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The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History Paperback – September 1, 2013


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"McKenzie helpfully calls us away from the use of 'revisionist' as a pejorative for history we do not like. History is not received like Scripture. And the history of Thanksgiving was subject to lots of revision over the years, especially in the middle of the 19th century. The Pilgrim story, McKenzie points out, was not culturally convenient prior to and immediately after the Civil war, with the New England connection to the tradition quite strong, abolitionist governors using their Thanksgiving proclamations to decry slavery, and Native Americans not especially respected. . . . McKenzie argues for an alternative, for the practice of history done Christianly. . . . Combining knowledge with humility should be our goal in the study of the past. Refraining from self-flattering moral judgment, we should pursue history as an opportunity for moral reflection, looking to what figures in the past say about their own time, and for all time." (William Thomas Mari, Books & Culture, November 2013)

"If you want to rediscover the 'first Thanksgiving' and learn what difference studying history makes--well, you couldn't do better than reading this one volume. By looking at the Pilgrims afresh, they come alive to remind us 'how we mean to live and do not yet live.'" (Mark Galli, Christianity Today)

"It is no doubt too hopeful to imagine that The First Thanksgiving will change how large numbers of Americans understand the Pilgrims or look upon Thanksgiving. But one can hope that the book makes its way into the hands of a wide range of audiences including Christian college students and faculty, elementary and secondary education teachers, adult Christian education classes, general Christian readers, and even secular university classes interested in an excellent primer on thinking historically. If it does, there is some chance by the time Americans sit down to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving in 2021, more of us will be better equipped to receive well the gifts that historical study can provide, including the feast that our Pilgrim forefathers and mothers offer." (Richard W. Pointer, Christian Scholar's Review, Summer 2014)

"Tracy McKenzie has written two books in one. The first may be read for fun and profit by anyone interested in the 'real story' of Thanksgiving. The second is primarily intended to help American Christians think in a Christian manner about our nation's history. There are a host of books that smugly dissect popular 'myths' or 'lies' about American history. Fortunately, this is not one of them. It is true that McKenzie dispels a number of common beliefs about Thanksgiving, but he does so in a winsome, engaging manner." (Mark David Hall, Anglican and Episcopal History, Vol. 88, No. 4)

"The First Thanksgiving emphasizes the Pilgrims' firm commitment to God and highlights beliefs today's Christians might disagree with, such as refusing religious tolerance. Throughout the book, McKenzie uses carefully selected biblical scriptures to assure readers that history has a place in Christianity, but Christians must be careful not to place faith in historical figures or America. Instead, they should follow the Pilgrims' lead and strive to make heaven their home. . . . Christians who embrace the strategies used by historians that McKenzie skillfully teaches, may never view the past the same again." (Kaavonia Hinton, ForeWord Magazine, Fall 2013)

"McKenzie's book is both an engaging account of New England's first Thanksgiving and an excellent introduction to how to think both critically and constructively about history." (George Marsden, author of A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards)

"What makes The First Thanksgiving such a refreshing read is that McKenzie gives fewer pages to debunking folk tales about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving than he does to inspiring desire for a kind of historical inquiry that enriches human wisdom through moral and spiritual reflection. Warm-hearted, intelligent and wonderfully surprising, this book will be read and appreciated by students and scholars alike, and especially by history lovers interested in what history is and what it is good for." (Lendol Calder, Augustana College)

"Tracy McKenzie's clearly written and thoughtfully accessible book should be read with appreciation by a wide audience. It combines solid historical treatment of early American Thanksgivings with a perceptive understanding of historical method in general, and it does so by underscoring the profound Christian stake in history. It is one of those rare books that is perfectly suited for young readers but also of real value to those of us who have been around for a long time." (Mark A. Noll, University of Notre Dame)

"As a teacher, I am always on the lookout for brief, well-written models of historical thinking that I can immediately thrust into the hands of undergraduates. I absolutely loved the chapter on why it took Thanksgiving so long to take root. This work models historical thinking with incandescent lucidity." (Sam Wineburg, Stanford University)

"Revisionist histories were once the rage, as academics sought recognition by shaking us from deeply and dearly held perceptions of the past with revelations of novel and counter 'facts.' McKenzie works the opposite direction, resurfacing the history we have forgotten regarding one of our most treasured holidays--Thanksgiving--to help reexamine and reinforce our most important convictions regarding faith and culture." (Bryan Chapell, president emeritus, Covenant Seminary)

