Tag Archives: history

HOW THE PILGRIMS’ STORY MIGHT CHALLENGE AND CONVICT US

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you know that in past years I’ve bombarded readers all November long with essays on the history of Thanksgiving, most of them drawn from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  Because I’ve been taking a “sabbatical” from my blog this year, I’ve spared you that fate this time around, but I find that I can’t bring myself to let the holiday pass without sharing just a few of my favorite Thanksgiving posts.

Anytime I’m interviewed about the history of Thanksgiving, the interviewers always seem to try to direct the conversation to popular myths about the “First Thanksgiving,” with the tiresome result that we end up mostly talking about what the Pilgrims had to eat.  For my part, I’d rather discuss the far more important misconceptions most of us have about the Pilgrims: we tend to misunderstand why they came to America in the first place, how they saw themselves, and how they understood the celebration that we–not they–labeled the “First Thanksgiving.”  This week I am sharing some past posts that speak to those foundational questions.  I hope you enjoy.

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"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” George H. Boughton, 1867

Showing Us our Individualism

From where I stand, the most crucial things the Pilgrims have to say to us have nothing to do with Thanksgiving itself. For one thing, the Pilgrim ideal throws into bold relief the supreme individualism of modern American life. The Pilgrims saw the world in terms of groups—family, church, community, nation—and whatever we think of their view, the contrast drives home our own preoccupation with the individual. It was with Americans in mind that French writer Alexis de Tocqueville employed the term later translated as “individualism,” and the exaltation of the self that he observed in American society nearly two centuries ago has only grown relentlessly since.

The individual is now the constituent unit of American society, individual fulfillment holds sway as the highest good, individual conscience reigns as the highest authority. We conceive of adulthood as the absence of all accountability, define liberty as the elimination of all restraint, and measure the worth of social organizations—labor unions, clubs, political parties, even churches—by the degree to which they promote our individual agendas. In sum, as Christian writers Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon conclude, “our society is a vast supermarket of desire, in which each of us is encouraged to stand alone and go out and get what the world owes us.”

From across the centuries, the Pilgrims remind us that there is another way. They modeled their own ideals imperfectly, to be sure, for as the years passed in New England, they learned from experience what we have known but long ago forgotten, namely, that prosperity has a way of loosening the social ties that adversity forges. By 1644, so many of the original colonists had moved away in search of larger farms that William Bradford likened the dwindling Plymouth church to “an ancient mother grown old and forsaken of her children.”

And yet, in their finest moments, the Pilgrims’ example speaks to us, whispering the possibility that we have taken a wrong turn. Anticipating Hauerwas and Willimon, they observe our righteous-sounding commitment to be “true to ourselves” and pose the discomfiting question: “What if our true selves are made from the materials of our communal life?”

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

Showing Us our Worldliness

I think that meditating on the Pilgrims’ story might also show us our worldliness. “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” John the Apostle warns, referring to the hollow rewards held out to us by a moral order at enmity with God (I John 2:15). From our privileged perspective the Pilgrims lived in abject poverty, and imagining ourselves in their circumstances may help us to see more clearly, not only the sheer magnitude of pleasure and possessions that we take for granted, but also the power that they hold over our lives.

But for many of us the seductiveness of the world is more subtle than Madison Avenue’s message of hedonism and materialism. God has surrounded us with countless blessings that He wants us to enjoy: loving relationships, rewarding occupations, beautiful surroundings. Yet in our fallenness, we are tempted to convert such foretastes of eternity into ends in themselves, numbing our longing for God and causing us to “rest our hearts in this world,” as C. S. Lewis put it in The Problem of Pain. Here is where the Pilgrims speak to me loudly. It is not their poverty that I find most convicting, but their hope of heaven.

When I was three years old, my proud father, who was superintendent of the Sunday School in our small-town Baptist church, stood me on a chair in front of his Bible class so that I could regale the adults with a gospel hymn. (I know this because my mother was so fond of remembering it.) “When we all get to heaven,” I lisped enthusiastically, “What a day of rejoicing that will be. / When we all see Jesus, / We’ll sing and shout for victory.” On the whole, I don’t think American Christians sing much about heaven any more, much less long for it. I know that I do not, and I don’t think I’m alone.

