The First Thanksgiving and the Task of the Historian – A Conversation with Robert Tracy McKenzie

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

Thinking in Public

 Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Robert Tracy McKenzie is professor and chair of the department of history at Wheaton College where he teaches courses in U.S. History, the Civil war, and historiography. Before coming to Wheaton in 2010, McKenzie served for twenty-two years at the faculty of the University of Washington where he received the university’s distinguished teaching award, was a member of the University of Washington teaching academy, and held the Donald A. Logan chair of American History. He received the Ph.D. degree from Vanderbilt University, and he is the author of several award-winning books in addition to numerous reviews and articles. After publishing monographs with Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, his most recent work is The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, published by Intervarsity Press.

Dr. McKenzie, welcome to Thinking in Public.

McKenzie: It is my pleasure to be a part of it, Dr. Mohler.

Mohler: I’m really glad to be having this conversation with you, first of all, because I think the book is worthy of conversation, but also because it gives us the opportunity for a rather wide-ranging conversation on how Christians should understand history. As a matter of fact, I want to commend your book, The First Thanksgiving, in terms of subject matter—the first Thanksgiving—but I think the most significant achievement of your book is actually how it models a Christian understanding of history. And my guess is you wrote it with such an intention.

McKenzie: Well, you are exactly right. I thought a book on the first Thanksgiving would enable me to engage a broader audience, but definitely it has bigger goals in mind. I chose the topic because I think it’s a great context for a broader approach for what it means as a believer to think about the past in a faithful way.

Mohler: So, let’s talk about that because I think the early chapters of your book are actually just gold in terms of helping to shape the Christian mind in thinking about history. You raise a host of issues. But let me just ask you, when it comes to how Christians most often misunderstand history, where do we most often get it wrong, before we even talk about what it means to get it right?

McKenzie: I would generalize by saying the pitfall that I think I see most often when Christians engage the past is one in which we begin to first impute authority to the past where God has not granted it. That is to say, we take figures from the past and we treat them as if their example is automatically to be followed. And, in the process we begin to confuse our identity as believers. As an American historian I am most interested in the way in which 21st century Christians remember history and its relation to Christian faith. And I think we often fall into the patterns of thinking that really conflate our identity as believers and our identity as Americans.

Mohler: One of the points you make, and it is a very interesting point, is that many evangelicals tend to look to history in order to mine it for heroes. And the heroes, you warn, can often turn into idolatrous figures simply by the fact that they are given an authority that God did not grant them. Can you explain that a bit further?

McKenzie: I start with the idea that searching in the past for heroes is not only acceptable, it’s probably a desirable thing. I think of how Paul writes in 1 Corinthians. He tells the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitates Christ. I think it is a good thing to find out godly models to follow. But it is a very subtle transformation that often follows when we begin to impute authority. And I can just give you an example of that, a very simple one. If we are discussing the role of faith in the public square in contemporary America and we quote from George Washington, or John Adams, or some other figure from the Revolutionary generation who says something about the importance of Christian faith in the public sphere, and then we cross our arms and basically imply that that settles the matter, then what we have effectively done is we have quoted a founder much like we might quote Scripture; and we have said automatically a position that someone has held is the position that abides for us today. And that may seem like a subtle difference but it is an enormous one, I think. And I do think it is a snare that traps us all the time.

Mohler: And it is one I want to argue is understandable and want to conjecture here is the significant departure amongst younger evangelicals from the generations twenty or forty years removed. I don’t think those previous generations were quite so hungry for historical heroes as the current generation is. I’ll give you some evidence of that. What we have is a massive republication industry going on in the evangelical world. People would be hard-pressed to find the complete writings of John Owen in any place or for any reason thirty years ago. Now the entire works of one of the most significant puritans is now available and for sale in many local book stores. And there is paraphernalia also that is out there—art work and all kinds of things like that. And I’m going to argue that under the pressures of this fast secularizing age and especially in a theological movement that lacks an obvious patriarchy, I think there is a great hunger for that kind of heroic figure to be found in history.

McKenzie: I think you are probably exactly right. I think we are a culture that hungers for celebrities. I was listening to a lecture just last week by Paul Vitz who is a Christian psychologist at NYU, and he was saying that we hunger for, in his specific example, we hunger for unselfish male examples in a culture that is so materialistic and individualistic. So I do think it is understandable, absolutely. We just need to be discerning and wise in the way that we address that natural desire.

