The Right to Sex
Regret: A Theology

Deconstructing Thanksgiving

Deconstructing Thanksgiving

Joel 2:21-17

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

14 November 2021

            This autumn marks the 400th anniversary of the event that later was called “The First Thanksgiving”—the day of feasting when a group of Wampanoag warriors joined with the Plymouth Pilgrims to eat their harvest.

            This event has not only taken on a mythic role in the wider American consciousness, it is a significant story to us as Congregationalists, who are among the direct religious descendants of those Pilgrims.  This congregation normally holds a huge Thanksgiving dinner, a tradition we can date to at least the late 19th century, with some stops and starts.  While the pandemic has prevented us from once again holding the turkey dinner, we do look forward to hopefully gathering again in a crowded parlor next year to celebrate family and friends and give thanks to God in an event that harkens back in some ways to that meal in the autumn of 1621. 

            But this is 2021, and we have learned that some parts of our history don’t sit as comfortably with us as they once did.  What critical questions should we ask about that history and how it’s been used?  What meaning should this event hold for us now, as we want to honor our heritage but address a history of colonialism, conquest, and racism? 

            So, we are not going to simply celebrate the 400th anniversary of that meal, but intentionally explore the difficult questions and look for what approach is best for us in 2021.  This week, then, I’ll be preaching on the theme “Deconstructing Thanksgiving” and next Sunday “Reconstructing Thanksgiving.”

            Let’s begin with Pilgrim Edward Winslow’s description of that harvest celebration at Plymouth Colony:

Our harvest being collected our governor sent four men fowling together so we might rejoice together in a more special way after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. In just one day the hunters killed as much fowl as if their hunting party had been larger. The fowl fed the company almost a week at which time, among other recreations, we drilled with our fire arms. Many of the Indians joined us including Massasoit, the greatest king, and some ninety of his men. We all entertained and feasted together for three days. The Indians went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, the captain, and others. And although it is not always as plentiful as it was at that time, yet by the goodness of God we are so far from want that we often wish you could partake of our plenty.

            The Pilgrims disembarked on December 22, 1620 in the midst of a harsh New England winter.  Disease, starvation, and exposure to the cold killed half of them that winter.  In the familiar parts of the story, that spring they finally made direct contact with the local Wampanoag Indians and were helped by Samoset and Squanto, who we more appropriately should call by his name Tisquantum, and the local paramount sachem Ousamequin, whom we are more likely to recognize as Massosoit, which was actually his title and not his name. 

            The Wampanoags formed a mutual-self-defense alliance with the Pilgrims and then taught them how to survive—where to hunt and fish and how to grow their crops.  And so at the end of the growing season, the Pilgrims did as so many human societies have done throughout history, and held a harvest celebration.

            But is this event properly called “The First Thanksgiving?”  Not really.  For one thing, the Pilgrims themselves did not call it a “day of thanksgiving.”  When the Pilgrims did hold days of thanksgiving those were days of fasting, prayer, and spiritual discipline, usually to address an immediate need or concern in the life of the community.  Our Pilgrim ancestors wouldn’t recognize what we do on the fourth Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving, but would recognize it as a harvest celebration.

            Only about a century later were days of Thanksgiving and harvest celebrations combined in some of the colonies.  The first national day of Thanksgiving was declared by President George Washington, though some in Congress at the time complained that this was executive overreach and something best left to the states. 

            The tradition of various local communities and states holding celebrations developed through the 19th century, but with little connection to the Pilgrims.  The holiday for honoring the Pilgrims was Forefather’s Day, which fell on December 22 and marked the landing on Plymouth Rock. 

            In 1827, magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale began advocating for a national day of Thanksgiving.  Her efforts eventually resulted in Abraham Lincoln declaring the second national day of Thanksgiving during the Civil War.  After that time it became a regular event.  FDR tried to move the date from the fourth Thursday in November to the third, causing great controversy.  It was only in the mid-twentieth century that Congress officially made the fourth Thursday in November a permanent federal holiday. 

            The connection of this day with the Pilgrims and their meal became more prominent around the Pilgrim anniversary year of 1870, and Congregational churches played an important role in that development.  There’s an insightful book entitled The Last Puritans by Margaret Bendroth, who was the longtime archivist of the Congregationalist archives.  That book discusses how Congregationalists have used our history, and particularly stories about the Pilgrims to shape our identity and mission.

            Because Congregationalists were a non-creedal people, they had no core doctrine to unite them.  Because they believed in the freedom of local churches and individual Christians, they did not have a tightly developed denominational structure.  So, what drew them together and kept them united was a shared origin story, from which they derived identity and mission.  She writes that as Congregationalism moved out of its New England home into the vast stretches of this continent in the late nineteenth century and began to compete more in new towns and cities with various denominations, that Congregationalists drew upon their Pilgrim heritage in a form of branding, to identify who they were as distinct from Presbyterians and Baptists and such. 

            She also ties these developments with the trauma of the Civil War.  She writes, “The post-Civil War decades were a time of general yearning for public ceremonies of memory, especially in the wake of epic personal loss on both sides of the conflict.”  We who have experienced this devastating pandemic recognize that yearning.

            Reading her book, you realize why Congregationalists in early Omaha, Nebraska, out here on the frontier, invested so much in celebrating an annual Thanksgiving dinner. 

            Margaret Bendroth also argues that our focus on the Pilgrim past helped us to avoid fundamentalism and turned us into the progressive denomination we’ve become, but I’ll talk about that in next week’s sermon.