After decades of talking with Christian young people about the afterlife, Wheaton College professor Wayne Martindale concluded that, “aside from hell, perhaps,” heaven “is the last place we . . . want to go.” This should give us pause, shouldn’t it, especially when we recall how largely heaven figures in New Testament teaching? “Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven” (Matthew 6:20), Jesus taught His disciples. On the very night He was betrayed He promised His followers that He would prepare a place for them and asked the Father that they might “be with Me where I am” (John 17:24). Paul reminds us of this “hope which is laid up for [us] in heaven” (Colossians 1:5). Peter writes of the “inheritance incorruptible and undefiled” that the Lord “has reserved” for us there (I Peter 1:4).

There are surely many reasons why we find it so hard to “set [our] minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2), including our misperceptions of heaven and our fear of the unknown, but one reason must also be how well off we are in this world. If “churchgoing Americans . . . don’t much want to go to Heaven,” Martindale conjectures, it may be because we feel so “comfortable” on earth. Our creature comforts abound, and for long stretches of time we are able to fool ourselves about the fragility of life. Modern American culture facilitates our self-deception through a conspiracy of silence. We tacitly agree not to discuss death, hiding away the lingering aged and expending our energies in a quest for perpetual youth.

Here the Pilgrims clearly have the advantage on us. In the world as they knew it, material comforts were scarce, daily existence was arduous, starvation was possible, and death was always near. Readily might they echo the apostle Paul: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (I Corinthians 15:19). What a consolation to believe that, when their “earthly house” had returned to the dust, they would inherit “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (II Corinthians 5:1). What a help, in time of heartache, to “lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country.” What a balm to their souls, to quote Bradford’s poignant prose, that “they knew they were pilgrims.”

“The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth,” Currier & Ives, 1876.

Reminding Us That We are Pilgrims

What difference would it make if such a realization were to penetrate our hearts today? I don’t think it would require that we become “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good,” as naysayers have sometimes suggested. Asserting that “a continual looking forward to the eternal world” is “one of the things a Christian is meant to do,” C. S. Lewis found in history the pattern that “the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” Indeed, in Lewis’s estimation, “It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in,’” he concluded. “Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

Rather than amounting to a form of escapism, “aiming at heaven” might actually enable us to see both ourselves and the world around us more clearly. To begin with, to know we are pilgrims is to understand our identity and, by extension, where our ultimate hope lies. This is something we struggle with, in my opinion.

American Christians over the years have been tempted to confuse patriotism and piety, confounding our national identity as citizens of the United States with our spiritual identity in Christ. We are to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), Paul enjoins us, and yet never forget that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:19). We should thank God daily for the blessings he has showered on our country, but to know we are pilgrims is to understand that our hope of “survival, success, and salvation” rests solely on our belonging to Christ, not our identity as Americans.

In contradiction to this truth, American culture calls us to be “well-adjusted citizens of the Kingdom of this world,” as Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft trenchantly observes. We who name the “name above all names” have all too often acquiesced, in part by convincing ourselves that, given America’s “Christian culture,” there were no hard choices to be made—that our religious and national identities were mutually reinforcing, if not downright indistinguishable.

But if knowing we are pilgrims means that our true citizenship is in heaven, it also means that we are “strangers” and “aliens” here on earth—yes, even in the United States—and this means, in turn, that we should expect the values of our host country to differ from those of our homeland. American Christians have adopted numerous ploys to obscure this reality, but one of the most influential has been the way we have remembered our past. One example of this is how we have distorted the Pilgrims’ story, clothing them with modern American values and making the future United States—not heaven—their true promised land.

WHY THE PILGRIMS REALLY CAME TO AMERICA

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you know that in past years I’ve bombarded readers all November long with essays on the history of Thanksgiving, most of them drawn from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  Because I’ve been taking a “sabbatical” from my blog this year, I’ve spared you that fate this time around, but I find that I can’t bring myself to let the holiday pass without sharing just a few of my favorite Thanksgiving posts.

Anytime I’m interviewed about the history of Thanksgiving, the interviewers always seem to try to direct the conversation to popular myths about the “First Thanksgiving,” with the tiresome result that we end up mostly talking about what the Pilgrims had to eat.  For my part, I’d rather discuss the far more important misconceptions most of us have about the Pilgrims: we tend to misunderstand why they came to America in the first place, how they saw themselves, and how they understood the celebration that we–not they–labeled the “First Thanksgiving.”  Between now and Thursday I thought I would share some past posts that speak to those foundational questions.  I hope you enjoy.

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In Search of Religious Freedom?

The belief that the Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom is inspiring, but in the sense that we usually mean it, it’s not really true. I’ve shared this reality numerous times since writing The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, and I almost always get pushback from the audience. That’s understandable, since most of us from our childhood have been raised to believe quite the opposite. But if we’re going to really learn from the Pilgrims’ story, we need to be willing to listen to them instead of putting words into their mouths.