Mohler: I think the antidote that you provide in this book to that danger is actually helpful to us, and that is making sure we are looking at the person in the context and looking at the character as a totality. Even as we look at the Magisterial Reformers, Calvin and Luther for example—both of whom hang in my study as portraits and hang large in my life as influences—one would not want to emulate them in every single way. And, as a matter of fact, we would probably find ourselves being very uncomfortable in their presence and in their congregation if we actually came to historical terms to what they were about. But, nonetheless, they do exert an extremely positive influence and provide something of an intellectual and theological anchor in very turbulent times.

McKenzie: Well put. I couldn’t agree more. I think one of the things that I suggest is just a simple principle: that we remember that the fall touches everyone. I think we are skeptical of golden ages because of that. But having said that to sort of temper our enthusiasm for individuals that should not prevent us from giving thanks for those who have offered examples that we benefit from.

Mohler: So, what do we do with the past? There it is, and it’s your business as a professional historian and as a professor of history to help a generation of students and beyond—the reading and learning public—to understand how to come to terms with the past. So where do we get started?

McKenzie: I think we start first of all with the kind of attitude of expectancy. Rowan Williams, who is the former archbishop of Canterbury, writes in one of his books that we should expect gifts from the past. I think about that and feel very strongly about that. We are entering into a conversation that transcends generations, centuries, millennia, about permanent questions of importance. And we go into that conversation expecting or open to the possibility of life-changing encounters and of hearing truths that in our own culture we are a little bit blind to. But having that expectancy for genuine education, I think we combine that with a kind of skepticism about our own biases and, in particular, a skepticism that reminds us of our tendency to recreate the past in our own image.

One of the things that I talk about in the book is a tendency that we have that goes hand in hand with our belief that the past is important, and that is a tendency to mine the past or search the past for ammunition rather than enlightenment. And so I think we need to be very careful. And I have come to the conclusion that part of what it means to think Christianly when we go to the past is actually to examine our own hearts at the front end of the process. And we ask ourselves, “What is it that we are looking for? Why does it matter to us?” And sometimes we go to the past simply for entertainment. But very often when Christians go to the past they think there is something at stake there. It’s because they already have made a certain kind of commitment to a public position and simply expect the past to provide the ammunition that allows them to prove the point to which they are already committed. And the danger with that is that we never learn anything. We find what we look for, and it may even be effective in a pragmatic way. But we’ll not encounter a fundamentally challenging way of thinking about the question that causes us to stop and pause and go back and reexamine what we understand.

Mohler: But it doesn’t actually gain much for us. My own academic network is at the intersection of historiography and theology in the field of historical theology. And the history of the church, and in particular the history of theology, reminds us that if we don’t get the whole story, at least as much of the story as we can get, we are going to miss very key issues and integral parts of argument and development without which, quite frankly, what we mine—to use your verb there—just isn’t going to be all that valuable to us, if we don’t know the story. It might be ammunition for the argument, but it doesn’t actually help us to understand how minds change and how issues were defined and how in a particular context we actually learn how, in the case of my research, the church in particular and the larger society around it was trying to think through various issues. And it seems to me that when you look at the kind of historiography you lay out—and you are writing to Christians very clearly in this book—you aren’t really saying that the past isn’t really important or valuable, but, rather—I don’t want to put words in your mouth—without it we basically aren’t having the kind of conversation with the dead that any mature, honest thinker needs constantly to have.

McKenzie: Absolutely. One of the verses that I come back to over and over again in the book, and also in my teaching, is from a rather brief allusion in the book of Job. One of the individuals that comes to interact with Job, a man named Bildad, who says to Job—and this is my paraphrase—but he tells Job that if you are trying to understand your situation, go to our fathers and go to their fathers and inquire of them, and inquire of former ages, and Bildad concludes, “for we were born yesterday and know nothing.” And I love that phrase. And I think when we seek wisdom while in the process shutting ourselves off from the ninety-three or ninety-four percent of human beings who have lived before us, there is a kind of incredibly arrogant provincialism to that. And I fully believe if we truly are committed to search for wisdom, then we have to practice what Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead”—we have to let those who have gone before us also have a voice in the conversation.

