Tag Archives: Edward Winslow

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY–PART ONE

Some time ago an interviewer asked me to identify the most surprising thing I had learned in my study of the “First Thanksgiving.” I replied that the discoveries that interested me most had less to do with the actual 1621 celebration than with the way that American memory of the event had changed over time.  Although when I began this Countdown to Thanksgiving I said I would only  post on weekdays, I’ve decided to share some “bonus” reflections on how Americans have remembered the First Thanksgiving over the last four centuries.  Look for two posts this weekend, with two more on the topic a week from now. 

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In recent years I’ve become more and more fascinated with popular historical memory.  It’s an odd phenomenon, really.  By definition, it exists at the intersection between past and present.  In the best case, it’s informed (at least somewhat) by historical evidence, but it’s always influenced by the contemporary context as well.  This means that one of the best ways to track the changing values of a culture is to examine how popular memory of a particular historical event differs over time.  The memory of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving is a case in point.  In the next few posts I thought I’d show you what I mean, drawing from research that I conducted for my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

The history of popular memory of the First Thanksgiving falls neatly into two broad periods separated by a crucial event in the year 1841.  The first of the two is the simplest to characterize.  For 220 years after the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no one remembered the event that later generations would recall as a defining episode in the founding of America.  To our knowledge, there was only one contemporary record made of the event.  Sometime shortly after the celebration, a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow wrote a letter back to an acquaintance in England in which he sketched how the passengers of the Mayflower had fared since their arrival at Plymouth.  In the course of that letter, which was published as part of pamphlet in 1622, Winslow included a 115-word description of the event we now remember as the “First Thanksgiving.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651. Winslow sat for the portrait while in England, three decades after penning the only first-hand account of the First Thanksgiving.

The pamphlet containing the description was published in England under the modest title A Relation or Journall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Setled at Plimoth in New England, by Certaine English Adventurers both Merchants and Others, with the Difficult Passage, their Safe Arrivall, their Joyfull Building of, and Comfortable Planting Themselves in the Now Well Defended Towne of New Plimoth.  The printer who actually published the book was one “G. Mourt,” and the pamphlet has been known ever by the mercifully shorter title Mourt’s Relation.  (In the seventeenth century, “relation” was another word for “report” or “account.)

Rare in England, Mourt’s Relation was rarer still in the American colonies, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century there was probably not a single copy of it in all of New England.  With neither oral tradition nor a written record to keep it alive, the 1621 event gradually faded until it vanished entirely.

The opposite was true of Thanksgiving itself.  As memory of the First Thanksgiving died away, the celebration of Thanksgiving became more popular, not less.  The original Pilgrims had been very skeptical of regular holy days.  (Remember that our word “holiday” is just an elision of the two words “holy day.”)  The Pilgrims associated regular holidays with the perceived abuses of Catholicism, and in general the only true holy day that they celebrated regularly was the Lord’s Day every Sunday.  Their descendants, however, gradually forgot or rejected their ancestors’ hostility to regularly scheduled holidays.  By the 1690s they had adopted a pattern of annual springtime Fast Days, to beseech God’s blessing on the crop about to be planted, and autumn Thanksgiving Days, in which they thanked the Lord for the harvest just past.

While the custom of springtime fasts never caught on elsewhere, the celebration of regular autumn Thanksgivings spread across New England during the eighteenth century, expanded to the Midwest after the War of 1812, and began to catch on in the Upper South by the 1840s.  Thanksgiving was becoming a beloved American holiday, just not one linked to the Pilgrims.

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

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

Since the late-18th century the Pilgrims had been growing in importance in American memory, but the part that they played in the national story was as generic “founders” or “forefathers.”  Thinking of their national story as a series of dramatic images, Americans imagined the Pilgrims huddled on Plymouth Rock, not gathered around the Thanksgiving table.  Out of 223 colonial or state thanksgiving proclamations I have located from the years 1676-1840, not a single one refers to the Pilgrims, even euphemistically.  It was as if the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration had never occurred.  Americans thought of their Thanksgiving tradition as coming mainly from New England Puritans but did not think of it as originating in a particular historical moment.  As late as 1840, the “First Thanksgiving” was simply not a part of historical memory.