One of my favorite all-time quotes is from Democracy in America where Alexis de Tocqueville observes, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” The Pilgrims’ motives for coming to America is a case in point.

The popular understanding that the Pilgrims came to America “in search of religious freedom” is technically true, but it is also misleading. It is technically true in that the freedom to worship according to the dictates of Scripture was at the very top of their list of priorities. They had already risked everything to escape religious persecution, and the majority never would have knowingly chosen a destination where they would once again wear the “yoke of antichristian bondage,” as they described their experience in England.

To say that the Pilgrims came “in search of” religious freedom is misleading, however, in that it implies that they lacked such liberty in Holland. Remember that the Pilgrims did not come to America directly from England. They had left England in 1608, locating briefly in Amsterdam before settling for more than a decade in Leiden. If a longing for religious freedom alone had compelled them, they might never have left that city. Years later, the Pilgrim’s governor, William Bradford, recalled that in Leiden God had allowed them “to come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any other church of these later times.” As Pilgrim Edward Winslow recalled, God had blessed them with “much peace and liberty” in Holland. They hoped to find “the like liberty” in their new home.

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

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

“Licentiousness” and “Hardness”

But that is not all that they hoped to find. Boiled down, the Pilgrims had two major complaints about their experience in Holland. First, they found it a hard place to raise their children. Dutch culture was too permissive, they believed. Bradford commented on “the great licentiousness of youth” in Holland and lamented the “evil examples” and “manifold temptations of the place.” Part of the problem was the Dutch parents. They gave their children too much freedom, Bradford’s nephew, Nathaniel Morton, explained, and Separatist parents could not give their own children “due correction without reproof or reproach from their neighbors.”

Compounding these challenges was what Bradford called “the hardness of the place.” If Holland was a hard place to raise strong families, it was an even harder place to make a living. Leiden was a crowded, rapidly growing city. Most houses were ridiculously small by our standards, some with no more than a couple hundred square feet of floor space. The typical weaver’s home was somewhat larger. It boasted three rooms—two on the main floor and one above—with a cistern under the main floor to collect rainwater, sometimes side by side with a pit for an indoor privy.

In contrast to the seasonal rhythms of farm life, the pace of work was long, intense, and unrelenting. Probably half or more of the Separatist families became textile workers. In this era before the industrial revolution, cloth production was still a decentralized, labor intensive process, with countless families carding, spinning, or weaving in their own homes from dawn to dusk, six days a week, merely to keep body and soul together. Hunger and want had become their taskmaster.

This life of “great labor and hard fare” was a threat to the church, Bradford repeatedly stressed. It discouraged Separatists in England from joining them, he believed, and tempted those in Leiden to return home. If religious freedom was to be thus linked with poverty, then there were some—too many—who would opt for the religious persecution of England over the religious freedom of Holland. And the challenge would only increase over time. Old age was creeping up on many of the congregation, indeed, was being hastened prematurely by “great and continual labor.” While the most resolute could endure such hardships in the prime of life, advancing age and declining strength would cause many either to “sink under their burdens” or reluctantly abandon the community in search of relief.

In explaining the Pilgrim’s decision to leave Holland, William Bradford stressed the Pilgrim’s economic circumstances more than any other factor, but it is important that we hear correctly what he was saying. Bradford was not telling us that the Pilgrims left for America in search of the “American Dream” or primarily to maximize their own individual well being.

"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” George H. Boughton, 1867

In Bradford’s telling, it is impossible to separate the Pilgrims’ concerns about either the effects of Dutch culture or their economic circumstances from their concerns for the survival of their church. The leaders of the Leiden congregation may not have feared religious persecution, but they saw spiritual danger and decline on the horizon.

The solution, the Pilgrim leaders believed, was to “take away these discouragements” by relocating to a place with greater economic opportunity as part of a cooperative mission to preserve their covenant community. If the congregation did not collectively “dislodge . . . to some place of better advantage,” and soon, the church seemed destined to erode like the banks of a stream, as one by one, families and individuals slipped away.

So where does this leave us? Were the Pilgrims coming to America to flee religious persecution? Not at all. Were they motivated by a religious impulse? Absolutely.  But why is it important to make these seemingly fine distinctions? Is this just another exercise in academic hair-splitting? I don’t think so. In fact, I think that the implications of getting the Pilgrims’ motives rights are huge.

Scorching Sun or Strangling Thorns?

