I’m reading The First Thanksgiving by Robert Tracy McKenzie. In his introduction chapter he brings the precision of a historian to bear on the title of his book. What we commonly think of as the “first” Thanksgiving, with the Pilgrims in 1620, isn’t quite right. Here are some other titles he considered in order to be historically accurate. Given the options I think his choice was excellent.
What’s wrong with “The First Thanksgiving?” McKenzie explains, “Giving thanks is surely an ancient human practice, and no one seriously believes that the Pilgrims at Plymouth were the first to stop and thank their Creator for a bountiful harvest.” (8)
How about “The First American Thanksgiving?” No, still not quite right. “Spanish documents refer to a thanksgiving mass celebrated shortly after conquistadors landed at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565—at a time when only two of the Pilgrims had even been born.” (8)
Ok, how about “The First American Protestant Christian Thanksgiving?” Getting closer but still not quite there. “It overlooks the evidence of one thanksgiving service in 1564 near present-day Jacksonville, Florida, held by French Huguenots (who would soon be slaughtered by Spaniards from St. Augustine); one in 1607 at a short-lived English colony on the coast of Maine; and two others among English colonists in Virginia, in 1610 and 1619.” (9)
Where does this leave us? “The First American Protestant Christian Thanksgiving North of Virginia and South of Maine.” Historically accurate but a sure-fire killer for a book title in this day.
McKenzie’s goal is not to “debunk a treasured American tradition.” (9) Far from it. He does want us to think about it. “The story of the First Thanksgiving is central to how we, as Americans, remember our origins. The subsequent development of the Thanksgiving holiday speaks volumes about how we have defined our identity across the centuries.”
In this Introduction he also laments the demise of our history in any kind of history at all. We are “unwitting disciples” of the late Henry Ford who once remarked, “I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.” (11)
I’ll leave you with just one more paragraph from this amazing intro.
“By one estimate, only 6 percent of all the human beings who have ever lived are alive right now, yet we write off the other 94 percent, jettisoning history from the curriculum in favor of purportedly more practical subjects. G.K. Chesterton’s observation of a century ago rings true for us today: too many of us consign our forebears to oblivion, rejecting ‘the democracy of the dead’ in order to bow to that ‘small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.'” (11)
Beautifully said. The Introduction alone is worth the price of the book and once you’re done with that you won’t want to stop. The First Thanksgiving is from IVP Academic. It is a paperback with 219 pages and sells for $18.00.