History is not the past itself, but only that tiny portion of the past that human beings remember.  I’ve shared in a previous post the memorable word picture that C. S. Lewis has given us to illustrate that distinction.  In his essay “Historicism,” Lewis concluded that even a single moment involves more than we could ever document, much less comprehend.  He then went on to define the past in this way:

The past . . . in its reality, was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination.  By far the greater part of this teeming reality escaped human consciousness almost as soon as it occurred. . . . At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of “history” falls off the world into total oblivion.

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God,” Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us.  Only “those things which are revealed belong to us.”  If the past is a domain that God has created, then Lewis’s metaphor drives home a discomfiting truth: The Lord has chosen to keep most of the past hidden from us.

This is not a limitation we are disposed to accept.  We chafe against it, and when it suits our purposes, we fill in the gaps in God’s revelation with a “past” of our own imagining.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about imagining what the past might have been like, of course.  The problem comes when we mistake this imagined past for reality.  To say that this happens all the time would be an understatement.  Typically, only a portion of popular memory of the past is firmly grounded in historical evidence.  The other part—often the more entertaining part—consists of stuff somebody made up.

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Americans have long struggled with the temptation to make up stuff about the First Thanksgiving.  That is because we have loaded with great significance an event about which almost no firsthand evidence survives.  The only surviving firsthand account of a celebration in Plymouth in 1621 comes from the pen of Pilgrim Edward Winslow, an assistant to the Plymouth Colony’s governor, William Bradford.  Upon the arrival of a ship from England in November 1621, Winslow crafted a cover letter to accompany reports to be sent back to the London merchants who were financing the Pilgrims’ venture.  In his letter—the main purpose of which was to convince the investors that they weren’t throwing their money away—Winslow described the houses the Pilgrims had built, listed the crops they had planted, and emphasized the success they had been blessed with.  To underscore the latter, he added five sentences describing the abundance they now enjoyed.

Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling; that so we might, after a more special manner, rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours.  They four, in one day, killed as much fowl as, with a little help besides, served the Company almost a week.  At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our Arms; many of the Indians coming amongst us.  And amongst the rest, their greatest King, Massasoyt, with some ninety men; whom, for three days, we entertained and feasted.  And they went out, and killed five deer: which they brought to the Plantation; and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain, and others.

These 115 words constitute the sum total of contemporary evidence regarding the First Thanksgiving.  They’re evocative, but they’re also vague, and if we wanted to, we could compile a whole list of details commonly taken for granted about the occasion which we could never prove from Winslow’s brief description.  Why are we so sure that turkey was on the menu?  Why do we assume that the feast took place in November?  Why do we take for granted that the Indians were invited (instead of just crashing the party)?  Can we positively conclude that there was a religious dimension to the celebration?  Can we positively conclude that there was not?

There are a lot of gaps here that we’d like to have filled in.  In the words of the late radio and television commentator Paul Harvey, we want to know “the rest of the story.”

In my next post, I want to introduce you to a novelist that so successfully filled in the gaps that her fictional recreation of the First Thanksgiving soon became historical reality for a whole generation of Americans.  Before doing so, I want to point you briefly to a hoax that continues to mislead many of us who long for the rest of the story.

I first encountered William Bradford’s supposed First Thanksgiving Proclamation when my family and I enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner at the home of some dear friends from our church.  Knowing that I was a historian, the host pulled me aside before the meal to tell me that he had found the text of Governor Bradford’s proclamation calling for the First Thanksgiving, and that he planned to read it before asking the blessing.  Here is what he had found:

Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as he has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.

Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.

 William Bradford

Ye Governor of Ye Colony

Although I was uncomfortable contradicting my host, I felt compelled to tell him that this was a hoax.  Can you figure out why?  Its two short paragraphs are chock full of factual errors and anachronisms.  The proclamation gives the wrong year for the celebration, to begin with.  It refers to the colony’s “pastor,” although they didn’t have one for many years after settling in New England.  It uses language and concepts unknown to the Pilgrims, most notably the reference to the dictates of conscience, an 18th-century Enlightenment concept that the Pilgrims would have roundly rejected.  Comically, it alludes to “ye Pilgrim Rock,” a landmark unknown to the Pilgrims themselves and not mentioned for 120 years after they landed.

This obvious fabrication has been circulating in the United States for at least three decades, if not longer, and despite its glaring flaws it continues to be cited authoritatively.  The earliest allusion to it that I have come across is from 1985, when a White House speechwriter quoted from it in one of Ronald Reagan’s presidential Thanksgiving proclamations.  Since that time it has appeared (in whole or in part) in at least three books published by reputable presses, and it literally thrives on the internet, where it is reproduced ad infinitum.

The origin of this clumsy hoax will probably always be a mystery.  Why it has gained so much credence is easier to fathom: a lot of us want to believe it.  I don’t mean that we consciously embrace something we know to be false.  That’s probably pretty rare.  The temptation that most of us face is not to dishonesty but to what I would call willful gullibility—the readiness to accept uncritically what we want to be true.

So, for example, Americans distressed by increasing government intrusion in the free market are happy to read that the Pilgrims’ first autumn celebration supposedly came in 1623, rather than 1621.  Although seemingly a small point, the incorrect date mistakenly places the festival in the same year that the Pilgrims disregarded their agreement with their London financial backers and allocated individual plots of land to each household.

Thus, in best-selling books like Larry Schweikart’s 48 Liberal Lies About American History (ironically dedicated to “to those honest and ethical scholars everywhere who allow the evidence to determine their worldview, not the opposite”) we read that the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Lord’s granting of a bounteous harvest after a cruel winter.  By 1623 that was old news.  Instead, they celebrated because God had delivered them from the futility of socialism.