As I re-read the Pilgrims’ words, I find myself meditating on Jesus’ parable of the sower. You remember how the sower casts his seed (the word of God), and it falls on multiple kinds of ground, not all of which prove fruitful. The seed that lands on stony ground sprouts immediately but the plant withers under the heat of the noonday sun, while the seed cast among thorns springs up and then is choked by the surrounding weeds. The former, Jesus explained to His disciples, represents those who receive the word gladly, but stumble “when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake” (Mark 4:17). The latter stands for those who allow the word to be choked by “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:19).

In emphasizing the Pilgrims’ “search for religious freedom,” we inadvertently make the primary menace in their story the heat of persecution. Persecution led them to leave England for Holland, but it was not the primary reason that they came to America. As the Pilgrim writers saw it, the principal threat to their congregation in Holland was not the scorching sun, but strangling thorns.

The difference matters, particularly if we’re approaching the Pilgrims’ moment in history as an opportunity to learn from them. It broadens the kind of conversation we have with them and makes it more relevant. When we hear of the Pilgrims’ resolve in the face of persecution, we may nod our heads admiringly and meditate on the courage of their convictions. Perhaps we will even ask ourselves how we would respond if, God forbid, we were to endure the same trial. And yet the danger seems so remote, the question so comfortably hypothetical. Whatever limitations we may chafe against in the public square, as Christians in the United States we don’t have to worry that the government will send us to prison unless we worship in the church that it chooses and interpret the Bible in the manner that it dictates.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that we never ask the question. Posing it can remind us to be grateful for the freedom we enjoy. It may inspire us to greater vigilance in preserving that freedom and heighten our concern for Christians around the world who cannot take such freedom for granted. These are good things. But I am suggesting that we not dwell overlong on the question. I’m dubious of the value of moral reflection that focuses on hypothetical circumstances. Avowals of how we would respond to imaginary adversity are worth pretty much what they cost us. Character isn’t forged in the abstract, but in the concrete crucible of everyday life, in the myriad mundane decisions that both shape and reveal the heart’s deepest loves.

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.  On the eve of WWI, Brownscombe's imaginative recreation of the "First Thanksgiving" helped link Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims 1621 celebration in the public mind.  Although full of historical inaccuracies, the artist did rightly portray the feast as a large, public, outdoor event.

“First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jeannie Brownscombe, 1914.

Here the Pilgrims’ struggle with “thorns” speaks to us. Compared to the dangers they faced in England, their hardships in Holland were so . . . ordinary. I don’t mean to minimize them, but merely to point out that they are difficulties we are more likely to relate to. They worried about their children’s future. They feared the effects of a corrupt and permissive culture. They had a hard time making ends meet. They wondered how they would provide for themselves in old age. Does any of this sound familiar?

And in contrast to their success in escaping persecution, they found the cares of the world much more difficult to evade. As it turned out, thorn bushes grew in the New World as well as the Old. In little more than a decade, William Bradford was concerned that economic circumstances were again weakening the fabric of the church. This time, ironically, the culprit was not the pressure of want but the prospect of wealth (“the deceitfulness of riches”?) as faithful members of the congregation left Plymouth in search of larger, more productive farms. A decade after that, Bradford was decrying the presence of gross immorality within the colony. Drunkenness and sexual sin had become so common, he lamented, that it caused him “to fear and tremble at the consideration of our corrupt natures.”

When we insist that the Pilgrims came to America “in search of religious freedom,” we tell their story in a way that they themselves wouldn’t recognize. In the process, we make their story primarily a source of ammunition for the culture wars. Frustrated by increasing governmental infringement on religious expression, we remind the unbelieving culture around us that “our forefathers” who “founded” this country were driven above all by a commitment to religious liberty.

But while we’re bludgeoning secularists with the Pilgrim story, we ignore the aspects of their story that might cast a light into our own hearts. They struggled with fundamental questions still relevant to us today: What is the true cost of discipleship? What must we sacrifice in pursuit of the kingdom? How can we “shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15) and keep ourselves “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27)? What sort of obligation do we owe our local churches, and how do we balance that duty with family commitments and individual desires? What does it look like to “seek first the kingdom of God” and can we really trust God to provide for all our other needs?

As Christians, these are crucial questions we need to revisit regularly. We might even consider discussing them with our families tomorrow as part of our Thanksgiving celebrations.

First Thanksgiving

PROTECTING THE DEAD . . . ON VETERANS’ DAY AND ALL DAYS

Before Veteran’s Day is over, I thought I would repost two passages from my commonplace book that always come to mind on this day.  Both come from Wendell Berry’s marvelous novel Hannah CoulterHannah Coulter is set in the tiny hamlet of Port William and brings that fictional community to life through the memories of an aged farm wife. Chronologically, the novel spans the period from the Great Depression through the close of the twentieth century, but the emotional heart of the novel grapples with the personal effects of the Second World War.

