of the season, Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.  The book is holding at #3 in the Amazon best-sellers ranking, and even though it was only released at the end of October, it has already elicited nearly 600 reader reviews.  You can read them here.

Rush RevereThe readers’ reviews are discouraging on multiple levels.  Critics–and there aren’t many–have almost nothing substantive to say.  Their comments consist almost entirely of ad hominem attacks on either the author or his supporters.  Rather than seriously critiquing the book, they call attention to Limbaugh’s multiple divorces, his much-publicized addiction to prescription medications, or (most commonly) his king-sized ego and inflated sense of self-importance.  In explaining the book’s popularity, they simply lash out at the  “ditto-heads” stupid enough to waste their money on such drivel.  What any of this has to do with Limbaugh’s understanding of the Pilgrims is far from clear.

But the comments from fans of the book are almost as empty.  The two most common observations are that 1) the book is entertaining, and 2) that it is historically accurate.  I get the first judgment.  Who among us prefers dense, dull, dry-as-dust prose?  Making the past seem to “come alive” is always an asset, especially when you’re trying to reach younger readers.  Furthermore, entertainment value is pretty much in the eye of the beholder, and if the reviewers on were entertained in reading the book, then they were.  I might wish that they were training their children and grandchildren to appreciate better literature, but that’s a different matter.

What I don’t get is the constant refrain of praise for the book’s historical accuracy.  As I noticed in my last post, the book has no footnotes or bibliography, no reference to evidence of any kind.  And yet the vast majority of readers have absolute confidence that Limbaugh is “setting the record straight.”  It’s “about time someone tells our kids the truth about our history,” writes one reviewer.  The book gives “an accurate account of American history!”  exults another.  It tells “the real facts,” is “truthful and honest,” and reveals “the REAL history of this amazing country,” echo others.  And again I find myself asking, “how do they know?”  Have they read the relevant early seventeenth century sources–e.g., Of Plymouth Plantation, Mourt’s Relation, Good Newes from New England, and The Works of John Robinson–and concluded that Limbaugh is true to the historical record?  Or are they predisposed to accept on faith the “scholarship” of a radio personality whose politics they agree with?

In truth, neither the book’s critics nor its defenders pay much attention at all to evidence.  Critics seem to know in advance that they will hate the book and read it only to mock it.  Advocates seem to know in advance that they will love the book and go on to adore it uncritically.  There’s a lot of sound and fury here, but precious little substance.

I began this blog more than a year ago out of a sense of calling to be in conversation with other Christians about what it means to think wisely–historically and Christianly–about the American past.  If that is your desire as well, then I hope you will agree with me that loving God with our minds is worlds away from the mindless name-calling that so often masquerades as thoughtful reflection in today’s public square.  Nor do we satisfy the biblical injunction to “take every thought captive into obedience to Christ” by simply determining the politics of the messenger and then reflexively embracing (or rejecting)  the message.  Ours is a higher, harder, and ultimately more rewarding calling.

First ThanksgivingI didn’t write my recent book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, primarily to “set the record straight” about the Pilgrims and their 1621 celebration, although I did hope to provide a faithful retelling of that fascinating story.  Rather, my primary goal was to warn readers about the snares that await us when we study history, and to introduce them to a variety of principles and concepts that are essential to keep in mind whenever we  study any episode or people from the past.  You know the old saw about the difference between giving someone a fish versus teaching them how to fish.  I didn’t want to spoon-feed the “real story” of the past as much as show how the real story lays bare key principles for thinking historically and Christianly about the past.  I wanted to help readers think historically more than tell them what to think about a particular historical moment.

Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims illustrates pretty much every pitfall that I warn about in The First Thanksgiving, but in the interest of time I’ll just mention two.  One of the most common temptations we face when studying history is the temptation to go to the past for ammunition instead of illumination–more determined to prove points than gain understanding.  We fall into this trap whenever we know too definitely what we want to find in the past, when we can already envision how our findings can reinforce values that we already hold or promote agendas to which we are already committed.  This approach to the past makes history just one more battleground in the culture wars, with both sides ransacking the past in search of evidence to support their own predetermined positions.  When we employ the history-as-ammunition approach, we predictably find what we are looking for, but we rob history of its power in the process.  History loses its power to surprise and unnerve us, ultimately to teach us anything at all.

The second common temptation is to turn historical figures into our next-door neighbors in funny clothes–that is, thinking of them as just like us.  If the temptation to search for ammunition reflects a propensity of our hearts, the tendency to exaggerate the familiarity of the past reflects a characteristic of our brains.  We are wired to learn by analogy.  Without even having to think about it, when we come across something new we reflexively search for an analogue, rummaging through the file drawers of our minds in search of the image or object or concept that most closely resembles it.  When we find what looks like a decent match, we say that the new thing we have encountered is “like” something else.  The construction of this analogy is totally natural, but it’s also dangerous, because once we have recognized something familiar in the past, we will be tempted to label it and move on rather than wrestle with it and learn.  When we do that, we almost always exaggerate the degree to which the past was similar to the present.

This danger is particularly great when studying groups like the Pilgrims who do share some of our ways of looking at the world.  We read about men and women who were religiously motivated, family oriented, and committed to liberty–all of which is true–and without even realizing it we’re soon thinking of them as one of “us.”  The problem with this is that, once it occurs, what really happens is that we stop thinking about them at all.  They become our clones in funny clothes, and any chance of seeing ourselves more clearly or of learning from people who were the product of a different time and place goes right out of the window.

Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims constantly exaggerates the similarity between the Pilgrims and 21st-century Americans.  Oh, there are undoubtedly differences: the Pilgrims as Limbaugh describes them are more grateful than we are; they’re tougher, more courageous, more committed to liberty.  But these are differences of degree, not of kind.  The Pilgrims’ values are our values, they just lived them out more effectively.  At bottom, they are who we want to be (or should want to be).  They are us when we’re having a good day.

A case in point is Limbaugh’s treatment of the Pilgrims’ commitment to liberty or freedom, a recurring theme throughout the book.  We learn early on that the Pilgrims were “real people ready to give their lives for their freedom, no matter the cost, no matter the pain, no matter the sacrifice.”  And indeed they were.  But what the Pilgrims meant by “freedom” and what Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims conveys are two very different things.

Because this is a book for young readers, Limbaugh understandably does not provide an abstract, dictionary definition for freedom.  Instead, he has various characters in the book discuss the concept and come to their own conclusions.  For example, early in the book Rush Revere chastises his talking horse, Liberty, for misbehaving in a Dutch shoe shop (I am not making this up) and says that from now on Liberty will have to stay right by his side.  “Your freedom to choose as you please is becoming troublesome!” he scolds the horse.  But out of the mouths of babes and talking horses can come wisdom, and Liberty responds by telling Rush Revere that he sounds a lot like the tyrannical King James, who had similarly restricted the Separatists’ freedom in England.  “I had a sick feeling in my stomach,” a chastened Rush Revere informs the reader.  “I felt horrible for trying to force Liberty to do what I wanted.”  Rush Revere apologizes to Liberty and adds, “And just for the record, I hope you never feel forced to do anything.”

In like manner, later in the book Limbaugh presents a conversation between Pilgrim soldier Myles Standish and Tommy White, a middle-school student who has accompanied Rush and Liberty on their trip back in time.  When Standish explains that the Church of England had tried to tell the Pilgrims how to act and think, young Tommy furrows his brow and commiserates, “Yeah, I don’t like when people try to control me.”

So what is the definition of “liberty” that is being conveyed?  It  boils down to freedom from external control.  If a horse wants to go into a shoe shop, he should be able to,  and no eleven-year-old school boy should be forced to do anything against his will.  This definition nicely conforms with modern American values: our understanding of “rights” as “what I want” and of liberty as the individual freedom to do anything, say anything, go anywhere, etc.  But it bears only the most superficial resemblance to what the Pilgrims had in mind when they spoke of liberty.

The Separatists at Leiden had been taught a very different understanding of liberty than our contemporary notion.  Central to their thinking was the concept of covenant, which emphasized not rights but responsibility–between God and man and between man and man.  Consequently, the liberty that they venerated facilitated obedience more than autonomy, order more than individualism, and service more than self-expression.  Liberty, as they understood it, was the freedom not to do whatever you wanted but to do what was right, and what was right was determined by the law of God and by your obligations to your neighbor.  Liberty, then, was the freedom to pursue a life of faithfulness in the network of relationships in which God had placed you.  In the words of the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, “It is a Christian’s liberty . . . to serve God in faith, and his brethren in love.”

From the Pilgrims’ perspective, human society was not a conglomeration of individuals but of groups.  They believed that God had ordained three basic building blocks for society: the family, the church, and the civil community.  Each of these constituent units was organic (like a living being), interdependent, and hierarchical.  Each was characterized by shared responsibilities and mutual obligations within clearly defined chains of authority.  So, for example, all of the colonists were to submit to the civil magistrate, whose authority (whether he was Christian or “heathen”), came from God.  When the Separatists had decided to defy both the Church of England and the English king by creating their own congregations, they had not done so as an assertion of individual right, but as an expression of their obligation to obey God rather than man.

Indeed, as the Pilgrims understood the world, there was nothing particularly admirable about self-assertion or the insistence on individual rights.  Rather, it was self-denial that lay at the heart of every virtue.  In the words of Robert Cushman, a deacon in the Pilgrims’ congregation in Leiden, “Nothing in this world doth more resemble heavenly happiness, than for men to live as one, being of one heart, and one soul; neither anything more resembles hellish horror, than for every man to shift for himself.”

The Pilgrims have no authority over us, and their way of looking at the world is not automatically binding on us.  But their world view was not the one that Rush Limbaugh has given them, and readers of Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims should at least know that.


As I promised in my last post, I want to share some thoughts about Rush Limbaugh’s recent book, Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans.  Released just three weeks ago, the book by the popular conservative radio host is now the second best-selling work on Amazon and has already elicited 470 reader reviews, nearly 90% of which are five-star raves.  They praise it as a “factually correct,” “unbiased,” “true history” that will help to combat the “liberal propaganda that the children are being fed today.”  (These are all comments that appear within the last twenty-four hours.)

What strikes me about these responses is how utterly confident the reviewers are in the historical accuracy of a work of children’s literature that centers on the adventures of a time-traveling talking horse.  There are no footnotes.  No bibliography.  No list of suggested readings.  No evidence of any kind.

Historical evidence, for most of us, is sort of like the foundation of a house.  I remember when my wife and I were ready to buy our first home.  In the back of my mind, I knew that the structure needed to rest on a firm foundation, but I didn’t waste much time thinking about it.  I was a lot more concerned about floor plans and color schemes and square footage, and I remember being irritated when someone suggested that I should look underneath our dream home before buying it.  (“You want me to crawl where?”)  I think we tend to shop for history in much the same way.  If a particular history book reinforces convictions that we already hold, it rarely enters our mind to investigate the underlying evidence.  No need to go down in the crawl space when the rest of the house is so appealing.

