Pastor’s Perspective – November 2021
As we once again approach Thanksgiving, it is important to reflect on the traditional meaning of this holiday. Thanksgiving is not simply a day of praise to God; it is a National Day of Praise to God. This both solemnizes the day and provides the basis for those who might criticize this celebration of thanksgiving in a nation that has in recent years self-identified as agnostic.
The roots of Thanksgiving quite clearly provide an argument (at the least) that the nation in which we live was conceived by a great many of our leaders to be a Christian nation. This must be understood in the cultural context of its time and historical moment, lest we fall into the trap of utilizing the 18th century terminology and cultural understandings to debate a 21st Century argument. This, of course, is the quickest way to debate those who reverse the inclination, by imposing 21st century meanings onto 18th Century texts. I do not wish to fall into either eisegetical trap.
The early settlers who guided the founding of our nation were overwhelmingly English. This is not to say that the European settlers who brought the traditions of the West to the New World were all English. They clearly were not. They were English, Spanish, French, and Dutch, but wherever they congregated together, their national origins, cultures, and languages created insurmountable conflicts. Those who founded the United States were primarily English settlers who had pushed back against the traditions of the French (amongst others) and had created a loosely bound group of settlements in which common culture, language and traditions were, for the most past, shared.
Wars had been fought against the French, pushing their influence north into Canada; and the Spanish (for the most part) had settled in Mexico, South America, and the West Coast. Both the French and the Spanish were primarily Roman Catholic in their faith and traditions; which is why places like New Orleans and other traditionally French and Spanish enclaves continue to bare a Roman Catholic influence in their traditions and celebrations, but in the thirteen colonies there were few Catholic influences in the land.
The people that populated the thirteen colonies that would late become the United States of America, were primarily Protestants, be it from England or the other Protestant immigrants that came to the Americas in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Many of these Protestants had traveled to the New World to escape the shackles of cultural religion in their European homelands.
The most influential Protestant sect in the early American founding was likely the Puritans. They are the Pilgrims in our Thanksgiving stories. These Puritans came to America while Great Britain was immersed in a religious Civil War, in which their sect played an important part. The Puritans were religious and governmental watchdogs. They desired reform of both the Church and the State. Interestingly the majority of the Puritans left England in an eleven year period (1629-1640) just a decade before their sect effectively took over the nation.
It was a Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, who rose to power and brought religious pluralism to the English Commonwealth nations. This pluralism. Progressive as it was, was limited only to “God’s peculiar” and still considered the Quakers and other Christian sects as heretics and outside of the realm of acceptance. One must remember that pluralism and religious tolerance were concepts that had to grow over time and any religious pluralism was an expansion of tolerance previously unheard of in most societies.
Cromwell’s reign would only last a few years after his death, but the struggle itself had lasting implications in England and the English colonies in New England that were populated by Puritan exiles and Quakers who had fled the religious persecutions of the time. Thoroughly rejected and seen as hopelessly popularist and decidedly low class, these religious exiles headed to the New World to raise their children and create a New Society in which religious freedom and domestic autonomy was an assumption and a right.
Now seen as historically charmless members of the “fun-police;” the Puritans and the Quakers were members of the radical right and left wings of the English political spectrum. Not aligning themselves with easily understood political movements they sought to return to Biblical principles in order to create a more godly and humane community in England and in America. This meant that while they attempted to live highly moral lifestyles they also agitated for progressive change. They attempted to expand the rights of the common citizen. They were often the vanguard of peaceful resistance and the fomenters of the first anti-slavery coalitions. In other words, while they were conservative in their biblical values, they were willing to rebel against the cultural conventions that did not meet the standards of biblical community.
These were the men and women who brought us Thanksgiving as a national holiday. As a day of national prayer. They were flawed. They were sinners. They were both radically tolerant for their time and horribly intolerant by our current standards. They were human beings who were lived in a particular culture, in a particular time, and lived a lifestyle that can easily allow those without grace to pour scorn upon their memories.
Therefore, we should not reject the Thanksgiving memories of Pilgrim ancestors and our common thread to their humanity. Thanksgiving was a moment in time. A time in which the harvest was collected, the peace with the natives maintained, and the hope for the future was bright. The fact that the peace collapsed in the decades to follow is in no ways a bitter reflection upon their Thanksgiving celebration. We consistently give thanks for things that will not be sustained into the future; our status, health, and even our lives are not guaranteed to extend into the future. Our day of praise is not a promise for tomorrow, it is a recognition that what we have today is from God. It is a time to reflect not on the perfection of our moment, but on the goodness that we can appreciate and celebrate.
We can be thankful and understand that the work is not accomplished, that the struggle against sin and injustice is still unsolved, and that not all is right in our world. Thanksgiving is not about completion it is about recognition. We have come a long way. We have endured, survived, and made lemonade out a life’s lemons. All by the grace and love of God. Our journey is not yet over, but God’s blessings both light our path and show us that with God’s guidance we can and will move forward in the same light that guided us to this moment. Celebrate with us. Give thanks to God. Happy Thanksgiving!