Toward the end of her recollections, Hannah relates that she “married the war twice, you might say, once in ignorance, once in knowledge.” She married her first true love, Virgil Feltner, just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Virgil entered the army in 1942 but didn’t come home, falling at the Battle of the Bulge. In 1948 she married another local GI, Nathan Coulter, who did come home but was forever marked by what he had experienced.

Hannah’s reflections about her second husband remind me of my own father’s unwillingness—or inability—to share about his wartime experiences. And so I was deeply moved to read Hannah’s reflections on Nathan’s half-century-long silence:

He did not talk about it, I understood, because it was painful to remember; and for the same reason I did not ask him about it. . . . Nathan was not the only one who was in it, who survived it and came home from it and did not talk about it. There were several from Port William who went and fought and came home and lived to be old men here, whose memories contained in silence the farthest distances of the world, terrible sights, terrible sufferings. Some of them were heroes. And they said not a word. They stood among us like monuments without inscriptions. They said nothing or said little because we have barely a language for what they knew, and they could not bear the pain of talking of their knowledge in even so poor a language as we have.

If this passage speaks to me as the son of one of these “monuments without inscriptions,” a second passage now in my commonplace book speaks to anyone who wishes to take the past seriously. Much earlier in the novel, Hannah shares some of what went through her mind after news arrived of the death of her first husband, Virgil:

Grieved as I was, half destroyed as I sometimes felt myself to be, I didn’t get mad about Virgil’s death. Who was there to get mad at? It would be like getting mad at the world, or at God. What made me mad, and still does, were the people who took it on themselves to speak for him after he was dead. I dislike for the dead to be made to agree with whatever some powerful living person wants to say. Was Virgil a hero? In his dying was he willing to die, or glad to sacrifice his life? Is the life and freedom of the living a satisfactory payment to the dead in war for their dying? Would Virgil think so? I have imagined that he would. But I don’t know. Who can speak for the dead? . . .

It’s a powerful question. Who, indeed, can speak for the dead? In a sense, this is exactly what the historian is called to do, to resurrect the dead and give them voice again. And yet, as Hannah realizes, in our fallenness we will be sorely tempted to make the dead agree with us, to speak for us rather than to us. None of us is exempt. It is a temptation that Christians face just as strongly as the most ideologically driven “revisionist.” And when we succumb to it, however noble our motives, Hannah reminds us that what we are doing is preying on the weak. “I don’t mean to be quarrelsome,” she concludes, “but the dead are helpless. . . . The living must protect the dead.”

GREAT HOLIDAY READING

Yes, I’m still alive.

I hope to return to semi-regular posting with the new year, but it occurred to me just now that Thanksgiving is only two and a half weeks away, so I thought I would take the time to engage in some shameless self-promotion.

On the possibility that some of you might be interested in a book about the history of the holiday, I will be bold and suggest that you consider my own: The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

The book came out in the fall of 2013 from Intervarsity Press, and it was a labor of love.  For years I had been gradually developing a new sense of vocation.  I believe that academic historians write too much for each other, leaving the public to learn about the past from pastors, talk-show hosts, rap musicians, and other public celebrities.  As a Christian historian, I have come to believe that part of my calling is to be a historian for Christians outside the Academy.  If you are a Christian who is interested in American history, I want to be in conversation with you about what it means to think Christianly and historically about the American past.  That is why I started this blog a few years back, and that is why I spent several years conducting research on the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving.

I didn’t write The First Thanksgiving primarily because I was enamored with the story and wanted to re-tell it accurately (although I hoped to do so).  Rather, it gradually dawned on me that this familiar story provided the perfect framework for exploring what it means, from a Christian perspective, to remember the past faithfully.  The story of the First Thanksgiving is central to how we, as Americans, remember our origins. The subsequent development of the Thanksgiving holiday speaks volumes about how we have defined our identity across the centuries. As Christians, our challenge is to “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5), including our thinking about our national heritage.  Thanksgiving is a good place to start.

WHEN CHRISTMAS WASN’T A HOLIDAY

"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

The day was December 25, 1621, and the storied “Pilgrims” of Plimoth Plantation were headed out to work.