Rush RevereWhen it comes to the use of evidence, Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims is simply a train wreck.  I don’t say this gleefully, or with a sneer of condescension.  Indeed, I say this as a political conservative who shares the author’s appreciation for the wisdom of our founders.  I just wish he hadn’t botched the job so badly.  The book may be entertaining–it may even inspire some young readers to want to learn more about their national heritage–but it fundamentally misrepresents the “Brave Pilgrims” it purports to honor.

As Christian historian Beth Schweiger puts it so eloquently, “in history, the call to love one’s neighbor is extended to the dead.”  The figures we study from the past were image bearers like us.  They had their own way of looking at life–their own hopes, dreams, values, and aspirations–and when we ignore the complexity of their world to further neat-and-tidy answers in our own, we treat them as cardboard props rather than dealing with them seriously as human beings.  Put simply, we are not loving them but using them.  Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims does this in spades.  I could offer numerous examples of what I have in mind, but for now I’ll just concentrate on one: Limbaugh’s characterization of the Pilgrim’s economic values.

First, some background.  Four centuries ago, the proposal to relocate a hundred people across an ocean to an uncharted continent was almost recklessly audacious.  It was also prohibitively expensive, and most of the Leiden Separatists who were committed to the venture were also as poor as church mice.  To succeed, it was imperative that they find financial backers who would bankroll the undertaking, and the company of London merchants who agreed to do so were no philanthropists.  They were hard-headed businessmen who drove a hard bargain.  And so, in exchange for the considerable cost of transporting the Pilgrims to North America and supplying them until they could provide for themselves, the Pilgrims agreed to work for the London financiers for seven years.  During that time, under the terms of their agreement, everything they produced and everything they constructed (even including the houses they slept in) would belong to the company, not to them individually.  At the end of the seven years, any revenue that had been generated in excess of their debts was to be divided among the London investors and the Pilgrim settlers.

Next comes a crucial plot twist: According to governor William Bradford’s history Of Plymouth Plantation, in the spring of 1623 the surviving Pilgrim colonists began to debate among themselves whether there was anything they could do to improve the next year’s crop.  The answer, after considerable debate, was to allocate to every household a small quantity of land (initially, one acre per person) to cultivate as their own during the coming season.  Because the land varied considerably in quality, the plots were assigned by lot, with the understanding that there would be a drawing the next year and the next after that, etc., so that the land each family was assigned would change annually.

While under the old scheme individual workers had minimal incentive to put forth extra effort (since the fruit of that effort would be divided among all, including the slackers), the new plan, according to Bradford, “made all hands very industrious.”  The only flaw was the decision to reallocate household plots annually, for this discouraged families from making long-term improvements to their assigned tracts.  To rectify that, Bradford explains, in the spring of 1624 it was decided to make the allocations permanent.  The success of the new plan, the governor ruminated, demonstrated “the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”

This shift in economic organization looms large in how Limbaugh remembers the Pilgrims’ story, and he has been struck by it for at least two decades.  I can say this with confidence because the talk show host also paid attention to the Pilgrims in his 1993 polemic See, I Told You So.  In a chapter tellingly titled “Dead White Guys or What Your History Books Never Told You,” Limbaugh explained how “long before Karl Marx was even born” the Pilgrims had experimented with socialism and it hadn’t worked!  “So what did Bradford’s community try next?” Limbaugh asks.  “They unharnessed the power of good old free enterprise by invoking the undergirding capitalistic principle of private property.”  And what was the result?  “In no time the Pilgrims . . . had more food than they could eat themselves.”  They began trading their surplus with the surrounding Indians, and “the profits allowed them to pay off their debts to the merchants in London.”  In sum, the free market had triumphed.

See, I Told You So never refers to the first Thanksgiving, but twenty years later, in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, Limbaugh claims that the Pilgrims’ celebration would never have occurred had they not abandoned their socialistic experiment.  As a literary device, Limbaugh has Rush Revere and his talking horse, Liberty, time-travel repeatedly between the present and the winter of 1620-1621.  (They are accompanied by two of Revere’s middle-school students–a trouble-making boy named Tommy and a Native American girl named Freedom.)  In late December 1620, the time travelers pay a visit to the Pilgrims shortly after their arrival in New England and are surprised to learn that they plan on holding all property in common.  “We are trying to create a fair and equal society,” William Bradford explains to them.  “But is that freedom?” Rush Revere muses to himself.

They return three months later, in March 1621, and are discouraged to see that the settlement is not prospering.  William Bradford is perplexed; he had thought that centralized economic controls “should guarantee our prosperity and success. . . . But recently I’m beginning to doubt whether everyone will work their hardest on something that is not their own.”  At this point, young Tommy relates to Bradford how hard his mother works to win prizes at the county fair, prompting the Pilgrim governor to speculate whether giving each family their own plot of land might motivate the Pilgrims to work harder and be more creative.  In an epiphany, Bradford realizes that “a little competition could be healthy!”  “Brilliant!” Rush Revere responds.  The rest, as they say, is history.

