Thanksgiving was never my favorite holiday. I’m not into the traditional Thanksgiving foods (come on, where is the pizza?). I did like breaks from school and watching football, but the story of Thanksgiving that I was taught in public school seemed lame.
Then, I began to take an interest in American history (particularly, intellectual history) in high school. The colonial era was and still is my favorite part of American history.
My intellectual breakthrough was when someone showed me the distinction and stark difference between the puritans and the pilgrims. Not only were these two distinct social groups, but their intellectual and theological differences played out in strikingly different ways when they colonized.
The Puritans often went to blows with the Native Americans. While many today blame these white Protestants who wanted “God, gold and glory” and would resort to violence to fulfill their destiny, even this narrative is not quite accurate. Some Puritans are to blame for the violence that ensued. Some Native Americans are also to blame. Scholars have pointed out that differing views of property largely contributed to the violence. It is an ugly, shameful history for those who are white Europeans or those with a Native American heritage, though I would place more blame at the feet of the colonists.
The Pilgrims, who settled at Plymouth, have a better heritage to pass on to us today. And it is their harvest celebration in 1621 that many trace Thanksgiving to. Feasting, celebrating, collaborating define the heritage of the Pilgrims in their relations to the Wampanoag tribe. While almost every other colony saw or contributed some level of violence to the Native American population, the Plymouth colony had about 40 years of peace with the Wampanoag tribe. Some Plymouth colonists participated in wars with other colonies. But the Plymouth colony as a whole was peaceful with Native Americans.
Liberty of conscience and the Creator/Redeemer distinction were two key intellectual and theological commitments to the Pilgrims. You see these commitments in the organic documents of the founding of the the United States. The Plymouth and Revolutionary Era notion of religious liberty is more substantive and beautiful than its very distant cousin that was birthed in 20th century American political thought. While our contemporary notion of religious freedom states, “We are free to worship according to our conscience…just cuz…” the Pilgrim’s notion was theologically and logically grounded. Indeed, many trace the American exemplification of religious freedom to John Calvin himself.
So, I will proudly celebrate turkey day with a family in my church. I may not love all the food, but I love the narrative.