I started this book on Thanksgiving Day, appropriately enough. McKenzie does several things that make this an outstanding book, in my view.
First he helps us understand the work good historians do in teasing documentable fact and a credible narrative of events out of the accretions of tradition that surround so many famous “historical events”. He explores what sources there are on which to base our understanding of “the first Thanksgiving” and the Plymouth settlement more broadly–predominantly William Bradford’s and Edward Winslow’s narrative of these events–it is a 115 word account in the latters narrative the forms the basis of our attribution of the First Thanksgiving to the Pilgrims.
Second, he then re-tells the history of the Pilgrims based on what we actually know. And from this we learn that the “First Thanksgiving” was probably a harvest festival that probably occurred late September, early October of 1621 and was not repeated. It was not a specifically religious day of Thanksgiving, which the Pilgrims occasionally proclaimed for various reasons on subsequent occasions. In fact the Pilgrims were actually anti-holiday. The only set day they observed was Sunday. Finally, their relationship with the neighboring Indian tribe was ambivalent. It may be that the Wampanoags were not invited but rather simply showed up as they were wont to do. At least on this occasion they brought venison from a five slain deer to contribute.
Third, McKenzie traces the development of Thanksgiving traditions and practices. Only in 1841 was Winslow’s narrative re-published which began to focus Thanksgiving practice on the Pilgrims. Also, he shows how this was primarily a New England tradition until post-civil war years. Thanksgiving celebrations were often coupled with abolitionist events. It wasn’t until 1939 when Franklin Roosevelt connected Thanksgiving explicitly to the Pilgrims that the association stuck. He also recounts some of the fanciful accounts of the first Thanksgiving that have contributed to both art and contemporary practice.
Finally, McKenzie explores what we can learn from the Pilgrims and how their narrative challenges us. He cautions against efforts to read God’s providence back into history. And he argues that it is not our role to make moral judgments on other generations but to engage in moral reflection on what we learn for our own. He thinks we can learn from the spiritually resourced fortitude with which they faced trials. He thinks that their very ordinariness, with all their faults can encourage us as to what is possible for “ordinary folk.” He also thinks that rather than link them to a holiday that is an occasion for over-eating in preparation for over-consumption of material goods, that the occasional nature of the celebration should encourage us to set aside times for such celebrations when it is appropriate and to genuinely thank the God from whom such good things come. Finally, he encourages us to reflect on their name, Pilgrims, and to consider what it means for followers of Christ to likewise be pilgrims who look toward a better home.