When the time travelers return that autumn–having received a personal invitation to the “First Annual Plimoth Plantation Harvest Festival”–everything is changed.  “Everyone seems so joyous,” Rush Revere observes, “far different than a short while ago.”  Governor Bradford explains that “we all have so much to be grateful for. ”  The turning point “came when every family was assigned its own plot of land to work.”  Underscoring the point, the Pilgrims’ Native American friend, Squanto, explains, “William is a smart man. . . . He gave people their own land.  He made people free.”  Not only that, Bradford adds, but the profits they are now generating will “soon allow us to pay back the people that sponsored our voyage to America.”  Yes, there was a great deal to be thankful for.  But as Rush Revere notes as the time travelers are preparing to leave, “It was obvious that this first Thanksgiving wouldn’t be possible if William Bradford hadn’t boldly changed the way the Pilgrims worked and lived.”

The history lesson in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims is clear: The Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Lord’s granting of a bounteous harvest after a cruel and heart-wrenching winter.  Instead, they celebrated because God had delivered them from the futility of socialism.  As Limbaugh put it two decades ago, “Can you think of a more important lesson one could derive from the Pilgrim experience?”

There is just one problem: it’s not true.  Oh, the Pilgrims undoubtedly moved toward the private ownership of property, but they did so in 1624, according to William Bradford, three crop years AFTER their autumn celebration in 1621.  To make the movement toward private property the necessary precondition for the First Thanksgiving is, historically speaking, a real whopper.  To use a pejorative label that the radio personality is fond of wielding, this is revisionist history with a vengeance!

But there is more amiss here than a chronological gaffe.  When the Pilgrims did move toward the private ownership of property, the shift was not quite the unbridled endorsement of free market competition that Limbaugh would have us believe.  Nearly two centuries ago, the brilliant conservative Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “a false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.”  Limbaugh’s characterization of the Pilgrims’ economic shift is clear, precise . . . and false.  The reality is complex.

On a visit to Plymouth at the very end of 1621, deacon Robert Cushman (a church official in the Leiden congregation) was invited to preach to the Pilgrims and chose for his text I Corinthians 10:24: “Let no man seek his own: but every man another’s wealth.”  The decision to allow each household to work its own individual plot represented a movement away from this ideal–but only partially.  Both Bradford and his assistant Edward Winslow described the shift not as a good thing, in and of itself, but as a concession to human weakness.  It was an acknowledgment, in Winslow’s words, of “that self-love wherewith every man, in a measure more or less, loveth and preferreth his own good before his neighbor’s.”  Because “all men have this corruption in them,” as Bradford put it, it was prudent to take this aspect of human nature into account.

This was still a century and a half, however, before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations would celebrate the enlightened pursuit of self-interest as the surest way to promote the general welfare.  In countless ways, the Pilgrims showed that they still belonged to an earlier age.  In economics, as in all of life, they viewed liberty as the freedom to do unto others only as they would be done by.  The golden rule meant that there were numerous instances in which producers must deny themselves rather than seek to maximize profit, and if they were unwilling to police their behavior voluntarily, the colony’s legislature was willing to coerce them.

Examples abound.  The Laws of the Colony of New Plymouth reveal that producers were prohibited from selling to distant customers if doing so created a shortage among their neighbors.  Under the laws of Plymouth, it was illegal to export finished lumber under any conditions, and farmers could only sell scarce foodstuffs (corn, peas, and beans) outside of the colony with the express permission of the colonial government.  Similarly, one of the very first laws recorded in Plymouth’s records prohibited skilled craftsmen from working for “foreigners or strangers till such time as the necessity of the colony be served.”

Nor was it acceptable to gouge their neighbors by selling products or services for more than they were intrinsically worth.  The colonial government passed laws regulating the price that millers charged, the fares ferrymen imposed, the wage rate of daily laborers, and the ever-important price of beer.  Pilgrim Stephen Hopkins ran afoul of the latter, and was called before a grand jury for selling one-penny beer at twice the going rate.  A few years later, a colonist named John Barnes was charged with buying grain at four shillings a bushel which he then sold at five, “without adventure or long forbearance.”  He had not assumed a significant risk in the transaction, in other words, nor held the grain for a considerable period of time, and under the circumstances he had no right to a 25 percent profit, even if a buyer was willing to meet his price.  In sum, there was nothing intrinsically moral about what the market would bear.

And what of Limbaugh’s claim that the Pilgrims’ shift toward free enterprise would enable them “soon” to repay the company that had sponsored them?  This assertion, at least, is correct, if by “soon” Limbaugh meant twenty-eight years, which, according to William Bradford is how long it took the Pilgrims to erase their debts.  In truth, the assertion is misleading in the extreme.

So where does this leave us?  Before anyone concludes that I am a closet communist, I will say again that I am politically conservative.  What is more, the fact that Limbaugh is badly in error about the Pilgrims does not, in itself, discredit his economic views.  We don’t automatically have to follow the Pilgrims’ lead in this or any other area of life; God has granted them no authority over us.  They didn’t celebrate Christmas, wear jewelry, or believe in church weddings, and I have no qualms whatsoever in choosing not to follow their example in such matters.

But I do feel compelled to call Limbaugh to account for such an egregious misrepresentation.  As a historian, I think no good cause is ever served by distorting the past, whether intentionally or accidentally.  And as a Christian historian, I am grieved that the Pilgrims’ timeless example of perseverance and  heavenly hope amidst unspeakable hardship has been obscured, their faith in God overshadowed by their purported faith in the free market.

First Thanksgiving


Humility is a virtue, but I struggle with pride.  Pride besets me in any number of ways, but one of the most powerful is through my job.  It is so easy to base my sense of self-worth and identity on what I do for a living.  (Can any of you relate?)  That is why, for me at least, it is so healthy to be reminded from time to time of the less than exalted opinion the broader culture has of history and historians.