It became a part of popular historical memory not in 1621 but in 1841, the year that Edward Winslow’s account of the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration reentered the historical record.  The key figure in the process was the Reverend Alexander Young, a New England-born Unitarian minister with a passion for local history.  Working with a copy of Mourt’s Relation discovered in Philadelphia a generation earlier, Young included the text of the pamphlet in a compilation of historical documents he titled Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers.  The reverend appended his own explanatory notes to the manuscript, and when he came to Winslow’s description of the Pilgrims’ celebration, the clergyman explained to his audience that what they were reading was an account of the “first thanksgiving . . . of New England.”

Even though Americans now were aware of the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration, it would be a long time—generations, in fact—before the American people widely credited the Pilgrims as the founders of their Thanksgiving tradition.  In my next post I will explain why that was so.

WHY THE PILGRIMS WOULD HAVE BEEN HORRIFIED BY THE NATIONAL MONUMENT TO THE FOREFATHERS

THIRTEEN days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. In my last two posts I offered an extended review of one popular Christian assessment of the Pilgrims’ world view: Kirk Cameron’s 2012 documentary Monumental.  Before moving on, I thought I should offer my own take on the monument that the documentary centers on: The National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

I had the privilege of visiting the monument when I was doing research on the Pilgrims several years ago, and I walked away with a very different set of reflections than those of Cameron and his co-producer, “Dr.” Marshall Foster.  Rather than try to paraphrase them now, I offer below an excerpt from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History:

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In 1889, the townspeople of Plymouth dedicated a memorial to the “forefathers” who had settled there two hundred and sixty-nine years earlier. I sought it out when I visited Plymouth a few years ago. It stands a bit off the beaten track, in the midst of a residential area perhaps a mile northwest of the tourist district around Plymouth Rock. Known as the National Monument to the Forefathers, the memorial rises eight stories above the surrounding neighborhood.

National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth Massachusetts

National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth Massachusetts

Sculpted from three hundred tons of New England granite, it features a massive octagonal pedestal surmounted by a thirty-six-foot tall female figure labeled “Faith.” Reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty, she faces Plymouth Harbor with a Bible in her left hand, her right hand pointing skyward to symbolize the Pilgrims’ hope of heaven. Seated in a circle around the pedestal are four other immense figures, each classically draped (think “togas”) and bearing the names Liberty, Law, Education, and Morality.

[The sculpture] is an impressive artistic feat, and in its own way, inspiring. Yet, as a historian, as I stood there I couldn’t help thinking of the monument as a metaphor for how we sometimes approach the past. We prefer our heroes larger than life, uncomplicated and unflawed. Thus, without ever doing so consciously, we often refashion the real but flawed heroes we encounter into the very embodiment of the virtues we seek to uphold. When we’re finished, “sons of Adam” have become Greek gods.

In truth, there is much to admire about the “company of plain Englishmen” who disembarked from the Mayflower almost four centuries ago. They were men and women of deep conviction, uneasily daunted, willing to suffer for principle’s sake. They exhibited enormous courage, and they persevered in the face of unspeakable hardship and loss. They loved their children, they loved the body of Christ, and they abandoned everything that was familiar to them in order to serve both.

There is an expression of sacrificial love here that both humbles and inspires. If in a sense the Pilgrims are our adopted ancestors, then they have bequeathed to us an invaluable Christian example of belief, action, and endurance, and we do well to remember it.

And yet the human frailty that [Pilgrim Deacon] Robert Cushman alluded to is an important part of the Pilgrims’ story as well. They argued among themselves. They were too trusting, frequently duped both by strangers and purported friends. They were ethnocentric and sometimes self-righteous.

They struggled with their finances. (It took them twenty-eight years to repay the London merchants who bankrolled their venture.) They came to America as “tenderfeet,” unprepared to succeed as fishermen, expecting a climate like that of the French Riviera, and thinking that they had settled on an island for more than a year after their arrival. They were frightened by wolves. They got lost in the woods. (Shortly after first going ashore, William Bradford was caught by an Indian deer trap and dangled helplessly upside down, but to my knowledge there is no monument commemorating that.)

