Tag Archives: history

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.

FIVE MYTHS ABOUT THE PILGRIMS

Thanksgiving is a week from today, and in keeping with a time-honored custom dating to 2013, I am bombarding you with posts on the history of Thanksgiving.  Most of them draw to some degree from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  Below is an essay that originally appeared in the Washington Post.  The Post runs a regular feature each Sunday identifying popular myths about some misunderstood individual or event.  I sketched out a long list of possibilities for the editor, and she chose the five that made it into print.

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Five Myths about the Pilgrims:

When it comes to historical memory, the old saying that you can’t choose your relatives is just plain wrong. Americans have chosen the Pilgrims as honorary ancestors, and we tend to see their story as inseparable from the story of our nation, “land of the Pilgrims’ pride.” We imagine these honorary Founders as model immigrants, peace-loving and pioneers in the democratic experiment. We have burdened them with values they wouldn’t have recognized, and shrouded their story with myth. Here are five of the most common myths about the Pilgrims.

“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877. Although William Bradford’s history makes clear that there were no females among the initial landing party at Plymouth in December 1621, this imaginative recreation includes several and also gives credence to a local tradition that teenager Mary Chilton was the first Pilgrim to come ashore. Note as well that the beach at Plymouth is predominantly sandy, not rocky as the artist suggests.

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

1) The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. If you visit Plymouth today, you’ll find a distinctive rock about the size of your living-room sofa embedded in the sandy beach, sheltered by a classical Greek portico and labeled with a sign erected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts proclaiming,”Plymouth Rock: Landing Place of the Pilgrims.” It’s not hard to picture simple English folk huddled on that rock, envisioning through eyes of faith the great nation that would spring from their humble beginning. Except that’s probably not what happened. We “know” the location of the Pilgrims’ landing because in 1741 -121 years after the Pilgrims arrived – a 15-year-old boy overheard 95-year-old Thomas Faunce relate that his father, who came to Plymouth three years after the Mayflower, told him that he’d been told by unnamed persons that the landing occurred there. Curiously, William Bradford never mentioned Plymouth Rock in his history “Of Plymouth Plantation,” and if the expedition landed there he seems not to have noticed.

“Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven,” Charles Lucy, 1847

“Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven,” Charles Lucy, 1847

2). The Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom. It’s fair to say that the Pilgrims left England primarily to find religious freedom, but that’s not the primary motive that propelled them to North America. Remember that the Pilgrims went first to Holland, settling eventually in the city of Leiden. There they encountered a religious tolerance almost unheard of in that day and age, and Bradford and Edward Winslow both wrote glowingly of their experience. In Leiden, God had allowed them, in Bradford’s estimation, “to come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any other church of these later times.” God had blessed them with “much peace and liberty,” Winslow echoed. If a longing for religious freedom had compelled them, they likely never would have left. But while they cherished the freedom of conscience they enjoyed in Leiden, the Pilgrims had two major complaints: they found it a hard place to maintain their English identity, and an even harder place to make a living. In North America they hoped to live by themselves, enjoy the same degree of religious liberty, and earn a “better and easier” living.

The First Thanksgiving--Jean Louis Ferris

The “First Thanksgiving”–Jean Louis Ferris

3)  The Pilgrims’ autumn celebration in 1621 was the First Thanksgiving. No one seriously believes that the Pilgrims were the first to stop and thank their Creator for a bountiful harvest. Native Americans had a long tradition of thanksgiving celebrations. The Algonquian people, for example, participated in regular ceremonies linked to the crop cycle, while the nearby Wampanoag annually celebrated the first harvest of the new season with a “strawberry thanksgiving.” Europeans who arrived in North America prior to the Pilgrims likely also engaged in such observances. There is evidence of a thanksgiving service held in 1564 near present-day Jacksonville, Florida by French Huguenots-at a time when only two of the Pilgrims had even been born. The very next year Spanish documents refer to a thanksgiving mass celebrated at St. Augustine by conquistadores (who would soon slaughter the nearby Huguenots). Texas historians insist that Spanish colonists celebrated thanksgiving with the Manso Indians near present-day El Paso in 1598, not early enough to beat out Florida but still a generation before the celebration in Massachusetts. Among English settlers, there is evidence of a thanksgiving celebration in 1607 at a short-lived colony on the coast of Maine, and of two others among Virginia colonists in 1610 and 1619. More importantly, if the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration was far from the first Thanksgiving, from the Pilgrims’ perspective it was not a Thanksgiving at all, but rather a kind of autumn harvest festival. As the Pilgrims understood it, a genuine Thanksgiving was a solemn observance to be observed irregularly, a “holy day” devoted to worship in acknowledgment of a specific, extraordinary blessing from the Lord.