Until quite recently, whenever I needed a dose of humility I thought back to an episode early in my teaching career.  The year was 1991, and a retired humanities professor from the University of Florida had raised eyebrows by announcing her suspicion that Zachary Taylor, not Abraham Lincoln, had been the first American president to be assassinated.  Taylor had died in July 1850, sixteen months into his presidency, supposedly of acute gastroenteritis brought on by eating massive quantities of raw cherries and iced milk during a Fourth of July celebration near the foot of the as yet unfinished Washington monument.  Not so, said Professor Clara Rising, who speculated that the twelfth president had actually been poisoned by one of his political enemies.  Although she had no real evidence to support her suspicions, Rising convinced Taylor’s descendents to agree to an exhumation of their ancestor’s remains, and for a week or so that June the nation breathlessly awaited the results of the partial autopsy.

This was my opportunity for lasting fame, or so I thought.  Even though I was only finishing my third year as a history prof at the University of Washington, I had already figured out that the broader culture didn’t typically view my knowledge and expertise as relevant to anything of contemporary importance.  I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that individuals from outside the university had contacted me in order to benefit from my vast storehouse of knowledge.  There was the reporter during the first Persian Gulf War who wanted to know why yellow ribbons had come to symbolize remembrance of loved ones in the military.  There was the Boeing employee with too much time on his hands who wanted me to help settle an office bet about the origins of the term “ten gallon hat.”  There was the anonymous e-mail from the history buff who wanted to know why so many Civil War battles took place near national parks.  That’s about it.

Now everything had changed.  Within hours of the announcement of the impending autopsy, a TV journalist from a popular Seattle news magazine program was calling to say that he would like to interview me to get my take on the story.  He wanted me to speak about the implications of Taylor’s alleged assassination, how it changed the course of history, etc.  I cleaned up my office (no small feat), put on a tie, and in a lengthy interview I shared a plethora of erudite insights about Zachary Taylor, antebellum American politics, and the coming of the Civil War.  I was soon to be a celebrity.

And then the results of the autopsy were announced the next morning, and unfortunately (at least for my television career), there was no evidence of foul play.  I never talked to the producer again.  All I got was a telephone message left while I was in class.  One of the secretaries in the History Department office had summarized the message on one of those pink”while you were out” slips that functioned as voice mail before there was voice mail.  “Taylor wasn’t poisoned, so no story,” said the memo.  “Thanks anyway.”  I was crushed.

That night I tuned in to the news magazine program nonetheless, eager to see what would be aired in place of my interview.  “What could possibly be more important,” I asked myself, “than the nuggets of wisdom I shared about the coming of the Civil War?”  The answer came shortly.  The entire thirty-minute program centered on a group of middle-aged businessmen in western Washington who went out into the woods and walked barefoot over hot coals in order to increase their self-confidence.  I’ve never forgotten that.  As I said, I struggle with pride.  I find it helpful to be reminded exactly where I, a professional historian, stand in society’s scale of values.  The answer: not very high up.

First ThanksgivingThis episode has served as an effective reality check for more than two decades, but I think I’ve just hit upon a new one that will work even better.  As readers of this blog will know, I am the recent author of a book titled The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  For more than six years I worked on the book, reading every scrap of evidence I could locate, both about the First Thanksgiving itself as well as about how Americans have remembered that event over the past four centuries.  A real labor of love, the project reflected my own evolving sense of calling and the burden that I felt to be in conversation with Christians outside the Academy on the question of what it means to think Christianly about our national heritage.  I was delighted when Intervarsity Press agreed to publish it, and pleased that they scheduled its release for the end of summer–just in time for Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately, mine is not the only book on the First Thanksgiving to be released in the last few months.  There have been a few, actually, but one in particular has caught my eye.  The author, not known as a historian, is one Rush Limbaugh–yes, that Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio talk show host and polemical writer.  The book that he has written is titled Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.   Limbaugh says that he wrote the book at a level intended for middle-school readers (age 10-13, say), but he hopes that the book will reach an audience of all ages.  As he explained to listeners during a recent broadcast of his radio show, he wrote the book to combat “the bastardization of American history as taught throughout America today.”  Patriots who buy the book will be doing their part toward “reclaiming the birthright and the truth of this country.”

I hope to offer an extended review of the book in a couple of days, but here is the basic premise: The book is told from the vantage point of a substitute middle school history teacher named Rusty Revere.  Rusty (who goes by the nickname Rush) loves American History.  And he knows a great deal about it, too, not only because he likes to read about it, but because he has actually experienced it directly.   You see, Rush Revere is blessed to own a horse named Liberty who, as it happens, can both talk and travel through time.  Whenever Liberty breaks into a gallop and exclaims “rush, rush, rushing to history,” a time portal opens and he and Rush can return to any moment in the American past that they choose.  In Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, Rush and his talking horse return to the early 17th century and “set the record straight” about the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving.  Not released until October 29th, the book has already been reviewed by 371 readers on Amazon, 95% of whom give the book 4 or 5 stars (out of 5).  The most common theme in their rave reviews is the convictions that the account is “actually historically true,” is “an ACCURATE re-telling of early American history,” and “explains the real history of America.”  Hmmm.  I find myself wondering how they know this. . . .

And why, you ask, does this popular story of Rush Revere and Liberty the talking horse help to keep me humble?  I struggle with pride, remember, and this means that I have found it impossible to resist checking the ranking of The First Thanksgiving on  These rankings change constantly, but as I write this, the book comes in at #23,567.  And Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims?  After an early media blitz it has tailed off badly.  Indeed, it is now only the third most popular book that Amazon sells.