In years to come, they would have a hard time keeping a pastor, their elder’s son-in-law would embezzle from them, and many of their number would move away in search of larger farms, prompting William Bradford to speak of the Plymouth church as “an ancient mother grown old and forsaken of her children.”

But why mention these latter things? Why not just concentrate on the positive? Years ago I spoke at a luncheon sponsored by a national patriotic organization, and during the meal my host, who was himself a Christian, asked me just that. I wasn’t prepared for his question and I stumbled in my reply. If we could repeat that conversation today I would offer three reasons why a balanced approach is preferable.

The first is a simple commitment to honesty. As Christian scholar Ronald Wells points out, honest history “means more than merely telling the truth in factual terms but also telling the truth in all its complexity and ambiguity.”

Second, in acknowledging the frailties of history’s heroes we’re also conveying a more accurate representation of human nature. “Monumental” history—history that glosses over human weaknesses and shortcomings—is not just inaccurate. It teaches bad theology, leaving no room for the lingering effects of sin in the hearts of the figures we admire. It’s particularly ironic when applied to the Pilgrims, for they were steeped in a Reformed Protestant worldview that mocked all pretensions to perfectibility.

“Can those who are converted to God perfectly keep [His] commandments?” asked the Heidelberg Catechism, a Protestant confession popular in Holland when the Pilgrims were in Leiden. “No,” came back the answer; “but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience.” In even stronger language, John Calvin had insisted that Christians carry the “remains of imperfection” to the grave. Let the “holy servant of God” ponder the action in his life “which he deems most excellent,” Calvin wrote in the Institutes, and “he will doubtless find in it something that savors of the rottenness of the flesh.”

When Paul and Barnabas learned that the pagans at Lystra wanted to offer sacrifices to them, they tore their clothes and cried out, “Why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you” (Acts 14:15). I think many of the Pilgrims would have reacted similarly to the National Monument to the Forefathers.

Third and finally, when we make room for our heroes’ frailties in our narratives of the past, we at the same time make greater room for God’s glory. Remember the Lord’s words to Paul: “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). As one contemporary Christian author has commented, it is not our weakness that inhibits God’s working in us so much as our “delusions of strength.”

The Pilgrims had no such delusions. “Our voyage . . . hath been as full of crosses as ourselves have been of crookedness,” Deacon Robert Cushman confessed, “but God can do much.” “How few, weak, and raw were we at our first beginning,” Pilgrim Edward Winslow recalled, “and yet God preserved us.” “What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace?” Governor William Bradford asked in wonder. Throughout his history [Of Plymouth Plantation] Bradford seems to glory in the Pilgrims’ weakness, but his object in doing so is clear:

 . . . that their children may see with what difficulties their fathers wrestled in going through these things in their first beginnings; and how God brought them along, notwithstanding all their weaknesses and infirmities.

First Thanksgiving

HISTORY, THE PAST, AND THE STUFF WE MAKE UP: WILLIAM BRADFORD’S FRAUDULENT THANKSGIVING PROCLAMATION

TWENTY-ONE days to Thanksgiving and counting.  As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory.  The essay below ruminates on the Great Thanksgiving Hoax, a spurious Thanksgiving proclamation attributed to Pilgrim Governor William Bradford that has been making the rounds for decades.

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The First Thanksgiving--Jean Louis Ferris

The First Thanksgiving–Jean Louis Ferris

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 decades.  The earliest publication of it that I have come across is from the Chicago Daily Tribune in November 1939, and it may actually be much older.  More recently, in 1985 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 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, Christians longing for firm evidence of America’s religious roots will find much to admire in the spurious 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.

WHEN FICTION BECOMES FACT: THE NOVEL THAT TAUGHT AMERICANS ABOUT THE FIRST THANKSGIVING

In my last post I noted that Americans have long been tempted to make up stuff about the First Thanksgiving.  This is true, in part, because so little evidence about the event has survived.  The only surviving firsthand account of the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration comes from the pen of Pilgrim Edward Winslow, who wrote the following brief description in a letter to England not long afterward:

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 don’t give us a whole lot to go on, do they?  And yet Americans have constructed quite an elaborate edifice on this flimsy foundation.