Sometime that fall—we don’t know exactly when—the fifty passengers of the Mayflower who had survived their first winter in New England had joined ninety or more Wampanoag Indians in a harvest celebration we remember as “the First Thanksgiving.”  We tend to lose interest in their story at that point, unfortunately, although we know much more about the aftermath of the First Thanksgiving than we do about the celebration itself.

One of the things we know is that the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued for at least another two years.  This was partly due to the criminal mismanagement of the London financiers who bankrolled the Pilgrims’ voyage.  The “Merchant Adventurers,” as they were known, had sent another boatload of colonists for Plymouth that fall.  Only weeks after their 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims were surprised by the arrival of the ship Fortune.  The thirty-five new settlers on board, including family and friends from the Pilgrim congregation in Leiden, would nearly double the colony’s depleted ranks, and the Pilgrims were initially elated.

Their joy was tempered when they discovered that the London merchants had again insisted on adding numerous strangers to the passenger list, “many of them wild enough,” in Governor William Bradford’s words.  What was worse, they had arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as Bradford bitterly recalled.  Indeed, the London merchants had not even provisioned the ship’s crew with sufficient food for the trip home.

The result was that, rather than having “good plenty” for the winter, the Pilgrims, who had to provide food for the Fortune’s return voyage and feed an additional thirty-five mouths throughout the winter, once again faced the prospect of starvation.  Fearing that the newcomers would “bring famine upon us,” the governor immediately reduced the weekly food allowance by half.  In the following months hunger “pinch[ed] them sore.”

To compound their adversity, not long after the First Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims received a message from the nearby Narragansett Indians threatening war.  Fearing for their safety, the depleted band began a frenzied construction of a log palisade around their tiny settlement.  (By the end of February they would complete a wall of logs eight feet high and twenty-seven hundred feet long!)  We tend to close the book on the Pilgrims’ story with the small band feasting around the Thanksgiving table.  It was actually but the briefest of interludes to a year of almost unimaginable hardships, and as the year drew to a close, the Pilgrims not one but two imminent threats: hunger and the Narragansett, starvation and war.

But that is not why they were headed out to work on Christmas Day.

They were headed out to work because Christmas Day was no different from any other day, in their estimation.   The Pilgrims understood the concept of holidays literally.  The word holiday in modern parlance is simply the elision of the two-word phrase “holy day.”  As they read their Bibles, the Pilgrims concluded that God alone could command that a day be set apart as holy unto the Lord, and nowhere in the Scripture could they find any commandment to celebrate the birth of Christ.  As the Pilgrims’ pastor in Holland had remarked to them, nowhere in the Bible are we even told that December 25th was Jesus’ birthday.  At the time that the Pilgrims fled England for Holland, the Church of England recognized twenty-seven holy days annually (down from ninety-five at the time that Henry VIII broke with Rome).  The survival of so many holidays on the Anglican calendar was evidence, in the minds of English Puritans, of the degree to which the Church of England still suffered from “the gross darkness of popery.”  Holidays like Christmas (and even Easter) were “papist inventions” that primarily served as a pretext for pagan celebrations.

The “strangers” recently arrived on the Fortune didn’t see it that way, however.  In his famous history Of Plymouth Plantation, Governor William Bradford concluded his review of the events of 1621 with a humorous story of what happened that Christmas:

On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used [i.e., as was customary].  But the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day.  So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them until they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them.  But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball [a game similar to cricket] and such like sports.  So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work.  If they made the keeping of it matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets.

A colleague of mine at the University of Washington once used the paragraph above as the text for his Christmas cards.  An Englishman and a historian of colonial America, he sent the cards primarily for laughs, to tweak his American friends.  There are also more substantive reasons to remember this story at Christmas time.  Bradford’s anecdote reminds us of history’s greatest value: the gift of allowing us to see our own moment in time from the vantage point of another.

Although we are historical creatures, none of us naturally thinks historically.  We come into the world taking for granted that the way things are now is the way that they have always been.  As we gradually come to discover otherwise, we then gravitate to a worse historical error, the assumption that the way things are now—though different from the past—is both inevitable and superior to what came before.  The result is that we are freed from thinking deeply about the values we hold.  Indeed, to the degree that we see them as inevitable or “natural,” we may not even be self-conscious about them at all.

Bradford’s anecdote reminds us that Christians—even in our part of the world—have not always thought of Christmas as we do.  When the English Puritans briefly controlled Parliament in the middle of the seventeenth century, they actually enacted a national law prohibiting observance of the day.  On this side of the water, Christian opposition to Christmas continued for much of the rest of the century in New England.  Next door to Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony officially prohibited the celebration of Christmas in 1659.  The ordinance below continued on the books of the Massachusetts government until 1681:

It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shilling as a fine to the county.