Mohler: Jaroslav Pelikan, who was the Sterling Professor of History at Yale, made a very similar point in which he said that the fact that one ignores history would make about as much sense as denying that one has ancestors. And he went on to say that the conversation with the dead, in this historical sense, is as necessary with the living, because the living are inexplicable but with reference to the dead. And, of course, you have C.S. Lewis—and I believe you cite this in your book—one of the most common references to history in the introduction to a work by one of the patristic fathers when he says that the temptation is to practice some form of chronological snobbery. And that is an intellectual fashion that seems to be very current in the academy at any given time.

McKenzie: Yes, absolutely. I love the phrase that Lewis uses there, “chronological snobbery.” He actually has offered many concepts to me that I have found very useful as a historian. In fact, my real appreciation for Lewis has grown as I have found more and more ways that his thinking actually enriches my thinking, historically.

Mohler: You know one of the things this raises is how his education is different from our own. By the time that C.S. Lewis was in high school, he had been steeped in history such that, according to one of his biographers, he was able to walk through the medieval eras as if he had spoken to people from them. And, of course, that informs his writings.

McKenzie: Yes, his education would have been steeped in ancient literature, language, and history. I think, if I understand correctly from his biographers, he was very troubled when the English universities began to introduce modern history, which was anything after the Reformation. So he was really one who was constantly drawing from a deep kind of legacy inherited from earlier ages.

Mohler: As I recall, he refused to teach any literature after 1830 simply because there was no way to know in one hundred years if the literature really had value. But that is the opposite of chronological snobbery, perhaps.

I want to go to something you wrote back in 2004. You were writing as a historian to historians about the generation you are now teaching. And I am going to read to you from an essay you wrote entitled, “Christians Teaching History.” You said this:

I find that the typical student who sits in my classes is both an historical objectivist and a philosophical relativist. When it comes to reading their textbooks or listening to my lectures, such students think in terms of cold hard facts. Implicitly, they believe that historical truths are objectively knowable, that they are easily ascertained, and that they should be universally acknowledged. When the topic turns from truths to truth, however, the ultimate questions about transcendent moral values or the existence of God, for example, they immediately become determined relativists.

I found that fascinating. Play that out for me.

McKenzie: It is good for you to dig out that statement from almost a decade ago. As you mentioned to your listeners at the outset, I did teach in a secular context for more than two decades. And one of the things that I was thinking about was ways in which to encounter the past and, in the process, naturally to raise eternal questions. And one of the things that did strike me in that process, as I went through in multiple iterations, was that students were very comfortable in compartmentalizing things. They were very comfortable in compartmentalizing issues that operate within what you might consider a disciplinary context, within the context of history, or of what it means to think historically, to set apart in one category of the mind totally separate from issues of purpose and meaning, issues that we would think of as leading to eternal questions with religious answers. And one of the things that was a challenge for me was to try to get students to reunify those two aspects of their thinking. And we find, when we study the past, permanent questions or eternal questions and press them to come up with internally consistent answers. I think it is an indictment of the modern, secular, decentralized university—very few students felt any pressure or any obligation whatsoever to have a consistent philosophy of life. It was a constant challenge to try to make an argument that that was not the way it ought to be.

Mohler: So you delivered a sermon of sorts. You say, “On the first day of each new class,” in that secular environment—just give a brief summary of that sermon because I think it will be very helpful.

McKenzie: Right, I called it “sermons for the secular classroom.” Teaching in a large research university that was aggressively secular, there were certain boundaries that I often felt and tried not to cross. But I tried to make arguments that were intellectually substantive that would, at the very least, encourage students to reconsider their fundamental understandings. And one of the sermons that I would often do is often a concluding lecture. I would challenge students to think about some of what we had observed when we had studied American history and to try to evaluate it.

We would talk about democracy as a system in which the majority has its way, and I would remind them that the removal of native Americans in the 1830s was democratic by that standard, and the support of slavery was democratic by that standard, and the creation of a segregated Jim Crow system in the late 19th century was democratic by that standard. And it was basically trying to push them into a corner to recognize that sometimes the majority isn’t right. And I think to believe and acknowledge that the majority is not always right raises enormous philosophical questions. Because if the majority can be wrong, then we have to understand some standard that obliges the majority, that restrains.

I would just say that I would bring students to the brink of that precipice to say where does that standard come from? And it seemed to me that there were just a few possible answers: that the standard would be something we invented or it would be something that we discovered from an existence outside of cultural construction. I tried to make the students feel uncomfortable. I’m not sure how effective I was, but one of the things that I just discover all the time is that students ultimately have been acculturated in the modern university to think that philosophical consistency was simply not that important.

