Every year around Thanksgiving, I enjoy reflecting on the Pilgrims, their Mayflower voyage and that first Thanksgiving back in 1621. Being a descendant of no less a figure than John Alden (the one who stole Miles Standish’s girl, Priscilla Mullins) only encourages my Thanksgiving reverie. This year, I enjoyed finishing a first-rate historical survey of that special Pilgrim holiday. The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History by Robert Tracy McKenzie (IVP, 2013), is a book I thoroughly enjoyed but one that challenged me to reexamine the historical record and the reasons why I love to reflect on my Puritanical roots.
McKenzie takes the occasion of writing a book on the first thanksgiving, to remind his Christian audience about the role history should play in our faith. He covers the nuts and bolts of historical research while he’s at it. Now, he does tip some sacred cows. He points out how we have scant records of the actual first thanksgiving, and demurs that it wasn’t the first thanksgiving in any true sense — at least four other public occasions of thanksgiving in America (the French Huguenots on Florida’s shores in 1565 being the earliest) have greater claim to that honor. Intriguingly “Plymouth Rock” was born from second-hand recollections of an original Pilgrim some 100 years or more after their landing. And more importantly, American history didn’t instill the Pilgrims’ autumnal feast with national importance for several hundred years. It was left for Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the first American President to directly connect the national observance of Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims of Plymouth and their historic feast.
The book is not a direct assault on Christian values, by any stretch, however. McKenzie, a head of the history department at Wheaton College, wants us to remember the real first thanksgiving and do the hard work of looking at the actual past and judging what we can learn from our experience of it. He cautions us against twisting the Pilgrim’s “buckle shoes” any which way — supporting our every opinion. Their story should not be a touchstone that we use to win battles of public opinion. Rather, we should learn from their example of heart-felt faith, fierce courage, and providential blessing as we continue to live out our faith in the public sphere.
This book will dispel some myths: the first thanksgiving was likely not thought of as a “day of Thanksgiving” by the Pilgrims themselves. Their first official day for Thanksgiving came two years later after an incredible answer to prayer where God brought colony-saving rain on the exact day set aside as a “day of fasting.” But McKenzie doesn’t set the record straight just to be a good historian. His book aims to inculcate a fuller appreciation for the real Pilgrims. We will not agree with all of the Pilgrim’s idiosyncrasies (most of us enjoy celebrating Christmas, for instance). And some of what the Pilgrims have come to stand for has less to do with their real beliefs than it does those of their heirs. Still, there is much to learn and appreciate in the real Pilgrims. Listening to their true story will challenge our affirmation of a consumerism-driven society and call us to live godly lives in this present world.
I know that Thanksgiving has passed already this year. But if you find some extra time in and around Christmas, perhaps you should pick up this title and reacquaint yourself with the story of those brave Pilgrims who followed God’s call and found themselves on the other side of the world. You will enjoy the book and profit from it, I’m sure.
Disclaimer: This book was provided by InterVarsity Press. The reviewer was under no obligation to offer a positive review.
About Book Briefs: Book Briefs are book notes, or short-form book reviews. They are my informed evaluation of a book, but stop short of being a full-length book review.