Thanksgiving is six weeks away, and it occurred to me that many of you may be looking for some good Thanksgiving-related reading in advance of the holiday. There are many books that you can choose from, but two in particular come immediately to my mind. The first–if you’ll forgive me for saying so–is my book 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 two years ago, and that is why, about seven years ago, I began my 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.
Go over to Amazon.com, however, and you’ll find a lot more buzz about a different Thanksgiving title. In what I can only attribute to God’s determination to keep me humble, the month after The First Thanksgiving was released, Rush Limbaugh came out with a book on the same topic: Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims. The book follows a middle-school history teacher named Rush Revere and his time-traveling, talking horse named Liberty. The pair go back to visit the Pilgrims in 1620 and 1621 and discover that they all would have voted Republican and opposed Obamacare.
Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims has been reviewed more than 4,200 times on Amazon.com, and 95% of reviewers give the work four or five stars. 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.” Last Autumn such giddy enthusiasm propelled the book temporarily to #2 on Amazon’s ranking of books, and even a year after its release it still sits comfortably in Amazon’s top 100, coming in at #38 as I write this. (My book is not far behind, standing at #57,589. I don’t know precisely how many titles Amazon claims to rank, but the total is well above 12 million–probably much higher.)
I have previously posted two extended essays on Limbaugh’s take on the Pilgrims (see here and here), so I am not going to cover that ground again. Suffice it to say that the book is pretty much a train wreck. I consider myself a political conservative, and so I take no pleasure in saying that, but the book has little redeeming value as a work of history, even for children. For Christian readers, the book should be positively offensive. In Rush’s revisionist re-telling, the First Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Pilgrim’s gratitude to God for bringing them through a deadly winter and blessing them with a bountiful harvest. In fact, it had little religious dimension at all. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag were instead celebrating how God had delivered them from the futility of socialism and alerted them to the benefits of free enterprise.
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.
If you listen to Limbaugh’s radio program (I’ll confess that I do occasionally), you know that he encourages his readers to buy his books in order to counteract the lies and half-truths that supposedly mar American history as it is taught in the public schools. With regard to the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving, I have no doubt that the real story is rarely told. But if you’re hoping to find a more accurate re-telling from a time-traveling talking horse, prepare to be disappointed.