Thanksgiving was last Thursday. Apart from all the other virtues of a national day of thanks, this is a great holiday for history buffs.
You can’t really understand Thanksgiving without knowing history. Most of us heard the tales before we started kindergarten: pilgrims dressed in black clothes and buckled shoes, John Alden and Pricilla “Speak for Yourself” Mullins, the harsh wintry coast of Massachusetts Bay in 1621, the mystifying graciousness of the displaced Wampanoag, the original turkey banquet …
And each year the president of the United States ungratefully dismisses the gift of a free turkey from the National Ungainly Fowl Association and condemns the hapless bird to life in a cage without parole.
No one knows why presidents think this merciful act is good politics because God knows the turkey lobby is hell-bent on dispatching as many of the birds as possible. Is it unfair of me to presume that a year from now President Trump will support the sellers of turkeys by sending his hapless bird to the fryer?
Historically, Thanksgiving is a feel-good holiday festooned with turkey-shaped handprints pressed by darling children on orange and brown construction paper, pint-sized pilgrims in black paper hats, wicker cornucopias filled with apples and walnuts, and wholesome Norman Rockwell bacchanalia in every home. Well, maybe not in every home, but you get the picture.
These are wonderful and cherished images. With luck, most of us will get through Thanksgiving without noticing that most of them, according to historian James Baker, are “marvelous nonsense.”
But that’s the thing about history. You can never quite trust it. Perhaps the most accurate historical marker in New York State is in the driveway of an otherwise charming bed and breakfast house in Oneonta: “Nothing of historical significance happened on this spot.”
One of the reasons I love history is that the truth is often more entertaining than the story in our textbooks. (Read Lies My Teacher Told Me, Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen.)
For example, one of my favorite historical puzzles involves the capture of Fort Ticonderoga by Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys in 1775. Our textbooks report than Ethan and 83 of the boys stormed the fort on May 9 and demanded its surrender.
Wikipedia asserts: “(British) Lieutenant Jocelyn Feltham, assistant to Captain William Delaplace, was awakened by the noise, and called to wake the captain. Stalling for time, Feltham demanded to know by what authority the fort was being entered. Allen … replied, ‘In the name of the Great Jehovah the Continental Congress!’ Delaplace finally emerged from his chambers, fully dressed, and surrendered his sword.”
Actually, neither the Brits nor the Mountain Boys heard Allen’s theatrical demand in the name of God and Congress. According to Richard Shenkman in his illuminating Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History, most witnesses remembered Allen shouting, “Come out of there, you damned old rat!” I like it better. It has the ring of truth.
Anecdotes like this should make us slightly more skeptical about the legends, lies, and cherished myths of Thanksgiving.
Valerie Strauss, writing in “The Answer Page” of the Washington Post, points out that venison, not turkey, topped the menu at the original Thanksgiving feast in 1621. Pilgrim men and women, traditionally depicted wearing subdued puritan black and white clothes, actually dressed in a wide variety of colors, according to Strauss. Even more shocking, the men did not wear buckles on their shoes.
I grew up hearing several versions of how Thanksgiving became a national holiday. According to one of my teachers, President Lincoln was the first to declare a day of national Thanksgiving, although looking back it seems an inscrutable proclamation to a nation self-disemboweled in a fratricidal bloodbath.
But actually, President Washington was the first to issue such a decree. Mr. Lincoln was the first to establish the holiday as an annual event. Originally he ordered the holiday be observed on the fourth Tuesday in November. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November, ostensibly to improve the national economy by extending the Christmas shopping season.
Lincoln is also credited with pardoning the first White House Thanksgiving turkey, although Valerie Strauss reports the story can be traced back no further than 1989 when President George H.W. Bush told it to a White House gathering. There is a possibly apocryphal story that Lincoln’s son Tad begged his father to save a turkey given to the White House. But even if the story is true, is involves a Christmas turkey.