Puritan ministers like Cotton Mather and Increase Mather likewise denounced celebration of the holiday, noting that the holiday as celebrated in England made a mockery of Christian piety and was little more than an excuse for every form of carnal excess and indulgence.   Such sentiments were slow to fade, and Boston schools were open on Christmas Day for much of the nineteenth century.  Certainly, as late as the Civil War, the South was much more supportive of Christmas than was the North, where the anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing on December 22nd was the more commonly observed December celebration.

Like most of you, I imagine, my family has developed over time an assortment of Christmas traditions that we remember fondly and look forward to unapologetically.  None of us need follow William Bradford’s example by prohibiting celebrations this Sunday.  But it wouldn’t hurt us to think about why we do what we do.  In its essence, that is the practice that Bradford was modeling for us.  We don’t have to arrive at his exact conclusions to take his reminder to heart.

In England and the United States, at least, most of the Christmas traditions we now think of as timeless emerged during the latter half of the 1800s.  Many of these are surely wonderful—I know I’m thankful for Christmas carols, Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, and Christmas Eve candlelight services.  Some are not so positive.  The most obvious is the orgy of buying now so central to the holiday.  But even more pernicious—because less blatant—is the way that, even within our churches, we have narrowed the theological significance of the Incarnation to a sentimental story about a baby in a manger, emphasizing the love of God while severing the miracle of the Incarnation from the human need for Atonement and the divine promise of an already/not yet Kingdom.

For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder.  And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Merry Christmas one and all!

“FOR HATE IS STRONG AND MOCKS THE SONG”: A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS CAROL

I love Christmas carols and I would have a hard time choosing my favorite, but as a historian—and a specialist on the American Civil War, particularly—I have always been deeply moved by I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. In its original form it’s not heard too much these days, although several contemporary Christian groups have performed variations on it.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

The carol is based on a poem written at the height of the Civil War by the renowned American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A native of Maine and long-time resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fifty-six-year-old Longfellow was an American celebrity by that time, famous for works such as The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and most recently, Paul Revere’s Ride. (At his death in 1884 he would become the first American to be memorialized by a bust in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.) The glow of celebrity was offset by personal tragedy, however. In 1861 Longfellow’s wife Fanny died horrifically in a fire, and Longfellow himself was permanently disfigured in his efforts to save her.  Then, in November 1863 the poet’s oldest son, Charles—a nineteen-year-old lieutenant in the Union Army—was severely wounded in fighting in northern Virginia. Still mourning for his wife, and far from certain of his son’s recovery, Longfellow sat down at his desk on Christmas morning, 1863, and penned a seven-stanza poem he called “The Christmas Bells.” Seven years later his poem would be set to music, although in its carol version several of the original verses are rarely sung.

“The Christmas Bells” opens with the now familiar passage from which the carol takes its name:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good- will to men!

In verses 2-3 the poet reflects on how the angels’ message would repeatedly resound around the globe as the “world revolved from night to day.” But then in verses 4-5 the chaos and heartache of contemporary events crashes in. Few modern hymnals include these verses, which refer directly to the war raging a few hundred miles away:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

gettysburg-first-day-casualties-xl

A scene from the field at Gettysburg, five and a half months before Longfellow penned “The Christmas Bells”

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

A mass grave at Chickamauga, four months before Longfellow penned "The Christmas Bells."

A mass grave at Chickamauga, four months before Longfellow penned “The Christmas Bells.”

In December 1863 the American Civil War had already lasted far longer and exacted a far greater price than almost anyone had anticipated two and a half years earlier. After the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had issued a call for volunteers to serve for only ninety days, and yet northern newspapers had castigated the president for his pessimism. Everyone “knew” that the dust-up down South could not possibly last that long. Zeal and a heart-wrenching naivete were the order of the day, and all across the land young men donned uniforms of blue and gray and rushed to the front, fearing that the war would be over before they could experience its glory.

Thirty-two months later all such innocence was gone, bloodily obliterated on battlefields with names like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. Each casualty statistic on a regimental return represented a husband, son, brother, father, or friend and—as Longfellow knew from experience—a household “made forlorn.” The poet’s anguish in verse 6 is palpable:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!”

But the poem doesn’t end there, of course. In the poem’s seventh and final verse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow preaches the gospel to himself—and to us:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

In these final lines we find not a cry born of wishful thinking, a blind insistence that all is right with the world when that is palpably untrue. We hear instead a faithful declaration from one who sees the reality of hatred and the pervasiveness of suffering and yet finds hope in a Redeemer who would leave the glory of heaven to dwell among us.