Mohler: And so you ask them to consider history as a discipline that’s not just about things that happen in the past but rather a discipline that, to use your words, “engages the heart and requires inner work.”

McKenzie: The only reason for studying history, I would say. I would put on my syllabi that, at its best, to study the past is a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live. If we do not encounter something in it that challenges us deeply about the values that we hold most dearly, there isn’t much point in studying it, I think.

[Begin commentary break]

Mohler: I think it’s really important that you had a professor here in a secular university, the University of Washington, presenting to students in that secular context, very much up-front and with intellectual honesty, lectures which he called “sermons to secular students.” Listening to how he describes that, reading about it in his writings, it leads me to believe that Christian students, indeed evangelical students, are often in need of those very same sermons.

[End commentary break]

Mohler: Professor McKenzie, this book is The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History. Why this book? Why about the Pilgrims? Why now?

McKenzie: Great question. For me, it began and has been evolving as a personal goal. I have spent most of my academic career doing what academics do, which means primarily producing scholarship for other academics. And I really began to come under the sense of conviction to communicate and connect in some way with Christians outside of the academy. And as I began to think about that, what I felt called to do was really enter into conversation with Christians about the intersection between our faith and our encounters with the past. What it might mean to “think Christianly,” if we want to use that phrase about the past. And I thought, I can write a very dry sort of abstract treatise on the topic and have an audience of a handful. Or maybe there is another way to go about it. Maybe there is a way to revisit the familiar story, a story that Americans would find accessible and might find intrinsically important, and use that story as a context within which to model what it would mean to be responsible in one’s encounter with the past.

So I decided, as I thought about it more and more, that the first Thanksgiving episode had a lot of ingredients that were really key, also that the Thanksgiving holiday we impute much religious significance to. It is actually a civil holiday, however; it is accorded by the state and not the church. And then we associate it with a particular historical moment. So when I thought about it, it really sort of intertwines religious beliefs, national identity, and historical memory. And so, to me, it was a perfect combination of ingredients, and so I decided to retell the story and think out loud along the way and hopefully raise some issues that American Christians would benefit from engaging.

Mohler: Well, I think no doubt you did. And so you left behind the civil war and its aftermath for a bit and went back a couple of centuries in terms of time. But I want to ask you a pointed question—given all the controversies about the first Thanksgiving, the war of the historians, especially at the popular level in which you have the secularists on one side arguing a strong secular argument, and on the other side you have some pushing back, claiming that the first Thanksgiving is proof positive of the fact of two things: one, that we are inherently a Christian nation, and two, that secularists hate that notion and will do anything to deny it. So, you have that issue out there. I guess you have to believe that that controversy had to be at least in part what interests you as an historian?

McKenzie: Well, it is. I would say that in my own min, because the audience that I was anticipating was primarily taken to be a Christian audience, I was willing to speak very openly to Christians about how to think Christianly. The kind of issues that I expected would be on the table is the claim that many would make, that the stories of the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving is sort of “Exhibit A” for the argument that America was founded as a Christian nation. And I did want to sort of push back at that in a sort of indirect way. I mean, one of the things I think the book does, I hope, is that readers who follow along on how our memory of Thanksgiving has evolved over the last four centuries might recognize that Christians have been sort of guilty of inventing a history just as much as, perhaps, secularists have.

Mohler: Well, inventing it on the one hand and, perhaps on the other hand, appropriating it unthinkingly and unaware of the fact that much of it just, to put it bluntly, isn’t so. But, the point I want to come back to as a historical theologian is that the real story is infinitely more interesting and actually more helpful to us as Christians trying to understand what we should and must learn from the past. So, I want to step back from it a little bit and say that your attention to the Pilgrims themselves and to the background of English separatism is invaluable and will be for many people, I think, the first thing they’ve ever read. I did my doctoral work, largely, under a professor, Dr. Timothy George, who is at the Beeson Divinity School and who wrote his doctoral dissertation at Harvard on John Robinson. You know, this is coming into clearly theological territory, but an area of history in which even the most active and intellectually aware evangelical doesn’t even know about. So, take us back there. When you begin to tell this story, you do not begin in Plymouth—the new one or the old. You begin elsewhere. Tell us why

McKenzie: Right. Well, part of it is sort of an article of faith among historians that context is crucial—it’s always crucial. And, in fact, if we don’t know the context, we’re fooling ourselves if we think we understand any particular historical moment. So, I do think you always take a sort of running start at any episode that interests you. And for this particular example, it meant going back not just a short period of time, but more than a century to understand context from which that Scrooby congregation in the north of England had emerged. So, in the first part of the book, I just try to situate the forerunners of that congregation into the larger currents that are going on in the period of the Reformation—both in Europe and in England.