Back with a review soon.


By all appearances, Americans still cling to the Thanksgiving holiday, setting aside a few hours for a special meal with family and friends before turning on the football game or heading to the mall for a deal on electronics.  But we have long since abandoned any idea of a Thanksgiving season, an extended period in which to anticipate the holiday, reflect on its significance, and live out its meaning.  In my neighborhood at least, the Christmas decorations went up in the stores as soon as the Halloween decorations came down.  On television, the moment the calendar turned to November the Hallmark Channel began its “Countdown to Christmas” movie marathon.  Less sentimental, immediately began trumpeting the “Countdown to Black Friday.”  Who has time for Thanksgiving any more?

This is sad for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that, if we only have ears to hear, the Pilgrims might have much to say to us that we need to take to heart.  To begin with, meditating on the Pilgrims’ story might show us our worldliness.  “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” John the apostle warned, 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.

Years afterward, Plymouth governor William Bradford would recall the “great labor and hard fare” that defined the Pilgrims’ material circumstances while in Holland.  Their homes were ridiculously small by our standards, some with no more than a couple hundred square feet of living space.  Half or more of the congregation had become textile workers.  In contrast to the seasonal rhythm of life they had known in England, they now earned their bread by carding, spinning, or weaving in their tiny homes from dawn to dusk, six days a week, merely to keep body and soul together.

Although they looked forward to greater prosperity in New England, upon their arrival in the autumn of 1620 they had immediately encountered almost unimaginable hardships, and by the following spring fully one half of their original number was dead.  When they celebrated God’s provision of an adequate harvest that fall, the survivors consisted largely of widowers and orphans.  (Fourteen of the eighteen wives among the original party had perished.)  That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in such circumstances should humble us.

What what was the source of such resilience and gratitude?  The answer, I believe, lies in the Pilgrims’ theology, the heart of which lies hidden in plain sight.  We have referred to the passengers of the Mayflower as “Pilgrims” for so long that the term has lost all significance to us.  Literally, the word “pilgrims” refers to a person on a journey, often, but not always, to a place of religious significance.  When the Pilgrims thought of themselves as “pilgrims,” they meant that they were temporary travelers in a world that was not their home.

This is clear from the context in which Governor Bradford used the term in his famous history of the colony, Of Plymouth Plantation.  Toward the middle of book I, Bradford movingly described the departure from Holland, as the members of the Leiden congregation who were leaving for America said goodbye to the friends and loved ones remaining behind.  (Bradford himself was parting from a three-year-old-son.)  With “an abundance of tears,” Bradford wrote, the group “left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but 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.”  As he penned these words, Bradford was almost certainly thinking of the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, that great survey of Old Testament heroes of the faith.  There, in the text of the 1596 edition Geneva Bible that Bradford brought with him to Plymouth, we read that these men and women “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on earth.”

In the world as the Pilgrims 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.”

May that be said of us as well.

First Thanksgiving


Hello, again:

Here are three more YouTube teasers from my recent Q and A session at the headquarters of Intervarsity Press:

* On the danger of thinking of the Pilgrims as being just like us, click here.

* Click here for my brief take on the concept of “Christian” history.

* On the danger of imputing authority to historical figures, click here.

Intervarsity Press is the publisher of my recent book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  The staff there have been a delight to work with from beginning to end.

First Thanksgiving


Hello, Again:

As we move into November, I want to begin a series of posts drawn from research for my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  Before doing so, I thought I would share a couple of brief YouTube videos generated by the staff at Intervarsity Press.  It was my pleasure to address the IVP employees at their weekly meeting not long ago, and the “teasers” linked below came out of the Q and A time.

Go here for a response to a question about the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving dinner.  Here I share a few thoughts about finding meaning in the past.

Take care!


Since Thursday was Halloween, it makes perfect sense that the Hallmark Channel began its “Countdown to Christmas” on Friday and has devoted the weekend to a succession of Christmas movies featuring “Santas” who seem less interested in delivering toys than in playing matchmaker for lonely thirty-somethings.

Just in case you’re like me and resent the way that we are now skipping over Thanksgiving entirely in our rush to open the Christmas shopping season, might I suggest that you read the following book as a good way to fight back against the craziness?

First Thanksgiving

OK, so this will undoubtedly appear as an act of Shameless Self-Promotion, but in all honesty, I wrote The First Thanksgiving in response to a sense of calling to be in conversation with the church about what it means to think Christianly about the past.  If that is something that you aspire to, consider picking it up or ordering it from Amazon.  If you would like to read a brief review of the book before forking over nearly $14 to add it to your library, Christian historian Jay Case of Malone University has written a wonderful synopsis on his blog, “The Circuit Reader,” and you can link to it here.

Take care–I’m headed back to the Hallmark Channel marathon.


I apologize for being away for so long.  Not only is it a very busy time in the academic calendar here at Wheaton, but I also had the opportunity to take part recently in a conference at Calvin College on teaching, and since I invariably procrastinate in preparing for such events, the couple of weeks preceding the conference involved a succession of long days and late nights.  Then shortly after the meeting I made a quick 1,400-mile road trip to visit my dad in Tennessee over our brief fall break–and so fell further behind.  Then I participated in another day-long conference on campus this past weekend (in which I had the pleasant task of introducing a panel discussion among Christian historians Mark Noll, George Marsden, and John Fea), but now I am resolved to put some thoughts in writing before I forget how.