In actuality, much of what might be called the “traditional” memory of the Pilgrim’s 1621 celebration dates from the late-nineteenth century.  This was a time when “television was called books,” to quote the grandfather in The Princess Bride, and no book was more successful in making the First Thanksgiving “come alive” than a best-selling historical novel by Jane Austin.

Jane G. Austin

Jane G. Austin

No, not Jane Austen, the early-nineteenth century British writer famous for novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.  I’m referring to Jane Austin (notice the different spelling of the last name), the late-nineteenth century American author of such literary classics as A Nameless Nobleman, Mrs. Beauchamp Brown, and Nantucket Scraps.  In 1889 this fifty-eight-year-old New England wife and mother penned Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims, and in the process created a stereotypical view of the First Thanksgiving that has lasted for generations.

Austin promised her readers that they would “not be misled as to facts, though these be strung upon a slender thread of romance.”  In reality, romance dominates the plot, and as for the facts, well, let’s just say that they were few and far between.  Historical novels always involve some combination of fact and faction, but Austin embellished the historical record with a vengeance.  This was particularly true of her chapter on “The First Thanksgiving of New England,” where she had few known facts to constrain her and could let her imagination run wild.  My own (conservative) guess would be that 99 percent of the material in this chapter is pure invention.

To begin with, there is a pervasive romantic tension that reads like the script of a network soap opera.  In this one single chapter (out of forty) we learn that John Howland is interested in Elizabeth Tilley (and that both enjoy popcorn); that the widower Bradford has apparently been making eyes at Mary Chilton; that the widower Allerton has proposed unsuccessfully to Priscilla Mullins; that Priscilla only has eyes for John Alden, though he has yet to succumb to her “saucy” and “bewitching” glances; that Myles Standish is infatuated with Priscilla; and that Standish is secretly admired by Desire Minter, who has enlisted the aid of an Indian woman in brewing a love potion that will win his affections.  “Slender thread” indeed.

Significantly, Austin also creatively embellished Winslow’s skeletal description of the Pilgrims’ celebration.  She tells us which four men the governor sent hunting, who was dispatched to invite Massasoit, which three men welcomed the Indians when they arrived at sunrise on a Thursday morning, what Edward Winslow was doing at that precise moment (he was buttoning his doublet), and what Massasoit’s brother thought to himself as he marveled at the Pilgrims’ marksmanship.

As Austen tells the story, however, the Indians soon recede into the background, and this Victorian housewife reserves her most lavish detail for the imagined culinary accomplishments and domestic sensibilities of the Pilgrim womenfolk.  We read that “by noon the long tables were spread” in the most idyllic of settings, as “the thick yellow sunshine filtered through with just warmth enough for comfort, and the sighing southerly breeze brought wafts of perfume from the forest.”  The menu for the banquet would have done honor to a Boston hotel.  There were numerous enormous turkeys, of course (“more succulent” than “any I ever saw at home,” according to John Alden), perfectly complemented by Priscilla Alden’s beechnut stuffing.  But there was much, much more:

The oysters in the scallop shells were a singular success [the ladies had fried the oysters in a mixture of bread crumbs, spices, and wine, and placed a serving of the delicacy in a clamshell at each man’s place], and so were the mighty venison pasties, and the savory stew compounded of all that flies the air, and all that flies the hunter in Plymouth woods, no longer flying now but swimming in a glorious broth cunningly seasoned by Priscilla’s anxious hand, and thick bestead with dumplings of barley flour, light, toothsome, and satisfying.  Besides there were roasts of various kinds, and thin cakes of bread or manchets [loaves or rolls made from the finest wheat flour], and bowls of salad set off with wreaths of autumn leaves laid around them, and great baskets of grapes, white and purple, and of the native plum, so delicious when fully ripe in its three colors of black, white, and red.

Martha Stewart, meet Priscilla Alden.

You’ve got to give Austin credit for a lively imagination, and in truth, the problem with Standish of Standish doesn’t lie in its grandiose embellishment of the historical record, per se.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with historical fiction as long as we know that’s what we’re getting.  Austin was far from candid about the extent of her embellishment, however, and we can only wonder how long her nose grew when she promised her readers that they would “not be misled as to facts.”  What is certain is that the public adored how she made the past come alive.

