The First Thanksgiving by Robert Tracy McKenzie
Every year around Thanksgiving, I enjoy reflecting on the Pilgrims, their Mayflower voyage and that firstThanksgiving back in 1621. Being a descendant of no less a figure than John Alden (the one who stole Miles Standish’s girl, Priscilla Mullins) only encourages my Thanksgiving reverie. This year, I enjoyed finishing a first-rate historical survey of that special Pilgrim holiday. The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History by Robert Tracy McKenzie (IVP, 2013), is a book I thoroughly enjoyed but one that challenged me to reexamine the historical record and the reasons why I love to reflect on my Puritanical roots.
McKenzie takes the occasion of writing a book on the first thanksgiving, to remind his Christian audience about the role history should play in our faith. He covers the nuts and bolts of historical research while he’s at it. Now, he does tip some sacred cows. He points out how we have scant records of the actual first thanksgiving, and demurs that it wasn’t the first thanksgiving in any true sense—at least four other public occasions of thanksgiving in America (the French Huguenots on Florida’s shores in 1565 being the earliest) have greater claim to that honor. Intriguingly “Plymouth Rock” was born from second-hand recollections of an original Pilgrim some 100 years or more after their landing. And more importantly, American history didn’t instill the Pilgrims’ autumnal feast with national importance for several hundred years. It was left for Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the first American President to directly connect the national observance of Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims of Plymouth and their historic feast.
The book is not a direct assault on Christian values, by any stretch, however. McKenzie, a head of the history department at Wheaton College, wants us to remember the real first thanksgiving and do the hard work of looking at the actual past and judging what we can learn from our experience of it. He cautions us against twisting the Pilgrim’s “buckle shoes” any which way—supporting our every opinion. Their story should not be a touchstone that we use to win battles of public opinion. Rather, we should learn from their example of heart-felt faith, fierce courage, and providential blessing as we continue to live out our faith in the public sphere.
This book will dispel some myths: the first thanksgiving was likely not thought of as a “day of Thanksgiving” by the Pilgrims themselves. Their first official day for Thanksgiving came two years later after an incredible answer to prayer where God brought colony-saving rain on the exact day set aside as a “day of fasting.” But McKenzie doesn’t set the record straight just to be a good historian. His book aims to inculcate a fuller appreciation for the real Pilgrims. We will not agree with all of the Pilgrim’s idiosyncrasies (most of us enjoy celebrating Christmas, for instance). And some of what the Pilgrims have come to stand for has less to do with their real beliefs than it does those of their heirs. Still, there is much to learn and appreciate in the real Pilgrims. Listening to their true story will challenge our affirmation of a consumerism-driven society and call us to live godly lives in this present world.
I know that Thanksgiving has passed already this year. But if you find some extra time in and around Christmas, perhaps you should pick up this title and reacquaint yourself with the story of those brave Pilgrims who followed God’s call and found themselves on the other side of the world. You will enjoy the book and profit from it, I’m sure.
Robert Tracy McKenzie (PhD, Vanderbilt University) is professor and chair of the department of history at Wheaton College. He is author of two award-winning monographs: One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil-War Era Tennessee and Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War.
A Better December by Steven Estes
Don’t look now but we are almost finished with the first 2 weeks of December! This time of year can be as stressful and frantic as it is enjoyable and memorable. And as the pace of life quickens for everyone, the stress and panic seem to outweigh the peace and quiet.
Steven Estes has offered us a short but poignant book to help us have A Better December: Proverbs to Brighten Christmas. He looks to the Biblical wisdom expressed by Solomon in Proverbs as a cure for the holiday woes. In just over 80 brief pages, Estes provides an extended meditation on a Christian vision for this time of year. With poetic verse (at times), and personal stories, Estes crafts a masterful tale that is disarming, fresh and inspiring. Each of the brief chapters reads like an essay or reflection and the takeaways are direct yet unscripted.
The book is short, gift-sized, you could say. It would adorn a coffee table if larger. The simple yet alluring sketches from illustrator Sarah Bland Halulko make this small book a joy to look at and page through.
It is the perfect gift book for the non-reader and reader alike. It points the interested to a few additional resources at the end, and encourages us all to find true life in Christ. The book would make for a great evangelistic aid or conversation starter and brings Solomon’s wisdom to bear on the contemporary world with unequaled ease. The writing style will make the book accessible to all and a joy to page through. For those looking for some inspirational reading this Christmas, look no further than this truly unique offering.
Steven Estes is the author of Called to Die (the Chet Bitterman story) and coauthor with Joni Eareckson Tada of When God Weeps and A Step Further. As a pastor, he has walked with others through both sad Decembers and holidays worthy of Currier and Ives. He and his wife Verna have eight children and live in Elverson, Pennslyvania.
Bob Hayton has a BA in Pastoral Theology with a Greek emphasis and a MA in Bible from Fairhaven Baptist College and Seminary in Chesterton, IN. He is a happily married father of six who resides in St. Paul, MN. Since 2005, he has been blogging theology at FundamentallyReformed.com, where he has also published over 150 book reviews. He can also be found occasionally at KJVOnlyDebate.com.