Since it’s been ridiculously long since my last meditation on the battlefield at Gettysburg, it may seem anticlimactic to offer a concluding reflection, but I’m going to do so anyway.  I feel like I have to.  What I have to share are two encounters with the past at Gettysburg that, in and of themselves, made my trip there educational.  As I have argued before on this blog, education is not defined by a mere enlargement of knowledge or skills.  Authentic education requires “inner work.”  It touches our hearts, alternately convicting and inspiring us.  When it occurs, we are changed.

One of my favorite quotes about the value of history comes from historian David Harlan, who reminds us that, “at its best, the study of American history can be a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  Not many academic historians hold to that view anymore, and we’re the poorer because of it.  I was repeatedly reminded of this as I walked the ground at Gettysburg–the opportunities for life-changing conversations abound, if we have ears to hear.  “Hear” is the key verb, because the conversations that I have in mind require above all that we be willing to listen.

Sometimes in such conversations the figures from the past interrogate us.  The first conversation that I was drawn into was of this sort.  It began as I tried to envision what happened there a century and a half ago, when over one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers in blue and gray clashed in the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere.  I have previously noted the chasm that separates us from the men who fought there, and yet it is almost impossible to walk in their footsteps without imagining what it was like to be in their shoes.  And as I clambered among the boulders at Devil’s Den, peered through the trees on Little Round Top, and ascended the long, gentle slope of Cemetery Ridge, the questions running through my mind began to change.  When the conversation began, I was the one doing the asking–posing safe, academic questions about troop movements and tactics.  But then as I tried to imagine what these men experienced, much more personal, far more disturbing questions came to dominate my thoughts.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

“Could you steel yourself to do what these men did?” I found myself wondering.  “Could you endure what they endured?”  More importantly, “Could you witness such carnage and still believe in mankind?  Could you help to inflict such destruction and still believe in yourself?  Could you experience such suffering and still believe in God?”  Above all, “Are you devoted to any principle, any cause, any person, any Master enough to give, in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion?”  The short answer to all of the above is, “I don’t know.”  I pray to God that my faith would not falter, but I just don’t know.  What I do know about myself is not reassuring: I too often struggle with even the most trivial acts of self-denial, the most mundane expressions of laying down my life that pale in comparison to the price paid by so many who fought here.

Sometimes our conversations with the past involve listening in on a discussion among historical figures and trying to learn from it, trying to glean wisdom as to “what we should value and how we should live.”  I was also drawn into this kind of conversation as I walked the ground at Gettysburg, particularly as I contemplated the nearly fourteen hundred monuments that are sprinkled across the landscape.  As I’ve noted before, Gettysburg National Park is arguably the world’s largest statuary garden, and as such it speaks not only to the battle itself but also to its aftermath.

As with tombstones in a cemetery, we read in the ubiquitous inscriptions two kinds of testimony: testimony about the doings of men, and testimony about the longings of mankind.  That is, their words speak not only to what happened here, but also to how the soldiers who are commemorated, as well as their descendants, yearned for significance and wanted to believe that their lives mattered.  In this sense, the monuments at Gettysburg are best understood as part of an ongoing conversation about the meaning of what happened there, and that conversation is, in a sense, merely a small part of a universal human dialogue about why, or whether, our lives matter at all.

As I noted in my last post, in their language the vast majority of Gettysburg’s monuments are mundane.  Like Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times, they care for nothing but “the facts.”  The company or regiment in question fought on this spot at this time for this objective.  It sent this many men into battle and suffered this many casualties.  But not all are so reticent.  “It’s not enough to remember what these men did,” the exceptions seem to say.  “Subsequent generations must also know why these men fought, and why we should venerate them.”

Modern-day historians such as James McPherson and Chandra Manning have read literally tens of thousands of pages of Civil War soldiers’ diaries and letters in an attempt to understand why men fought in the Civil War.  The words they have pored over were not chiseled in granite but scribbled in pencil.  In their unguarded moments, Civil War soldiers revealed a broad range of motives.   Some voiced ideological motives.  Speaking in terms of duty and obligation, they professed to have enlisted in order to defend liberty, or democracy, or union, or states’ rights, or republican government, or the legacy of 1776 (however they understood it).  Others enlisted for less exalted reasons: to escape boredom, find adventure, prove their manhood, see the world, impress girlfriends (or potential girlfriends), increase their income, or avoid the draft.

The Gettysburg monuments that speak to the larger meaning of the battle see only what was noble.  The prototype in this regard is one of the oldest and largest monuments on the field, the so-called “Soldiers’ National Monument” that rises from the heart of the national military cemetery just north of Cemetery Ridge.  Dedicated in 1869, its primary inscription consists of the closing lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with its ringing references to a “new birth of freedom,” “government of the people,” and those “who here gave their lives that [the] nation might live.”

Most of the monuments erected at Gettysburg honor specific military units or particular individuals, but many of the states that were represented at Gettysburg eventually built state monuments as well, and these larger monuments regularly make claims about the object and meaning of their sons’ sacrifice.  A sampling of state monuments tells us that Pennsylvanians fought for “the preservation of the Union.”  Michigan troops  were champions of “liberty and union.”  Soldiers from Indiana–a state with more than its share of opposition to emancipation–fought for “equality” and to “advance freedom.”