Austin’s novel went through twenty-eight printings and has shaped popular memories of the First Thanksgiving ever since.  In 1897 the national magazine Ladies’ Home Journal drew heavily from Austin’s novel for an article titled “The First Thanksgiving Dinner.”  Only eight years after the publication of Standish of Standish, Austin’s fictional recreation was so widely accepted that the magazine repeated her details as unquestioned historical fact.

W.L. Taylor, 1897

W.L. Taylor, 1897

The Journal did add one important contribution to the story, however.  While Standish of Standish had included no illustrations, the magazine’s article was headed by a sketch from an artist named W. L. Taylor.  The drawing, widely reproduced and imitated, featured the now familiar portrayal of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag seated at a heavily-laden banquet table, the Indians obviously uncomfortable in such a formal setting, the Pilgrims—decked out in black suits, white lace collars, and high steepled hats—much more at ease.

The stereotype was now complete.

 

A FIRST THANKSGIVING HOAX

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.

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THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY–PART TWO

In my last post I began a quick sketch of how American memory of the First Thanksgiving has changed over time. And it definitely has changed, and changed dramatically.

In every class that I teach here at Wheaton College, one of the first principles that I try to drive home to my students is the fundamental distinction between history and the past. The past is everything that has been said and thought and done until now. God knows the past perfectly and exhaustively. We don’t. Indeed, a great deal of the past has been lost to us. What we call history is best defined as that portion of the past that we remember, thanks to insights from historical documents, material artifacts, and oral tradition.

I mention this now because, for most of the first 220 years after the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no Americans remembered it. There had never been but a handful of American copies of Mourt’s Relation, the 1622 pamphlet that contained the sole description of the event, and memory of the celebration gradually faded. As late as 1840, the “First Thanksgiving” was not a part of American memory. By that time Thanksgiving had come to be a much loved holiday in New England, but New Englanders didn’t think of the holiday as perpetuating a tradition begun by the Pilgrims in 1621. Celebrating Thanksgiving was just what New England folk did every autumn. As far as anyone knew, it was what they had always done.

It is no coincidence that Jennie Brownscombe's famous painting of the First Thanksgiving dates from the 20th century, not earlier.

It is no coincidence that Jennie Brownscombe’s famous painting of the First Thanksgiving dates from the 20th century, not earlier.

This began to change around 1841, when Pilgrim Edward Winslow’s 115-word account of the 1621 feast was discovered and reprinted in a history book titled Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. The result was that Americans gradually became more and more aware of the Pilgrims’ celebration. Notice I said aware, not impressed. Generations would pass before Americans widely embraced the story of the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving as an important chapter in the early history of America. So why was this?

I can think of three reasons. For starters, Winslow’s account showed that the Wampanoag Indians had played a prominent role in the Pilgrims’ celebration. Winslow had devoted only one sentence to the Wampanoag, but that lone sentence made two disturbing facts undeniable: the majority of those present at the “First Thanksgiving” had been Indians, not Pilgrims, and the two groups had interacted peacefully.

The revelation was jarring, especially outside of the Northeast. In 1841, Thanksgiving was still almost exclusively a northern holiday, flourishing particularly in New England and in areas farther west to which New Englanders had migrated in large numbers. In New England—where few Native Americans remained in 1841—it was possible for Yankees to romanticize the “noble savage” and to imagine a carefully circumscribed role for Indians in their beloved regional holiday. Elsewhere this was far from easy.

In 1841 the southeastern United states was only three years removed from the infamous “Trail of Tears,” the forced relocation of the Cherokee Indians from Georgia to Oklahoma that had resulted in more than four thousand Cherokee deaths. West of the Mississippi, violence would continue to punctuate Indian-white relations for another two generations, on scattered battlefields with evocative names like Sand Creek, Little Big Horn, and Wounded Knee. Correspondingly, until long after the Civil War, most artistic representations of Thanksgiving that included Native Americans portrayed them as openly hostile, and it is no coincidence that the now familiar image of Indians and Pilgrims sitting around a common table dates from the early twentieth century. By that time America’s Indian wars were comfortably past, and it would begin to be broadly possible in the public mind to reinterpret the place of Native Americans at the Thanksgiving table. But that would come later. In 1841 the national policy toward Native Americans was not assimilation but removal, and in that respect the First Thanksgiving fit awkwardly in the national story.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims.  It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims. It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