About the Author

Robert Tracy McKenzie (Ph.D., Vanderbilt University) 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. McKenzie is the author of two award-winning monographs: One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil-War Era Tennessee (Cambridge, 1994) and Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War (Oxford, 2009). He has also written numerous scholarly reviews and articles including "Don't Forget the Church: Reflections on the Forgotten Dimension of Our Dual Calling" in the book Confessing History: Christian Faith and the Historian's Vocation (Notre Dame, 2010).
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 219 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic; 8.3.2013 edition (September 1, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0830825746
  • ISBN-13: 978-0830825745
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #450,408 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By David George Moore on November 10, 2013
Format: Paperback
The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History

Robert Tracy McKenzie is professor and chair of history at Wheaton College. He taught for many years at the University of Washington where he was the holder of the Donald W. Logan Endowed Chair in American History. He is the author of One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil War-Era Tennessee (Cambridge University Press) and Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War (Oxford University Press). He blogs at [...]

The following is an interview with Professor McKenzie which appeared on the Jesus Creed blog and is based on McKenzie's recent book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History (InterVarsity Press).

David Moore, who blogs at [...] conducted the interview.

* What was the spark(s) which motivated you to write this book?

There were two, really. At the most foundational level was a new sense of vocation. After two decades of writing primarily for other specialists in my field (which is what scholars in the Academy are trained to do and rewarded for doing), I began to sense a call to write more directly for the church, to enter into conversation with believers on the question of what it means to love God with our minds. More directly, the inspiration for this book was an invitation from my church several years ago to give a talk on the first Thanksgiving. In preparing for it, it dawned on me that the topic was a wonderful way to engage Christians interested in history and broach crucial questions in the process. I don't think I've ever met someone interested in history who was first drawn to the past by a piece of dry academic scholarship.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By George P. Wood VINE VOICE on November 26, 2013
Format: Paperback
This Thanksgiving, like millions of other Americans, I will sit down with family around a beautifully decorated table to eat a sumptuous feast of turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. We will share stories of gratitude for God’s blessings throughout the year drawing to a close. And then we will watch football or—in my case, since I’m not a sports fan—take a long, postprandial nap.

What I will not do is think that our Thanksgiving celebration has anything to do with the Pilgrim’s “first Thanksgiving” in 1621. Not after reading Robert Tracy McKenzie’s new book, The First Thanksgiving, which is equal parts a historical account of that feast and a theologically informed reflection on how Christians should (and should not) use the past. As he tells it, we don’t know much about the “first Thanksgiving” except that it probably didn’t occur in November, wasn’t eaten indoors, didn’t include turkey (but might’ve included turnip and eel), wasn’t a multicultural love fest (evidently, the Wampanoags just showed up, uninvited), and wouldn’t have been considered a day of thanksgiving by the Pilgrims in the first place. Moreover, the celebration of thanksgiving days was, for the first 220 years of American history, a New England phenomenon that wasn’t explicitly linked to the Pilgrim feast of 1621.

In short, most of what you think you know about the “first Thanksgiving” is bunk. But over the years, that bunk has been found to serve a variety of useful ends, underwriting Northern abolitionism, American individualism and religious freedom, and a providential reading of America’s Christian history, among other things. And that’s why the fiction continues to be promoted instead of the facts.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By James C. McGlothlin on September 21, 2013
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Excellent and readable book! This is not your typical "everything you thought you knew about historical event or person X is wrong"--though there are some well-liked ideas about Thanksgiving that are surprisingly burst. I highly recommend it if you're interested in the history of America's beloved Thanksgiving holiday.

Also, more generally, the author does an excellent job of explaining good historical research while also highlighting likely pitfalls of such research. I greatly appreciated his insights on not making idols of our historical heroes as well not using history for self-serving or self-justifying ends. As he says, this is easier said than done; but it is a good word of warning.

I bought this as just a fun and informative read. I did not suspect that I would be enlightened to so much about the moral virtues of scholarly research. Though not a historian, I want to thank you Dr. McKenzie for writing this wonderful little book!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Ricahrd Rutherford on November 11, 2014
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This wonderful book should be read by all intelligent Christians. The author covers more than the first Thanksgiving giving concrete details and analysis of the Pilgrims, their origins, their history, and the voyage. He also discusses how Christians should not imagine history meeting their own aspirations. McKenzie also discusses the place of Christian ideals and American patriotic ideals. His writing is excellent and comfortable and understandable to read. I can only compare his writing and thoroughness of research and explanation to that of N.T. Wright or Tom Wright, my favorite Anglican writer. Rarely, have I encountered such a lucid and enjoyable writer.

If one wants to truly understand the history of what Americans now cherish as Thanksgiving and what Americans should cherish as the ideal of their Thanksgiving, this book is a must read. I can't really find anything to criticize but only can recommend it highly. I place it among my ten favorite books of all time.
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