But trappings aside, the nature of the pilgrims themselves could use a closer examination. They were Puritans, a diverse 17th-century religious group that included Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England from 1653 to 1658. Some historians believe Cromwell planned to join the Mayflower pilgrimage to the New World in 1620 but missed the boat. History would certainly have been different if he had disappeared in America; Cromwell was a leader of two English civil wars that led to the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and he led a bloody massacre of thousands of Scot royalists and Irish Catholics from 1649 to 1650. Cromwell is anecdotal evidence that not all the Puritans were humble Christian pacifists who fled to America to escape religious persecution.
To many — including my fellow Baptists — the puritans are remembered as the persecutors.
As soon as they were established in Boston in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the puritans showed little toleration for other religions. There is a famous — and documented — story of a Baptist leader named Obadiah Holmes who was imprisoned by the puritan establishment in Boston in 1651. His only crime was being Baptist, and following a harsh imprisonment he was brutally flogged in the public square.
According to historian William Cathcart in The Baptist Encyclopedia, Holmes’ torture inspired him to long-winded eloquence: “As the strokes fell upon me I had such a spiritual manifestation of God's presence as the like thereof I never had nor felt, nor can with fleshly tongue express; and the outward pain was so removed from me that indeed I am not able to declare it to you; it was so easy to me that I could well bear it, yea, and in a manner felt it not, although it was grievous, as the spectators said, the man striking with all his strength (yea, spitting in his hand three times, as many affirmed) with a three-corded whip, giving me there with thirty strokes.”
Holmes accepted his flogging as if it was a beatific experience, but the news of his suffering was received with horror elsewhere in the colonies.
One powerful voice that spoke out against puritan persecution was Deputy Governor Joseph Jenks of the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Colony. Jenks (my ancestor), who became the 19th royal governor of the colony in 1727, was also a Baptist who presided over the colony Roger Williams founded as the world’s first geopolitical entity based on religious freedom. He was the un-puritan, and years later he wrote the tale of the persecution of Holmes into the official record:
“Mr. Holmes was whipped thirty stripes, and in such an unmerciful manner that in many days, if not some weeks, he could take no rest, but as he lay upon his knees and elbows, not being able to suffer any part of his body to touch the bed whereon he lay.”
There are other anecdotes about Grandpa Joe that Jenkses hold in their hearts. According to family lore, the governor was six feet, seven inches feet tall – freakish in the mid 18th century – and he had difficulty finding clothes that fit. The family claims he once sent a handwritten order to England for a “six foot, six-inch cloak” to wear in public ceremonies. Months later he received from England a six foot, six-inch clock.
Perhaps his handwriting left something to be desired, but Governor Jenks stood for religious freedom. And he stood tall.
I have no forensic evidence that the tale is true, and of course, it should be regarded with the same skepticism as any other historical claim.
And I would even go so far as to assert that these uncertainties and vagaries of history are among the many things for which I give thanks.
Did the pilgrims not dress in black, wear buckles on their shoes, eat turkey, or extend loving acceptance to Baptists, Catholics, and Wampanoags?
Perhaps not. Perhaps, even, the pilgrim reality is more interesting than the myth as we consider their fierce intolerance of anyone outside their community. The gentle folks we imagine sharing God’s blessings with their indigenous hosts in 1621 are, after all, the same folks who seven decades later executed 28 accused witches in Salem.
What can we say? No doubt a lot of pilgrims were nice, Christian folks. But it was clearly not unanimous.
But as Thanksgiving approaches, it is almost reassuring that the legends, lies and cherished myths associated with the holiday encourage us to seek greater substance in the things for which we are truly grateful.
Many of us will, after all, approach this feast with anxieties, uncertainties, and doubts that go far beyond our suspicions about what the pilgrims wore and what they did.
Even so, there are so many things for which we can be thankful.
And those things were never better described than in Jesus thanksgiving sermon on the mountain so long ago:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:25-33).
What greater blessings could we possibly imagine?
Whether the pilgrims knew it or not, our gratitude and thanksgiving to God this holiday and every day should be boundless.