            So, a study of the history reveals that the conventional understanding of this holiday and its ties to the Pilgrim past, are not exactly what we thought it was.  What we do on the fourth Thursday of November is not really a direct descendant of what the Pilgrims did in 1621-- the history is more complicated than that. 

            And so far we’ve only discussed the white European descendant aspects of the history.  There is, of course, far more to the story.  There is the perspective of the Wampanoags who joined in the harvest meal. 

            Beginning in the 1970’s, some Native Americans began recognizing the Fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning.  And in subsequent decades more attention has been paid to understanding their story and the impacts upon them of the Thanksgiving myth many of us learned and enacted in grade school. 

One of the simplest points to grasp is how often around this time of year school kids make pilgrim hats and Indian headdresses to wear.  The Indian headdresses are usually a circle of brown construction paper to which was attached a feather shaped piece of construction paper that the kids color.  But, these types of headdresses were worn by Plains Indians and are not remotely authentic to the headdresses of the indigenous people of New England.  In this simple way authentic Wampanoag culture gets erased from our collective memory.

So often, the way the story was told and used, has represented a form of white supremacy.  The local tribes helped the Pilgrims, gave them their land, and then disappeared.  Of course it was always more complicated than that, but so many children’s story books do present something like that.

In our Facebook group this week I posted a Washington Post article that briefly summarizes some of the Wampanoag perspective.  If you want to delve further, I recommend the book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving by David J. Silverman.

New England’s indigenous people had been dealing with Europeans for a century.  They developed sophisticated trading relationships with them, but also learned to mistrust them.  The Europeans were known to attack at the slightest misunderstanding.  Even worse, they had a history of enslaving people.  Even Tisquantum, whom most of us know as Squanto, had been abducted decades before when he went to trade with a ship.  They captured him and sold him into slavery, and he spent years endeavoring to return to his homeland.  In the process he learned English and European ways and thus could facilitate the relationships between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags.  We are mistaken if we see his role as merely being generous and hospitable, for deep trauma and suspicion were clearly also part of Tisquantum’s motives.

The Europeans also brought new diseases.  From 1616-1619 a plague spread throughout the region wiping out whole villages.  The Wampanoag called it The Great Dying.  The area where the Pilgrims settled was vacant because Patuxet, the village that once stood there, had been destroyed in the plague years. 

An interesting point I learned in studying for this sermon—it wasn’t just the lack of contact with other humans that made the indigenous people susceptible to illnesses.  It was also their clean living.  They had existed for millennia with clear air and water, eating healthy, nutritious meals, and without the forms of agriculture and urban filth that brought most Europeans in contact with the great diseases that plague humanity.  The paradox was that the cleaner, healthier living of the indigenous people meant they didn’t have the immunities for the diseases the less healthy Europeans brought.

Why did Ousamequin and the Wampanoag welcome the Pilgrims?  According to David Silverman, we should try to understand his motive.  Many of his people had been killed by disease.  His power was diminished.  He and his people were a sitting target for rival groups, particularly the Narragansetts.  Along came a small and weak group of English people and Ousamequin gambled that he could develop a relationship that would be of mutual benefit.  The Plymouth colony would be a connection to European trading goods.  It would provide access to European medicine.  And the colonists had guns that would help in any battles with his rivals.  As David Silverman points out, it wasn’t friendliness that motivated Ousamequin, but desperation.

Ousamequin’s decision was not embraced, even by all the Wampanoag.  In the years that followed sachems who disagreed with him would at times try to unseat him.  Not all of them treated the Pilgrims as friends, many treated them as threats.  The Cape Wampanoags in particular had a lasting negative impression of the Pilgrims because they had stolen the native’s corn and desecrated their burial grounds. 

So, the relationship was more political and self-interested than the history we may have learned as kids.  Even the full story of that harvest dinner isn’t what we might have thought.  The Pilgrims didn’t initially invite the Wampanoags to join them.  In the midst of their celebrations the Pilgrims started firing weapons.  Because of their mutual defense agreement, Ousamequin and ninety warriors rushed to Plymouth thinking they were coming to a battle.  Only when all these armed warriors showed up, did the Pilgrims invite them to join the dinner and the natives went and hunted deer to add to the meal.

How did Ousamequin’s decision play out over time?  It did help him during his lifetime to remain paramount sachem and to hold off rivals.  It increased his wealth and power.  But with the longer term perspective we can only conclude it was a mistake.  Even Ousamequin’s sons Wamsutta and Pumetacom regretted their father’s decision.  As David Silverman writes, “Ingratitude was an especially repugnant quality in the tightly knit, kin-based Indian world in which people were expected to give without restraint and show appreciation to those who did.”  And over time the settlers not only failed to show gratitude to Ousamequin for saving them and protecting them, the settlers became demanding and aggressive and violent.  And so Ousamequin’s son Pumetacom, known to American history as Philip, went to war against the one-time allies in 1675 in what we know as King Philip’s War, which resulted in the destruction and enslavement of many Wampanoag’s.

But the Wampanoags were never eliminated.  The people remained, resilient and strong, particularly on the Cape and on Martha’s Vineyard and there has been a revival of their cultural life in recent decades and a growing focus on telling their story.

And so we ask the critical questions and recognize that the history is more complicated than many of us learned.  Which leaves us asking: Once we’ve interrogated the myth with these critical perspectives, what value can this 400th anniversary hold for us?  Next Sunday we will continue this exploration. 

Today, I want to give the final word to Wampanoag elder Ramona Peters, “Gratitude is the most powerful Thanksgiving story, from my perspective as a Wampanoag.  When young children grasp gratitude in a real way, beyond ritual, our country will be greater.”


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