May that hope be ours this Christmas.

WHAT “IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE” CAN TEACH US ABOUT THINKING HISTORICALLY

It's a Wonderful Life IIDo Americans still watch It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas time? I used to think that everyone was familiar with it, at least, but now I’m not so sure. I met a woman in church the other day who is “old enough to know better”—that is how my dad used to categorize anyone his age or older—and she stunned me by confessing that she has never seen this holiday classic. In case you haven’t seen it, I heartily recommend it. It’s a heartwarming, even inspiring story, but its real value is in how it teaches us to think historically. As effectively as any movie I’ve seen, it drives home the importance of historical context.

Historical context is critical to historical understanding for one basic reason: none of us lives in a vacuum. Humanly speaking, our lives are influenced (not determined, but profoundly influenced) by what has gone before us. Indeed, if there is a single truth that inspires the serious study of history, it is the conviction that we gain great insight into the human condition by situating the lives of men and women in the larger flow of human experience over time.

Historians sometimes try to make this point by comparing history to an enormous, seamless tapestry. (Imagine the wall of a European castle here.) Although it’s possible to extract a single thread and examine it, it’s in contemplating the larger pattern that we can best understand the purpose and significance of the individual fibers. In sum, the particular makes little sense without reference to a larger whole. Similarly, when wrenched from its historical context, an isolated historical fact may intrigue or entertain us (good for crossword puzzles or Jeopardy), but it has nothing meaningful to teach us.

The bottom line is simple:

Know context, know meaning. No context, no meaning. 

But not everyone finds it easy to relate to a textile analogy. (Go figure.) This is where It’s a Wonderful Life comes in. Hollywood rarely aids the life of the mind–and in truth, the movie’s theology is really messed up–but when it comes to the importance of historical context this film gets it right.

It-s-A-Wonderful-Life-its-a-wonderful-life-32920425-1600-1202To begin with, the very structure of the movie teaches that context is indispensable to understanding. In case you don’t know the plot, the story begins on Christmas Eve, 1945, as countless prayers waft toward heaven on behalf of the protagonist, down-on-his-luck George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart. In response, the senior angels Franklin and Joseph call for George’s guardian angel, an “angel second-class” named Clarence Odbody, played by the marvelously eyebrowed Henry Trevor.

Clarence appears immediately, and when Franklin and Joseph explain that someone on earth (George) is seriously contemplating suicide, Clarence offers to rush immediately to his aid, but his mentors stop him short with a sharp rebuke. “If you’re going to help a man, you want to know something about him,” Joseph scolds, and for the next hour and a half they provide Clarence with historical context for the present crisis. All told, fully two-thirds of the movie consists of flashback, powerfully driving home the message that we can’t comprehend any moment in time without knowledge of what has preceded it.

Its a Wonderful Life VIIBut not everything that has gone before will be relevant. In briefing Clarence, Franklin and Joseph practice what one historian calls the principle of selective attention. Rather than overwhelm Clarence with a flood of facts, they choose the events and circumstances in the past that have been most influential in shaping the man George has become. In turn, this helps Clarence to comprehend what George’s current circumstances mean to him.

In reviewing George’s life, furthermore, the senior angels also remind us that our lives unfold within multiple contexts. Some of the circumstances that they review are intimate details quite specific to George, for example his rescue of his brother Harry or his longstanding yearning to see the world and build modern cities. Others grow out of George’s family context, for instance the centrality of the family savings and loan business or his father’s decades-long struggle with “old man Potter.”

Both categories involve the kind of personal pasts we preserve and pass on in conversation around the dinner table without realizing that we are functioning as historians. But George’s life was also touched by distant, much less personal developments that affected the entire nation or even the world–the kind of events that get into textbooks and which we instantly recognize as “historical.” So, in the flashback we see how George’s past intersected with events such as the world-wide influenza epidemic of 1919, the Great Depression of the 1930s, or the Second World War.

It's a Wonderful Life VFinally, the movie points us toward a bedrock truth about the human condition that explains why context is always important to historical understanding. If Clarence is initially mystified as to why it should be important, by the movie’s end he understands fully and expresses the underlying principle with eloquent simplicity. After showing an incredulous George that the world would have been starkly different if he had never been born, Clarence muses, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. . . .”

Clarence’s insight into the unlimited interrelatedness of human experience–we could call it Odbody’s Axiom–is at the heart of all sound historical thinking.