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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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As a result, the incorrect (and often hyper-spiritualized) view of American history, including the Pilgrims, Puritans, the Great Awakening and the founding era inevitably leads to incorrect and offensive political strategies. Trying to "Take Back America" or "restore a Christian nation" as political goals are nowhere to be found with the sixty-six inspired books. As an evangelical myself, living alongside a pluralistic and diverse 317,000,000 people, I myself tremble at some of the strategies being offered by what I suspect are well meaning fellow believers. There are far better ways for the evangelical community to engage and even belay the emerging tyranny; "restoring a Christian nation" is not one of them.
Hats off to you Professor. This could not be a more timely book. My hope is that you and your colleagues will write more and more of these as a counterbalance of sorts that is so prevalent in much of Christian pseudo history.
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.