The Pilgrims—if we are to understand them rightly—we have to see that they are really a group of dissenters within dissenters, in the sense of their growing out of the Puritan movement in England which is a group within the Church of England that’s convinced that the kinds of changes of the Elizabethan Settlement, as it was called—the way in which the Anglican Church had ultimately come down on the questions that had been raised by the Reformers—was simply an insufficient reform of the church from the corruptions that they believed Catholicism had gradually introduced. The Scrooby congregation is actually a subset within that Puritan movement that we remember as Separatists

I can remember when I first encountered Separatists; I thought, well, what we’re really encountering here is simply a difference of opinion over strategy: that most Puritans believed that the Anglican Church could be sufficiently reformed from within and that the Separatists believed that it really needed to happen from outside of the confines of the Anglican Church. But that doesn’t begin to capture the difference. The Separatists had come to the conclusion that the Anglican Church was no true church at all. And that, in fact, having come to that conclusion, if they were to continue in the Church, they would come under God’s judgment. So they actually are quite critical of Puritans who are not willing to come out from the Anglican Church and will, in fact, dispute over time whether it is acceptable ever to listen to a sermon from a Puritan who has refused to come out.

Mohler: Let me ask you to fast-forward here just a bit. Just to summarize, you have the Reformation, and then in the Church of England you have the Elizabethan Settlement, the Puritans working still within the Church of England and still trying to bring about reform, but a group of more radical Puritans, the Separatists, leave the Church of England and, as you say, no longer consider it to even be a true church. And a good number of them, due to the political pressures of being outside of the established religion in England, go to The Netherlands and particularly to Leiden—a liberal culture, a rather liberal city—and there they enjoy religious liberty. But they’re also in danger of becoming Dutch, which means that they’re in danger of losing a lot of their moral commitments—especially amongst their young people—as well. And so they’re desperate to find a place not where they can enjoy religious liberty—you make the point that they have that in Leiden—but rather where they can enjoy religious liberty for themselves and at the same time a truly reformed Church.

McKenzie: Correct. Absolutely. I think you’ve summarized it wonderfully. The way that I always try to emphasize is that we have to remember that the migration of the Scrooby congregation that ultimately culminates in New England is a two-stage migration. And so the motives that propel them ultimately to Holland are different in some degree from the motives that propel them to North America. They are interested in a place where they can model true worship as they understand it, but they certainly are hoping it will be a place that will have much greater economic opportunity than what they had in Leiden, where there would be the freedom to raise their families as they thought proper. And I think part of that involved perpetuating English culture, at least aspects of English culture.

Mohler: And an agrarian culture. They didn’t really fit in the industrial culture of Leiden.

McKenzie: They don’t fit in Leiden because there are minimal opportunities. Many of them—as many as half—were earning their living as weavers in the textile industry, but that was not how they were trained and it was certainly very foreign from the culture that they left in England.

Mohler: So you make the point that the urgency to actually take this incredibly perilous journey—and I’m going to ask you to spell that out just a little bit—really comes from the impetus that they are driven by their theological beliefs and their search for a true and pure church. They’re driven from England to Leiden and then, in an effort to maintain subsequent generations within their own church and to sustain themselves, they take this very perilous journey and they come to the New World. By the way, one of the things you say in the book is that we should be very careful not to say that religious liberty in itself is what drove them. And what I wanted to say back to you in the book is that they’re concern for religious liberty—we need to also be historically honest—was for themselves. As they were establishing their community, they really were not at this point very interested in what we would now call “the separation of church and state.” That is a historical mis-claim.

McKenzie: That’s exactly right. Sometimes the Pilgrims have been condemned—often by unsympathetic voices—as hypocritical in their thinking about religious freedom. They leave the Old World because of religious persecution and they refuse to grant religious toleration to others when they come to North America. I don’t think that that’s fair and I don’t think they were ever motivated to come to America by what we define typically in the 21st century as a commitment to religious freedom. They believed that the Scripture provided sufficient guidance to what worship that was honoring to God looked like, and they wanted an environment where they could create that. It was never the idea that—as is sometimes attributed to them—what they desired most was to be able to worship according to, quote, “the dictates of their own conscience.” That’s a phrase that would have been wholly foreign to their worldview, and actually not very common in America for another couple of centuries.