Keep in mind also the growing sectional rivalry of the period. Winslow’s account of the 1621 celebration was republished just as tensions between North and South were beginning to mount. Unfortunately, fans of Thanksgiving had traditionally emphasized its regional ties. New England magazines and newspapers boasted that the holiday was “strictly one of New England origin.” The custom was “precious to every New-England man,” and without its recurrence “a Yankee could scarce comprehend that the year had passed.” More to the point, white southerners also associated the holiday with New England, and that made it suspect in their eyes. Even as it gradually expanded southward, there was a lingering tendency among southerners to think of Thanksgiving as a holiday invented by Pharisaical Yankees to take the place of Christmas, which Puritans had traditionally spurned.

New Englanders did little to make the holiday easier to swallow. From our twenty-first-century perspective, one of the striking things about Thanksgiving in antebellum America is how politicized it could be. For southern whites, it didn’t help that northern governors often endorsed the abolition of slavery in their annual proclamations, or that antislavery organizations sometimes took up collections at thanksgiving services, or that New England abolitionists wrote poetry linking the “Pilgrim Spirit” to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. (In 1859, Brown and a small band of followers occupied the federal arsenal in that place as the first step in an ill-defined plot to foment a slave uprising. Yankee educator Franklin Sanborn, a secret supporter of Brown’s scheme, penned a tribute to the antislavery zealot, noting that “the Pilgrim Fathers’ earnest creed . . . inspired this hero’s noblest deed.”)

As the crisis of the Union came to a head, the Richmond Daily Dispatch surely spoke for many southerners in mocking New England’s favorite holiday. When a New York newspaper reported that the newly elected Abraham Lincoln had celebrated the holiday “like the rest of Anglo-Saxon mankind,” the editor of the Dispatch erupted. Thanksgiving was unknown outside “a few Yankee Doodle States,” he insisted with some exaggeration, “but it is a common notion of New England, that it is the hub of the whole creation, the axis of the entire universe, and that when it thanks God that it is not as other men, everybody else is doing the same. . . . What a race these sycophants are!”

A final reason for the Pilgrims’ limited usefulness to mid-nineteenth century Americans, I believe, is that they had come to celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that the Pilgrims would not have recognized, much less approved. This had not been intentional. Americans’ Thanksgiving traditions had developed while the country knew nothing about the First Thanksgiving. And then, after two centuries, in the span of less than two decades the veil was pulled back. The first step had been the republication of Mourt’s Relation, but much more was involved. A decade later came the release of three volumes of writings and sermons from the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson. Five years after that came the dramatic publication of Pilgrim Governor William Bradford’s long-lost history Of Plymouth Plantation.

Collectively, these sources revealed that the Pilgrims had roundly criticized the Church of England for its numerous annual holidays. All three underscored the Pilgrims’ conviction that Days of Thanksgiving should be proclaimed irregularly and should center on public worship. Unfortunately for the Pilgrims’ popularity, mid-nineteenth-century Americans had precisely reversed these criteria. By the eve of the Civil War, the “traditional American Thanksgiving” was a regularly scheduled celebration centered inside the home.

If the Pilgrims’ story was to become an important part of Thanksgiving, there was much that would have to change.  We’ll talk about those changes next time.

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THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY, PART ONE

An interviewer recently asked me to identify the most surprising thing I had learned in my study of the “First Thanksgiving.” I replied that the discoveries that interested me most had less to do with the actual 1621 celebration than with the way that American memory of the event had changed over time.

