Review of ‘The First Thanksgiving’ by Robert Tracy McKenzie


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

This Thanksgiving, like millions of other Americans, I will sit down with family around a beautifully decorated table to eat a sumptuous feast of turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. We will share stories of gratitude for God’s blessings throughout the year drawing to a close. And then we will watch football or—in my case, since I’m not a sports fan—take a long, postprandial nap.

What I will not do is think that our Thanksgiving celebration has anything to do with the Pilgrim’s “first Thanksgiving” in 1621. Not after reading Robert Tracy McKenzie’s new book, The First Thanksgiving, which is equal parts a historical account of that feast and a theologically informed reflection on how Christians should (and should not) use the past. As he tells it, we don’t know much about the “first Thanksgiving” except that it probably didn’t occur in November, wasn’t eaten indoors, didn’t include turkey (but might’ve included turnip and eel), wasn’t a multicultural love fest (evidently, the Wampanoags just showed up, uninvited), and wouldn’t have been considered a day of thanksgiving by the Pilgrims in the first place. Moreover, the celebration of thanksgiving days was, for the first 220 years of American history, a New England phenomenon that wasn’t explicitly linked to the Pilgrim feast of 1621.

In short, most of what you think you know about the “first Thanksgiving” is bunk. But over the years, that bunk has been found to serve a variety of useful ends, underwriting Northern abolitionism, American individualism and religious freedom, and a providential reading of America’s Christian history, among other things. And that’s why the fiction continues to be promoted instead of the facts.

To think Christianly about the Pilgrims and their 1621 feast, we need to put these fictions aside and recognize the weakness of the historical accounts that promote them. And then we need to reflect on why we study this history anyway. “The past is a foreign country,” L. P. Hartley once wrote; “they do things differently there.” That’s certainly the case with the Puritans and their Separatist brand of Protestant Christianity. Present-day Christians share the same faith, but they do not practice it in the same way. Both the similarities and the differences play a role in how we interpret and practice our religion.

For McKenzie, one of the key things that contemporary American Christians can learn from the Pilgrims is that “we are pilgrims too.” He writes: “to know we are pilgrims is to understand our identity and, by extension, where our ultimate hope lies…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 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 belong to Christ, not on our identity as Americans.”

Amen, and thank God!

Now, would someone please pass me another helping of mashed potatoes?

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. InterVarsity Press posted this funny little video about the “first Thanksgiving,” based on McKenzie’s reconstruction of it.

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3 Comments

  1. I’m getting a bit weary of this. Every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter out comes these pseudo-experts who seek to enlighten us by telling us that it didn’t happen or couldn’t happen or shouldn’t have happened the way those other pseudo-experts taught us how it all came down. It’s getting to the point where you don’t know who to believe. (sigh)

    I have concluded that it’s kinda like Thanksgiving dinner with roast turkey, dressing, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, deviled eggs (angel eggs for the evangelicals), scalloped corn, sweet rolls, apple salad, pumpkin pie and hot cider. Take your pick and phooey on the experts!

    1. Here in its entirety is the only extant contemporary account of the 1621 ceased:

      “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

      On that slender reed have been built all subsequent accounts of the “first Thanksgiving.”

      1. Yes, I have that same extant statement in my files. But, now let us compare this “only extant account” with McKenzie’s account. If, indeed, this is “the only extant account” of the 1621 feast, then, it appears that Mckenzie has taken huge liberties of imagination with his assertions, as follows:

        (1) “It [the feast] PROBABLY didn’t occure in November.” But, on the other hand, it might have.
        (2) “It wasn’t eaten indoors.” The extant account doesn’t claim it was.
        (3) “It didn’t include turkey” (but MIGHT have included turnips and eel). NOTE: The extant account claims they hunted for “fowl” (who can prove it wasn’t turkey?)
        (4) The Wampanoags “just showed up uninvited.” The extant account would seem to indicate that when 90 ‘First Americans’ showed up for the feast there was enough food prepared to feed them all. At least many of them must have been pre-invited.

        I could take issue with many other of McKensie’s assertions, e.g., Christians making “idols” out of the pilgrims, but I’ll leave it with these few examples of his personal cogitations.

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