Mohler: That kind of subjectivity just doesn’t fit. One other point, just to test this with you and to speak as a theologian who has been looking at the same historical terrain: when you think about the Puritans, and in this case the Pilgrims, I think one of the things we need to recognize is the centrality of their commitment to the notion of covenant. And so they were intending to establish a civitas, a city that was, not just as a church but as an entire community, understood to be within the same covenantal relationship. So I would make the argument that they understood themselves not to be establishing a nation. They weren’t trying to do that at all. They considered themselves Englishmen and Englishwomen who were there as an extension of the English crown, at least by necessity. But they did see themselves as establishing a colony, and within that colony, a church. And the distinction between the two in our eyes is a rather modern invention.

McKenzie: I absolutely agree with you. Their vision just is not ours. And I think you’re just exactly right that that concept of covenant is central. And I think that when we read the covenant that the Scrooby congregation enters into, they really pledge themselves to the Lord and pledged themselves one to another. And I think that’s part of what we lose when we think about their motivations to come to North America. Some will say it’s entirely because of religious persecution. Others—many political conservatives today—would say that the main reason the Pilgrims came was for economic opportunity and that they associate that as a kind of free-for-all where everyone gets what they can. What strikes me about the Pilgrims is that they believe that the economic severity that they encounter in Leiden was causing their congregation gradually to just erode, and more and more individuals just became disheartened and had to go elsewhere for economic opportunity. And how many times in our own culture does someone who has an opportunity for a better job leave a congregation and go? These individuals said, “No, we will relocate as a congregation in order to allow us to continue to bond together, and we’ll find a place where that’s possible.”

Mohler: So, you do believe that the “first Thanksgiving” happened?

McKenzie: [laughter] There was certainly an event in the fall of 1621 that was kind of a celebration of God’s goodness in the harvest.

Mohler: And that was an historical event that is accessible to us by a slim stratum of data—but we do have it. And yet, out of that, someone has concocted a massive tradition complete with artwork and customs and supposedly historical accounts about an event evidently written by people a century or more after the event took place.

McKenzie: Right. There’s one letter that was written by a participant at the time that included a brief allusion to the event—four sentences, 115 words. And that’s the totality of the evidence about that actual autumn 1621 event. That letter was published in a collection in England in 1622, and then actually sort of falls out of circulation. It was probably never published in many editions to begin with; and it’s not rediscovered until the 1820s in a library in Philadelphia; and it’s not published again in the United States until 1841. So, the actual evidence about the first Thanksgiving doesn’t really see the light of day in America for 220 years after the event. And so much of the way that Americans remember Thanksgiving is done before there was any reference to the actual Pilgrim celebration in 1621. They know that there’s a kind of tradition that has evolved, but they don’t associate it with the Pilgrims per se.

Mohler: And we can blame much of this confusion on none other than Jane Austen—but not that Jane Austen.

McKenzie: [laughter] A different Jane Austen—a middle-aged New England housewife who was writing a lot of romance novels in the late 1880s and early 1890s. And she writes one based in Plymouth, which is about ninety-nine percent invention, but it’s incredibly popular. It’s picked up by a popular magazine; The Ladies’ Home Journal serializes part of it. And really we associate it, or, I should say, we attribute most of our cultural memory of the first Thanksgiving to this New England housewife who’s writing in 1889.

Mohler: So, your book, and its particular argument in this case, sent me on a little historical investigation and I’m going to test a theory with you here. It seems to me that you can draw a line from Jane Austen—this Jane Austen, the romance writer in the 19th century—all the way to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his declaration. Because it looks to me that his presidential declaration is largely dependent upon her work.

McKenzie: It’s probably true. I can’t say for sure about that causal connection.

Mohler: Well, at least the influence. The story he cites is basically the story she tells.

McKenzie: You’re exactly right. And, interestingly enough, he’s really one of the first presidents to make any reference whatsoever to the Pilgrims when he’s proclaiming a Thanksgiving holiday.

Mohler: So what about Abraham Lincoln? You know, set the record straight.