This is also the message of Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.   As Limbaugh put it in an earlier book, “Can you think of a more important lesson one could derive from the Pilgrim experience?”  It is no exaggeration to say that Limbaugh’s entire argument about the First Thanksgiving stands or falls with this fraudulent document.

Similarly, Christians longing for firm evidence of America’s religious roots have also welcomed the “proclamation.”  Whereas the William Bradford who authored Of Plymouth Plantation did not even mention the First Thanksgiving, the Bradford who penned this imaginary decree reassures us with comforting detail.  Leaving no doubt about the Christian underpinnings of the holiday, he expresses special gratitude for religious freedom and enjoins the Pilgrims to “render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all his blessings.”

It is no coincidence, I think, that most of the internet sites posting the proclamation are sponsored by Christian organizations, or that it lives on in books with titles like America’s God and Country or Putting God Back into the Holidays.  Not all of these organizations or authors are seeking ammunition for the culture wars—several simply want to encourage other Christians—but all share a (likely unconscious) willingness to suspend their critical faculties when they find historical evidence that serves their purposes.  Make no mistake: this is a tendency we’re all prone to.



  1. Planting Potatoes

    good read – it is a blessing to see someone actually giving space to Thanksgiving BEFORE rushing off to Christmas! Thank you and God bless!

  2. Reblogged this on Veracity and commented:
    I recently had dinner with some folks from another part of the country, where we talked about the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, soon to be followed by the famed “first ” Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, or thereabouts. Having grown up near Jamestown, Virginia, I am continually astounded when I hear that many Americans are completely ignorant about Jamestown as the first English settlement in the New World (1607), predating Plymouth Rock by thirteen years (1620). Furthermore, the thought that Virginia has had a “leg up” on the New Englanders with a Thanksgiving festival at Berkeley’s Hundred (1619) at least two years before the famous Pilgrim feast, comes as quite a surprise to many.

    But while New Englanders and Virginians can have a friendly quarrel over dates, it is probably more disturbing how well-intended Christians have at times variously modified the first Thanksgiving event to fit within a particular historical narrative. But as Wheaton College historian Robert Tracy McKenzie and author of the The First Thanksgiving argues, the tendency to change the story is generally not malicious in motive. Furthermore, many contemporary readings that try to secularize Thanksgiving history can be just as guilty! Rather there is this universal human proclivity to see things in a way we want to see them, which provides an incentive to fudge a bit on the sparse details. However, as believers in a faith where history is vitally important, it is worth it as Christians to try to set the record straight.

    In many ways, the story of how we have come to celebrate Thanksgiving is just as amazing as the original event itself.

    Over the past few weeks, Professor McKenzie has been blogging a number of posts regarding the theme of Thanksgiving and understandings of its history over time, such as the following one. I hope you enjoy it as you feast on your traditional “turnips and boiled eel” instead of turkey this year…

  3. Pingback: Robert McKenzie: A First Thanksgiving Hoax | The Anglican Priest

  4. Speaking of hoaxes, I have received a number of emails (mainly from conservative brethren) that pass on inaccurate or patently false stories designed to discredit prominent people including the President. At first I was tempted to just delete but then I realized that many others were receiving these emails and passing them on as if they were true. The internet has become rife with urban legends, etc. So I started checking web sites that identify these messages as true, partly true, or false. One such is snopes.com. Then, I could reply with accurate information and, in effect, warn people to check out the accuracy of what they pass on via email. This is just a small part of the “truthiness” problem but I do think Christians have the responsibility to try to set the record straight if we can.

  5. Thank you for reminding us of Winslow’s words, both for what they reveal and for what they leave out. (I suspect that the Indians crashed the party … but of course I don’t know that for sure.)

  6. Continuing to enjoy this series. I don’t ever recall running across the hoax “proclamation”, but it does inspire me to bring up an issue that I’d like to see you discuss in a post — when we hear things such as the “proclamation” being discussed among our friends or see someone refer to it on Facebook or hear our pastor mention it in a sermon, what do you feel is our responsibility as Christians to do about it?

    Do we let it go? Do we send them a note informing them of the error? I’m enough of a “history nerd” that if someone posts some kind of history hoax on Facebook (such as a friend did with a video out on YouTube called “The Star Spangled Banner As You’ve Never Heard It”). I posted that it was a hoax (or at least a HIGHLY misrepresented bit of history) and gave her a few factual errors in the piece.

    As Christians we are called to truth in all things, but there’s probably a lot of Christians that would have fits over someone throwing out untruths regarding Bible history, but don’t find it as important to be truthful in “regular” history. Or rather, they don’t see it as important – and maybe only as trivial – to be concerned with historical truth in something like the history of the Thanksgiving holiday. (I’m guessing John Fea’s ‘Why Study History?’ addresses these things, but I haven’t gotten that book yet.)

    I appreciate the example you provided of your friend and the proclamation. About 8-10 years ago I discovered that the narration embedded in a song that I sang for years in my youth/college/career choir at church was full of historical errors. The song was “What Price Freedom?”. I started doing internet research about the historical claims of the song due to a related email hoax (“the price they paid” hoax) that was floating around at the time (and still does) and was easily able to refute much of dramatic narrative in the song. It was quite a let-down…..I wanted it to be true because it was SO moving and even emotional.

    Sorry to ramble on, but I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this subject: As a Christian historian, what would be your challenge to we Christians in helping to correct some of these things? How should we handle historical error being propagated by (almost certainly unknowingly and with good, encouraging intentions) our fellow Christians?

    • Ed: This is a fantastic question. Let me give it some thought before responding. As you suggested, I might choose to reply by posting an essay on the question, hopefully shortly after Thanksgiving. Tracy

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