Tracy McKenzie on the First Thanksgiving
Date: November 24th, 2013

What events led up to The “First” Thanksgiving and what was life like for the Pilgrims who celebrated it? Prof. Tracy McKenzie, the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College, takes up this topic from the vantage point of a Christian historian. He challenges some of our “grade school” understandings of what that event was all about, but in a way that retains the reverence for the people and events during that time.

We start our conversation by looking at the topic of “revisionist history.” Prof. McKenzie provides a very profound and nuanced discussion of what it means to be “revisionist,” while simultaneously admitting that he is not a fan of that term. A good portion of what Tracy does in his most recent work is not only to discuss Thanksgiving, but is designed to prompt Christians to think critically about their history as a means of living their faith more honestly. As part of this, we quickly learn that The “First” Thanksgiving celebrated on the fourth Thursday of every November is not actually the first thanksgiving in the New World. Tracy explains why this is.

We then explore who the Pilgrims were and what motivated them to eventually set sail for Virginia, initially, but had them landing in modern day Massachusetts. This discussion includes what the Pilgrims believed theologically and how they acted out their faith. Surprisingly, we discover that the Pilgrims were very averse to celebrating the traditional holidays we take for granted today, such as Christmas and Easter, but rather considered only Sunday as the only “holy day.” Prof. McKenzie then shares how “days of thanksgiving” were celebrated by the Pilgrims, but not as a regular holiday but rather as a “particular holy day” that would only be called on special occasions.

We also bring up several other characteristics of the Pilgrims that might surprise us, including their dislike of the King James Bible and how they prayed with eyes upward rather than heads bowed. And one of the more interesting aspects of the Pilgrims to come up was that they never gave thanks for their food before eating, although they did pray to have the food blessed. The political views of these Separatists then comes into our discussion as well as the diversity of the passengers aboard the Mayflower and how that diversity would be managed with the Mayflower Compact. The economic conditions of the Pilgrims in their first year falls under our scrutiny, observing that they first set out with a communal farming structure but this breaks down after two years and William Bradford agrees to privatize parcels of land.

Other topics covered include relations with the Wampanoags, how the “frist” Thanksgiving was celebrated, and how this event is forgotten for nearly 200 years until it came to capture the American immagination in the 1820s and ’40s. Tracy also reveals how Thanksgiving was considered a “Yankee” holiday during the secessionist crisis that led up to the Civil War and how it eventually became a nationally-recognized holiday under the FDR administration.

Prof. McKenzie finishes the interview with his own reflections on what this story of Thanksgiving has meant to him and his family, and how Christians need to celebrate their history as well as remembering it for what it really is. His insights as a father, and not just a historian, should resonate with many of our listeners. This is an encore presentation.  Recorded: November 5, 2012.


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