McKenzie: Abraham Lincoln, we remember, is the president who begins the national Thanksgiving holiday, but that holiday is not rooted, really, in history, in a sense. So, when Lincoln issues the proclamation in 1863, he’s not making any reference whatsoever to a tradition, to anything that’s happened in the American past. He’s talking about God’s faithfulness in the midst of the national trial. So, it’s very contemporary in its orientation. And that, by the way, is one of the reasons that Thanksgiving is not celebrated in the South, very much at all really, until the close of about the 19th century. It’s remembered, really, as a kind of Yankee holiday.

Mohler: Well, as tempting as it is to go there, I’m going to simply say that I want to speak for millions of Americans who will resent you taking Thanksgiving away from us in terms of all the paraphernalia of the holiday that many Americans would at least like to attribute to the Pilgrims—for instance, turkey. You say, very clearly, in the original documentary evidence, there’s reference to fowl, but it would likely be other fowl than turkey that they ate.

McKenzie: That’s correct. We do have visitors who go to Plymouth in the 1620s, and they’re talking about the wild turkeys there. They’re saying they’re so fast, almost impossible to bring down. On the other hand, they’re saying that the ponds around Plymouth just get totally carpeted with ducks and geese and other water fowl in the fall, and that blasting them out of the water is child’s play. So, it’s almost certain that it wouldn’t have been turkey. I really hate to take that away from America, but that’s probably true.

Mohler: Well, I don’t think they’re going to stop eating turkey [laughter], but at least they may have so more historical awareness as they’re eating it. As a matter of fact, you say that if you’re looking for a feast at this time, in terms of the Pilgrims as they actually were establishing their colony, they more likely would be feasting on eels and turnips than on sweet potatoes—which they saw as an aphrodisiac—and turkey.

McKenzie: Yeah. We do know that they ate eels. William Bradford, one of the things that he praises about Plymouth is that the eels are plentiful. They’re fat, wholesome, and sweet, as he describes them. Yeah, I don’t expect that to catch on, though.

Mohler: And the early multicultural agenda of the Pilgrims—in this case meeting and asking the Indians—it turns out that you’re arguing that the larger historical evidence actually accessible to us is that the Indians were indeed there—the Native Americans—but they probably showed up because they were hungry.

McKenzie: Yeah. We can’t say for sure either way, but the testimony that survives does not say explicitly that they were invited. And some of the same Pilgrim writers from the period do tell of other episodes where they actually traveled to the main camp of the Wampanoag, and they ask the chief there, Massasoit, not to come anymore uninvited. After all, they’re short on food and they can’t feed them. So, we know that the Wampanoag were in the habit of stopping by uninvited, and there’s no particular reason to doubt that’s what happened in this case.

Mohler: Well, we won’t go into detail here, but you point out that many of our visual images of Thanksgiving—especially rooted in American later renderings of the event—actually mislead us more than instruct us. But I want you to point to why these Pilgrims might have been particularly thankful given the fact that they did have this harvest. Talk about the loss of life and the tragedies that marked their first beginnings here in this new colony.

McKenzie: Absolutely. One of the things that I don’t want the book to be is a kind of study that says, “Everything you thought you knew is wrong.” I actually find a great deal to admire in the Pilgrim story, and one of the things I admire most is that they clearly do purpose to celebrate God’s kindness in the midst of what we would consider, I think, to be untold tragedy. Many people understand that of the 102 passengers of the Mayflower, exactly half are going to pass away during that first winter. If we break that down, the death toll is not evenly distributed across the passengers. It hits women and it hits adults more than it hits males and children. So, of the eighteen wives who are passengers on the Mayflower, fourteen die before the spring. And by the time of that celebration in the fall of 1621, there are only four adult women. That’s one thing we rarely capture in the pictures of the first Thanksgiving. There were only four adult women, and just over half of the number are children. And so that Thanksgiving celebration is a gathering disproportionately of widowers and orphans; and that’s part of the story that I think we lose sight of. It gives a poignancy to the event that we can all too easily lose.

Mohler: Once again, the reality is far greater than our cultural mis-memory. And I think that’s a very important point—especially for Christians to understand. You end the book on a theological note. You might not intend so to do, but you do. And you point out that perhaps the greatest thing we can learn from the Pilgrims is the fact that we too, as Christians, are pilgrims.