4)  The Pilgrims were a humorless lot with a fondness for black. With more wit than historical accuracy, H. L. Mencken famously defined “puritanism” as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” Modern Americans bought in to the stereotype, so that we regularly picture the Pilgrims as if they were on their way to a funeral, their solemn behavior matched by a somber wardrobe. When we read Winslow’s description of the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest festival, however, we’re transported to a scene of beer and barbeque, shooting and sports. And forget about the ubiquitous black outfits. In fact, the Pilgrims had a taste for a wide range of bright colors. Estate inventories in Plymouth Colony reveal abundant references to red, blue, green, yellow and orange garments. Carpenter Will Wright, for example, upon his death left a blue coat and two vests, one white, the other red. William Bradford’s estate inventory showed that the long-term governor owned a “colored” hat, a red suit and a violet cloak. Pretty gaudy, actually.

“The Pilgrims Signing the Compact, on Board the Mayflower,” engraving after a painting by Tompkins Matteson, 1859. Shortly after dropping anchor in Cape Cod in November 1620, forty-one adult males gathered in the great cabin of the Mayflower to sign the statement we now remember as the Mayflower Compact.

“The Pilgrims Signing the Compact, on Board the Mayflower,” engraving after a painting by Tompkins Matteson, 1859.

5) The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact was an early and noteworthy example of American democracy. Americans have loaded this document with far more significance than it’s worthy of. We read it selectively, zeroing in on the parts where the signers commit to form “a civil body politic” and agree to formulate “just and equal laws . . . for the general good of the colony.” But it is no accident that the Compact begins with a description of the signatories as “the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James.” Having been blown off course en route to America, the Pilgrims were about to settle some 200 miles north of the northernmost jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, authorized by King James I to coordinate colonial ventures along the Atlantic seaboard. It was quite possible they were committing an illegal act in the eyes of the Crown. But they made a point of assuring James of their unquestioned loyalty. They also identify him as their king not by virtue of their consent, but “by the grace of God.” This puts the Mayflower Compact closer to an affirmation of the divine right of kings than of the right of self-rule.

SETTING THE STAGE: THE MAYFLOWER COMPACT

The distinguished Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison once observed, “One price the Pilgrims have to pay for their popularity is the attribution to them of many things or trends popular now, but of which they knew nothing and cared less.” A case in point would be the popular belief that the Pilgrims brought with them a commitment to republican self-government, or even democracy. That we might think so is almost entirely due to the so-called “Mayflower Compact,” a document that we have loaded with far more significance than it should be made to shoulder.

On the same day that the Mayflower first dropped anchor near Cape Cod in November of 1620, forty-one adult males gathered in the ship’s great cabin and affixed their signatures to a 153-word statement. The text was set forth in an obscure 1622 pamphlet known as Mourt’s Relation, and although it was little thought of or referred to for the next century and a half, the day would come when many Americans would remember it as one of the nation’s founding documents, almost in the same category as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It read as follows:

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland Kind, Defender of the Faith, etc.

Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

“The Pilgrims Signing the Compact, on Board the Mayflower,” engraving after a painting by Tompkins Matteson, 1859.

We have tended to read this pledge selectively, zeroing in on the parts where the signers commit to form “a civil body politic” and agree to formulate “just and equal laws . . . for the general good of the colony.” Having recognized what looks to be a familiar feature in the Compact, we then often extrapolate with abandon, imputing to the Pilgrims values that belong in our world, not theirs. In reality, there appear to have been at least three motives behind the creation of the Compact, none of which involved a philosophical commitment to the right of self-government.

To begin with, there is reason to believe that the Pilgrims always expected that they would need to choose their own leaders in the initial stage of their colonial venture. At the same time, it also appears that they understood that this practice might be temporary—an aberration more than a right. In a letter that he wrote to his congregants just before their departure from England, the Pilgrims pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, seemed to take for granted that the passengers of the Mayflower would soon “become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government.” He exhorted his departing friends to show their civil governors “all due honor and obedience,” given that the magistrate bears “the image of the Lord’s power and authority.” They should be able to do this all the more willingly, he concluded, “because you are at least for the present to have only them [as your civil officers] which yourselves shall make choice of for that work.” The time might come, in other words, when the king would exercise his lawful prerogative to appoint governors over them.

A second factor stemmed from the simple fact that the Pilgrims would be settling outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company. King James had granted to that company the authority to coordinate colonial ventures along a portion of the Atlantic seaboard, and the Virginia Company, in turn, had granted to the Pilgrims a patent to settle in a particular portion of their recognized domain. By choosing a location beyond the boundaries of the company’s authority, it was quite possible that they were committing an illegal act in the eyes of the Crown. Hence it is no accident that the Compact begins with a description of the signatories as “the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James.” They were covering themselves, in other words, by assuring James of their unquestioned loyalty. Furthermore, it is worth noting that they identify James as their king not by virtue of their consent, but “by the grace of God.” This puts the Mayflower Compact closer to an affirmation of the divine right of kings than of the right of self-rule.

Finally, both Mourt’s Relation and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation make clear that a third factor prompting the creation of the Compact was a potential revolt brewing among a subset of the passengers. Bradford frankly admitted that the Compact was “occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall from them in the ship.” These dissidents were saying that they would do whatever they pleased when they arrived, as the Pilgrims’ patent applied only to Virginia, not to New England.

