Book Review: Robert Tracy McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving

McKenzie, The First ThanksgivingIn just a couple of hours, I will be celebrating Thanksgiving with my family. The menu includes ham, sweet potatoes, corn, cranberry relish, and bourbon pumpkin cheesecake for dessert. According to Robert Tracy McKenzie, in his book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, such a menu is a far cry from what the Pilgrims ate at their 1621 harvest festival: eels and turnips (and beer—of which the Pilgrims were apparently quite fond).

As the title of the book suggests, McKenzie’s goals in writing about the first thanksgiving are two-fold. As a historian, McKenzie wants to construct an accurate historical narrative of the event, and such a feat requires separating historical fact from collective historical memory (124). As a Christian, McKenzie wants the story of the Pilgrims to encourage moral reflection in his readers (182). In another part of the book, McKenzie suggests that his readers should pursue an “authentic education”—one that “engages the heart” and takes part in a “grand conversation about . . . eternal questions about purpose and being and the dilemmas of the human condition” (54). And to learn from the Pilgrims, one must know who they are really rather than who they have become in popular imagination.

So, who were these Pilgrims? One consistent theme of the book comes in the simple answer that the Pilgrims are not who most people think they are. Although the “popular understanding” of the Pilgrims has claimed that they came to the “new world” in search of religious freedom, for example, McKenzie notes that the Pilgrims possessed that freedom already in the Netherlands (64). The motivation for colonization was more a result of the “numerous misgivings” that Pilgrims had regarding “Dutch culture” and its potentially harmful effect of the Pilgrim’s religious community (66). McKenzie also strenuously objects to the portrayal of Pilgrims as “one of us,” particularly in the sense of quintessential American patriots who had a fundamental commitment to liberty (100, 104). The Pilgrims understood liberty, for example, “as the freedom to do what is right, not to decide what is right” (108). Therefore, while the Pilgrims did not insist that everyone in the community become a member of the church, “they did not object to laws requiring subjects to attend church or adhere to particular church teaching” (110). The Pilgrims, in McKenzie’s telling, were flawed folks who squabbled, lacked the power of discernment in key business deals, and viewed their Native American neighbors with suspicion and distrust.

As for that first thanksgiving itself, well, it has little in common with the national holiday Americans celebrate today. In chapter six, “Discarding False Memories: The Real Story of the First Thanksgiving,” McKenzie describes what happened in 1621 as a late September or October harvest celebration that was more like “a picnic or cookout” where people were sitting on the ground and eating with their hands (134). Yes, Native Americans were there, but McKenzie notes “we err when we remember the First Thanksgiving as some kind of idyllic multicultural celebration. It was likely tense at best” (136). As for the religious roots of America’s national holiday—almost non-existent. In this section of the chapter, McKenzie points out the Pilgrims’ disdain for church-appointed holy days and points out that primary sources do not mention any religious service. He thus concludes, “the occasion was clearly not a holy day as the Pilgrims understood it” even while allowing that from the Pilgrim’s perspective “no occasion was ever purely secular” (140).

Although the Pilgrims are not who we think they are, the Pilgrims have much to teach. Inspiring, encouraging, challenging, and convicting—those are the words McKenzie uses in describing the Pilgrims. Their “fortitude and perseverance,” their willingness to sacrifice to advance the welfare of their children make the Pilgrims inspiring. McKenzie also claims that the Pilgrims’ character was rooted in a theology framed around loyalty and devotion to God—also inspiring (187). McKenzie finds the Pilgrims encouraging, at least in part, precisely because of their faults: “Figures from the past inspire us when they make us want to grow in godliness; they encourage us when they help us believe that is possible” (188). The “real story of the first thanksgiving,” however, should also challenge and convict—McKenzie describes himself as “pleading” with readers to avoid forcing “the unbelieving culture around us to view the occasion as a religious holiday” (190). He also suggests that looking at the values of the Pilgrims’ community should call into question the individualism and worldliness associated with current American culture. The Pilgrims should remind readers of their need for God (196).

McKenzie’s book offers the serious Christian student of history many valuable insights. As he unravels the facts of the first thanksgiving from its mythology, he infuses the discipline of history with relevance and meaning. Understanding the limitation of sources, for example, brings home the truth of what it means to reconstruct history with humility, understanding more concretely the concept that “we see the past ‘as through a glass, darkly’” (18). Being willing to acknowledge the complexity of history is also holy work as it perhaps discourages us from reducing the past to “ammunition” to reinforce values that we already hold or promote agendas to which we are already committed” (16). And, of course, McKenzie argues convincingly that “knowledge of the past provides us with much needed perspective” (13).

So, while McKenzie may debunk some cherished myths about the first thanksgiving, he does so constructively. Although Christians might not celebrate Thanksgiving as a religious holiday as a result of reading this book, they may leave this book more inspired to make every day a holy day—one that recognizes and celebrates dependence on the sovereignty of a compassionate (and mysterious) God.

– AnneMarie Kooistra

The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History. By Robert Tracy McKenzie. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013)

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