Southern state monuments were often (understandably) less specific.  Tennessee soldiers were guided by unspecified “convictions” and performed “their duty as they understood it.”  Floridians “fought with courage and devotion for the ideals in which they believed”–whatever they were.  Georgia’s Confederates, though, were forthrightly patriotic.  (“When duty called, we came; when country called, we died.”)  More explicit still, South Carolina soldiers were propelled by an “abiding faith in the sacredness of States Rights.”

The Alabama State Memorial at Gettysburg

The Alabama State Memorial at Gettysburg

I want to be clear here.  I am not sneering at the possibility that many of those who fell on this field were motivated by high ideals.  I am convinced that many were, and I admire them for it.  C. S. Lewis has written that the greatest chasm separating the human race is not the divide between Christians and non-Christians or even that between theists and atheists, but rather the gulf between those who recognize any belief system outside of themselves that demands their allegiance and those who acknowledge no such standard.  The latter, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, are adherents of “the most horrible” of religions: “the worship of the god within.”  In a recent essay on the importance of fatherhood, N.Y.U. psychologist Paul Vitz observes that “the world is hungry for examples of unselfish men.”  In our age of materialism and individualism, the example of those who did fight at Gettysburg for union or states’ rights, freedom or independence, is a breath of fresh air.

And yet we need to think carefully about the conversation that we are listening to.  What impresses me most about these monuments is their use of religious language and imagery in commemorating the men who fought here.  It’s not that there are references to God, Jesus, or Christian faith–I’ve found almost none.  But think about the words and phrases that do appear: “martyrs,” “devotion,” “sacrifice,” “faith,” “immortal” fame, “righteous” causes, “eternal glory,” “the millennium of their glory,” “sacred” heritage, “no holier spot,” and “ground forever hallowed.”  As with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address,  such rhetoric  confuses the sacred and the secular.  It fuels a temptation to which none of us is immune: the temptation to conflate our identity as Christians with other loyalties and attachments.

But such language also speaks to a universal human longing.  No one is truly, completely happy, Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft observes.  Beneath the surface of our lives, with its innumerable distractions and diversions, “the deep hunger of [our] hearts remains unsatisfied.”  We reflect on life and, in our unguarded moments, we are haunted by a recurring question: “Is this all there is?”  The reason, Kreeft goes on to explain, is that “we are not supposed to be happy here.”  This is not our home.  “You made us for Yourself,”  Augustine of Hippo concluded nearly sixteen centuries ago.  “Our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”

And yet we commonly cope with our heart hunger through self-deception,  convincing ourselves that we can find meaning and purpose, fulfillment and transcendence in this life alone.  As Christians, we are free to give a conditional loyalty to the state, but not our ultimate loyalty.  All too often, the monuments at Gettysburg that speak to the battle’s larger meaning imply that we can be the authors of our own immortality, and that the key to our doing so lies in our making sacrifices to the state.  Christian scholar Wilfred McClay has written recently that, because “human beings are naturally inclined toward religion . . . we have an incorrigible need to relate secular things to ultimate purposes.”  Gettysburg’s monuments remind us that, because we are fallen, we are naturally tempted to equate secular things and ultimate purposes.

But these are not the only voices that I heard at Gettysburg, for there were countless others raised during the battle itself.  Most of these cries from the heart are known only to God, but a fraction has survived in the soldiers’ own words, confessions made to contemporaries rather than declarations to posterity.  One stands out in my mind, the testimony of an unnamed, unknown soldier who bore witness to a different kind of response to the indescribable happenings on this field.

We know of this soldier only through the recollection of another, Confederate Captain George Hillyer of the Ninth Georgia Infantry, a regiment in Anderson’s brigade of Hood’s division of Longstreet’s corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Twenty-nine miles from Gettysburg when the fighting began on July 1st, they had marched all day and night and arrived on the field just before daylight on the 2nd.  After spending the morning lying in a stand of woods due west of the Round Tops, in the afternoon Hillyer’s company was part of the general Confederate attack on the Union left.  After making it almost to the base of Little Round Top, the Ninth Georgia was forced to withdraw, and Hillyer and his exhausted and bloodied company spent the night within earshot of Farmer Rose’s wheat field, a twenty-six-acre expanse that had been the site of some of the day’s fiercest fighting.  As the sun went down, the wheat field was a kind of “no-man’s land” between the contending armies, with perhaps as many as four thousand dead and wounded soldiers now carpeting the flattened grain.

And in the midst of that hellish scene, Hillyer marveled to hear one of the men between the lines begin to sing.  “He was probably a boy raised in some religious home in the South,” Hillyer recalled later, “where the good old hymns were the standard music.”  There were “thousands of desperately wounded men lying on the ground within easy hearing of the singer,” the captain observed, “and as his voice rang out like a flute . . . not only the wounded, but also five or ten thousand and maybe more of the men of both armies could hear and distinguish the words.”  The lines that they heard had been penned four decades earlier by an Irish poet named Thomas Moore and then set to music and published in 1831:

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish; / Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel; / Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; / Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

This is the voice that I will remember most from my visit to Gettysburg.  To take the past seriously is to put our own lives to the test, and the conversations at Gettysburg do just that, pressing us with hard, discomfiting questions: What do we value?  In what do we hope?  Where do we find meaning?  The answers  etched here in granite are noble, but they are also earthbound, temporal.  Far more challenging, far more convicting, far more comforting, far more hopeful is the response on the lips of this unknown soldier.  Sung in darkness amid death and despair, it is both historical occurrence and spiritual metaphor, an echo of God’s invitation to a bruised and hurting world.

Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel . . .

The Wheat Field at sunset.

The Wheat Field at sunset.