Pilgrims. Indians. Corn plants with three little fishes around them. Big hats with buckles on them. A blunderbuss or two, stacked with bows and arrows.
All of these are the images of the first Thanksgiving from our folklore. Folklore, though, is not quite history. Robert Tracy McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving attempts not so much to set the record straight, but to examine what the record actually is. The 200 pages of The First Thanksgiving do not come from an amateur. Dr. McKenzie is a professor of history at Wheaton College and has written on other aspects of American history. Being at Wheaton does reveal that McKenzie comes from a generally evangelical Christian viewpoint, but it is quite helpful to know the ground a book was written on.
The First Thanksgiving presents itself as “What the real story tells us about loving God and learning from history.” McKenzie sets out not destroy the people who founded the Plymouth Colony of 1620, but simply to reshape their parade floats back into the likeness of men instead of gods.
To accomplish this, though, The First Thanksgiving must first address some questions about the process of history itself. McKenzie wishes his work to be useful outside of the academic classroom, so he begins essentially with methods training in history. As with all good methods lectures, these are illustrated with practical moments. For the sake of developing the Thanksgiving theme, all of the illustrative material relates to the examination of history at Plymouth.
The whole of The First Thanksgiving resounds with this style of writing. The first two chapters are more about methods than the latter six, but the material is still in balance. I find this the greatest strength of the book: one can use this as an upper-level study in how to do history, regardless of the season.
McKenzie goes to great lengths in The First Thanksgiving to show how and why history peels back legend and folklore. He also draws the distinctions between the things we know, things we think, and things we suppose. By tracing the development of the legendary Thanksgiving, he illustrates how poorly conceived history can obscure knowledge of reality.
He goes on to show how reality is a much better teacher for us. One aspect of The First Thanksgiving is how we can learn about loving God, and I would argue that a larger cover would have allowed him to say also how we learn about God’s love for us. Examining this area requires McKenzie to summarize the theological development of the Puritans that became the Pilgrims. Theology ties together with the real story to demonstrate how we can learn both about God (theology) and about events (history), all while drawing closer to God through truth (devotion).
Even though McKenzie has tarnished a few of my childhood play memories, The First Thanksgiving is a valuable resource for learning what we do actually *know* about that first feast. It is also a valuable resource for understanding how we do history.
If I could expand or adjust The First Thanksgiving, the one more chapter I would like to see is a better treatment of how the modern Thanksgiving came to be. There are some mentions of how the Lincoln-proclaimed Thanksgiving of 1863 was the actual institution of what we presently observe, but I would like a fuller explanation. Perhaps next year will see a book The Next Thanksgiving, examining what our current celebrations entail.
Still, that’s a fault more based in the limitations of publication and timing. After all, the title The First Thanksgiving is likely to hamper February sales, though it should not.