Picking up on Bradford’s candid admission, some historians have reduced the Mayflower Compact to little more than a power grab by the Leiden saints, a calculated effort to keep the non-Separatist “strangers” in line. This goes too far, in my opinion, but so does the insistence of Plymouth’s Pilgrim Hall Museum that the Mayflower Compact is “an early example of democracy in America” that has “remained an inspiration since 1620.” If so, it curiously left little mark on Plymouth itself. An early voting list from 1643 shows that less than half of the colony’s adult males were eligible to vote. (All women were excluded, of course, “as both reason and nature teacheth they should be.”)

In truth, the widespread acceptance of democracy—the unchallenged right of the people to rule—was still a good two centuries away, and to credit the Pilgrims with a democratic ethos is anachronistic in the extreme. The men and women who celebrated a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1621 had many virtues: they were devout, courageous, and determined. They just weren’t democratic.

THINKING ABOUT THANKSGIVING

"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.

If you were born in this country, chances are good that you have known about the Pilgrims from an early age. The story feels so familiar to us that we can easily lose sight of its drama. A tiny band of just over one hundred plain English men and women, seeking a better life, cross the storm-tossed Atlantic in the tiny Mayflower and arrive at the coast of present-day Massachusetts in late 1620. They bind themselves to one another as a self-governing political community, then go ashore to build a home in a strange and frightening new world. Having arrived on the eve of an unexpectedly cruel winter, they endure unimaginable hardships over the next few months, death claiming one half of their number by spring. Yet through the mercy of God and the assistance of their new Indian neighbors, the remainder survive to reap a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1621, at which time they pause to celebrate the goodness of God with a special feast—the First Thanksgiving.

This “story that we already know” is, above all, a story about beginnings, and stories about beginnings are stories that explain. For generations, Americans have remembered that autumn feast not just as the origin of a treasured holiday but as integral to the very origins of the United States itself—the “land of the Pilgrims’ pride,” in the words of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” From this perspective, the Pilgrims’ story is “the first chapter in the American story.” The U. S. may have been born in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, but it was conceived a century and a half earlier at “Plimoth Plantation,” where the values that would define the future nation were already embodied in the hardy band of English men and women who gave thanks for God’s provision with their Indian neighbors.

Beginnings are usually complicated, however, which is why our very use of the term “First Thanksgiving” should set off an alarm. I resisted putting the phrase in quotation marks earlier, but even a moment’s reflection will convince us that we can’t take it literally. Giving thanks is surely an ancient human practice, and no one seriously believes that the Pilgrims at Plymouth were the first to stop and thank their Creator for a bountiful harvest.

We might say that the Pilgrims celebrated the “First American Thanksgiving,” but there is abundant evidence that Native American peoples had thanksgiving celebrations as well. The Algonquian people, for example, participated in regular ceremonies linked to the crop cycle. A more accurate expression, then, would be the “First American Christian Thanksgiving,” but this wordier title is still off the mark. Spanish documents refer to a thanksgiving mass celebrated shortly after conquistadores landed at St. Augustine, Florida in 1565—at a time when only two of the Pilgrims had even been born. Similarly, Texas historians insist that Spanish colonists celebrated thanksgiving with the Manso Indians near present-day El Paso in 1598, not early enough to beat out Florida but still a generation before the celebration in Massachusetts.

So I guess we could call the Pilgrims’ celebration the “First American Protestant Christian Thanksgiving,” but even this mouthful would be imprecise. It overlooks evidence of a thanksgiving service in 1564 near present-day Jacksonville, Florida held by French Huguenots (who would soon be slaughtered by Spaniards from St. Augustine); one in 1607 at a short-lived English colony on the coast of Maine; and two others among English colonists in Virginia, in 1610 and 1619. This leads us, finally, to the more or less historically accurate label “First American Protestant Christian Thanksgiving North of Virginia and South of Maine.” I don’t expect it to catch on.

So what’s the point?  The point is that a lot of us like remembering the Pilgrims’ celebration as the first of its kind.  When it comes to historical memory, the old saying that you can’t choose your relatives is just plain wrong.  Without doubt, we have chosen the Pilgrims as our honorary ancestors, and we have done so, at least in part, because over time enough of us came to agree that the Pilgrims exemplified values we wished to affirm—even if we couldn’t agree on what those values actually were.   We can learn much by revisiting their seemingly familiar story, not only about the past but about ourselves as well.  How we remember the Pilgrims and the “First Thanksgiving” reveals a great deal about how we understand both our religious and our national heritage.

In my next two posts, I’ll provide an overview of how Americans have remembered the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration over the past four centuries, then we’ll dig into the nitty gritty of what we know about the actual event and the people involved, and why a better understanding of the real story is important.

Keep reading.

First Thanksgiving

A GREAT HOLIDAY GIFT FOR FAMILY, FRIENDS, AND RANDOM STRANGERS

Even though it feels like it, the presidential campaign isn’t going to last forever.  Thanksgiving is four weeks from tomorrow, believe it or not, and it occurred to me that some of you might be interested in a book about Thanksgiving in advance of the holiday.  There are many good possibilities, but with utter shamelessness I’d like to suggest my own: The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

First Thanksgiving

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.