McKenzie: Yes, absolutely. I feel so strongly about that. One of the ways that we have remembered the Pilgrim story is to remember them as travelers—as they thought of themselves. But we think of them as travelers to the “promised land” of the future United States. And I’m not just saying that figuratively. I quote in the book many instances of Thanksgiving orations that were given where the Pilgrims are imagined as standing on Plymouth Rock and seeing through eyes of faith a great nation that will rise up upon the beginnings that they lay. And they just don’t think about it and themselves that way at all. William Bradford, when he says he knew that they were pilgrims, it’s very clearly in the context of quoting the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. He’s talking about a passage that refers to those heroes of the faith. He says, “strangers, pilgrims in this world, having their eyes set on a heavenly country.” And that to me is the single most important message that I want to take to Thanksgiving season from the Pilgrims. I want to recapture the sense that the world is not my home and yearn for that kind of eternal perspective as we make sense of our earthly sojourn.

Mohler: One of the earliest Christian leaders spoke of this by suggesting that Christians must always remember that we are at home everywhere and, at the same time, nowhere. And we are, until Jesus comes, a pilgrim people. Robert Tracy McKenzie, thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public.

McKenzie: My pleasure, Al.

[Closing commentary]

Mohler: I really enjoyed that conversation with Robert Tracy McKenzie. His new book really gives us an opportunity to reconsider Thanksgiving, indeed, the first Thanksgiving, and how we enjoy and contemplate such things in terms of our memory—our historical memory. And of course, what you have in this book is a tour de force of how Christians should understand history in the first place. And that’s what I think will be the greatest enduring value of the book. I do think many people will pick up the book because of their interest in the first Thanksgiving, but they’re going to get a whole lot more than a very careful, deliberate, and fascinating account of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving.

Professor McKenzie gives us so much to think about in this book. The role of history in the life of any intelligent person is a huge issue. To cut ourselves off from the past is to rob ourselves from understanding the present. Just about everyone knows that’s true, and yet few, I think, ponder what the kinds of consequences of that deliberate ignorance turn out to be. But beyond that deliberate ignorance is the sometimes un-deliberate, or accidental misunderstanding of history that can come to us in ways that are almost equally injurious. Getting the past wrong is almost as problematic as not getting the past in our minds at all. What we’re looking at here is that Christians have a particular type of stewardship of the mind and of the intellect that should lead us to understand that our discipleship to Christ is at stake in terms of our understanding of the past. As is so often the case, and as he makes so clear in reference to the first Thanksgiving, the true story is not less interesting than the misunderstood, misrepresented story—it’s always more. The greater is always filled with more for us than the lesser. And the artificial history pales in comparison to the real. The real story of the Pilgrims, the real story of Plymouth, the real story of the first Thanksgiving is far more interesting and far more instructive to all of us than the misremembered or misrepresented history.

And when you come to contemporary debates over Thanksgiving, there is real debate to be had. But part of it is a theological debate, part of it is a historical debate, and a lot of it is a cultural and political debate. It takes a good and honest historian, a skilled historian using all the tools of historiography, to tell us what really happened as best as it can be understood, while letting the past speak to us as authentically as possible given the tools and the task of history. On the other hand, history isn’t the end of the story. That’s where Christians have to turn to theology and turn to our understanding drawn from the Scriptures to understand how we should think of thankfulness and Thanksgiving right now. Robert Tracy McKenzie sets the record straight in so many ways. And that clears the way for a better and clearer understanding of Thanksgiving in our lives and what it means to be a pilgrim people.

Reading a book like this is to enter a world of intellectual conversation that involves a cast of hundreds by the time you finish this book. But you also enter into a narrative that gets clearer and more important as it becomes more accurate and more understood. We can’t go back to that first Thanksgiving, and given the deprivations and the tragedies that that people had to experience, we probably wouldn’t want to. But our task is not to go back, but rather in the present to consider what understanding the past now gives us the opportunity to do: to be more faithful, to think more clearly, and, indeed, in the sense of the first Thanksgiving, to be even more thankful. In that spirit, I wish to you and yours a very happy Thanksgiving. Thanks again to my guest, Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie, for thinking with me today.

Before I close, I want to invite you to join us on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on March 14-15, 2014 for the Renown Youth Conference. God has revealed himself to be more valuable than anything and everything in all of creation. And that is precisely why we as Christians must think, and why apologetics matter. Apologetics is the art of defending the Christian faith. At the Renown Conference, we will seek to equip this generation’s middle and high school aged students with the arsenal of God’s Word as they do battle against the cosmic powers of this present darkness. For more information, go to

Thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.