In recent years I’ve become more and more fascinated with popular historical memory.  It’s an odd phenomenon, really.  By definition, it exists at the intersection between past and present.  In the best case, it’s informed (at least somewhat) by historical evidence, but it’s always influenced by the contemporary context as well.  This means that one of the best ways to track the changing values of a culture is to examine how popular memory of a particular historical event differs over time.  The memory of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving is a case in point.  In the next few posts I thought I’d show you what I mean, drawing from research that I conducted for my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

The history of popular memory of the First Thanksgiving falls neatly into two broad periods separated by a crucial event in the year 1841.  The first of the two is the simplest to characterize.  For 220 years after the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no one remembered the event that later generations would recall as a defining episode in the founding of America.  To our knowledge, there was only one contemporary record made of the event.  Sometime shortly after the celebration, a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow wrote a letter back to an acquaintance in England in which he sketched how the passengers of the Mayflower had fared since their arrival at Plymouth.  In the course of that letter, which was published as part of pamphlet in 1622, Winslow included a 115-word description of the event we now remember as the “First Thanksgiving.”

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

Edward Winslow, unknown artist, 1651

The pamphlet containing the description was published in England under the modest title A Relation or Journall of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Setled at Plimoth in New England, by Certaine English Adventurers both Merchants and Others, with the Difficult Passage, their Safe Arrivall, their Joyfull Building of, and Comfortable Planting Themselves in the Now Well Defended Towne of New Plimoth.  The printer who actually published the book was one “G. Mourt,” and the pamphlet has been known ever by the mercifully shorter title Mourt’s Relation.  (In the seventeenth century, “relation” was another word for “report” or “account.)

Rare in England, Mourt’s Relation was rarer still in the American colonies, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century there was probably not a single copy of it in all of New England.  With neither oral tradition nor a written record to keep it alive, the 1621 event gradually faded until it vanished entirely.

The opposite was true of Thanksgiving itself.  As memory of the First Thanksgiving died away, the celebration of Thanksgiving became more popular, not less.  The original Pilgrims had been very skeptical of regular holy days.  (Remember that our word “holiday” is just an elision of the two words “holy day.”)  The Pilgrims associated regular holidays with the perceived abuses of Catholicism, and in general the only true holy day that they celebrated regularly was the Lord’s Day every Sunday.  Their descendants, however, gradually forgot or rejected their ancestors’ hostility to regularly scheduled holidays.  By the 1690s they had adopted a pattern of annual springtime Fast Days, to beseech God’s blessing on the crop about to be planted, and autumn Thanksgiving Days, in which they thanked the Lord for the harvest just past.

While the custom of springtime fasts never caught on elsewhere, the celebration of regular autumn Thanksgivings spread across New England during the eighteenth century, expanded to the Midwest after the War of 1812, and began to catch on in the Upper South by the 1840s.  Thanksgiving was becoming a beloved American holiday, just not one linked to the Pilgrims.

Since the late-18th century the Pilgrims had been growing in importance in American memory, but the part that they played in the national story was as generic “founders” or “forefathers.”  Thinking of their national story as a series of dramatic images, Americans imagined the Pilgrims huddled on Plymouth Rock, not gathered around the Thanksgiving table.  Out of 223 colonial or state thanksgiving proclamations I have located from the years 1676-1840, not a single one refers to the Pilgrims, even euphemistically.  It was as if the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration had never occurred.  Americans thought of their Thanksgiving tradition as coming mainly from New England Puritans but did not think of it as originating in a particular historical moment.  As late as 1840, the “First Thanksgiving” was simply not a part of historical memory.

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

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

It became a part of popular historical memory not in 1621 but in 1841, the year that Edward Winslow’s account of the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration reentered the historical record.  The key figure in the process was the Reverend Alexander Young, a New England-born Unitarian minister with a passion for local history.  Working with a copy of Mourt’s Relation discovered in Philadelphia a generation earlier, Young included the text of the pamphlet in a compilation of historical documents he titled Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers.  The reverend appended his own explanatory notes to the manuscript, and when he came to Winslow’s description of the Pilgrims’ celebration, the clergyman explained to his audience that what they were reading was an account of the “first thanksgiving . . . of New England.”

Even though Americans now were aware of the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration, it would be a long time—generations, in fact—before the American people widely credited the Pilgrims as the founders of their Thanksgiving tradition.  In my next post I will explain why that was so.

First Thanksgiving

THE PILGRIMS’ FIRST THANKSGIVING: REMEMBERING A DIFFERENT PART OF THE STORY (REPOST)

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

HOW THE PILGRIMS REPENTED OF SOCIALISM AND GAVE THANKS

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