This past Thanksgiving weekend graced those of us in the church with unusual leisure as compared to years past. Often enough, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the first Sunday in Advent, so we no sooner carve the turkey and finish up the last football game than we turn our attention to purple candles and evergreens. Conspiring with the market and its Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays, the church calendar often hurries us through Thanksgiving so that we can embrace the coming Christmas season.
But not this year. This year we have an extra week between the Thanksgiving weekend and the beginning of Advent, which brings with it extra time to linger in the importance of this season of gratitude. We can savor Thanksgiving leftovers—literally and figuratively—just a little longer, before diving into the ironic frenzy that is Advent waiting.
What to do with the extra time? For me, the absence of Advent’s impatient breath over the shoulder of my Thanksgiving observance allowed me just a little more time to think about this holiday in its own right—the gratitude it encourages in us and from us, the significance of a moment of thanks in a world with so much not right, the origins and meanings of this quintessential American celebration.
On that last front, being a devotee of the Puritans, I pulled from my shelf this past week my worn copy of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. William Bradford was a leader of that 17th-century band of Puritans known as the Pilgrims, whose migration from England to New England serves as the point of origin for our Thanksgiving holiday. Bradford wrote a detailed account of the Pilgrims’ voyage to Plymouth Colony, through the colony’s first years, giving us a first-hand view of the struggles of his community— including disease, widespread death, resource scarcity, uncertain relationships with the native Americans, and disruptive political contentions among the British settlers themselves. Of Plymouth Plantation is a remarkably easy read for a text some four hundred years old, and the tale it weaves is full of tension and intrigue, highs and lows.
In his book Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America, my Middlebury College colleague Jay Parini suggests that Of Plymouth Plantation “might well be described as America’s first immigration narrative,” perhaps a fitting reminder of our immigrant origins in a national moment in which immigration is so widely politicized and stigmatized. Jay also suggests that the book’s power lies in its story, told in biblical proportions:
“Bradford begins Of Plymouth Plantation … with a tale of dispossession. His narrative is very much written like an Old Testament story, where God’s people are driven off their land, suffer exile among heathens [that is, the Dutch], and go off in search of their own promised land in the New World. The whole mode of the unfolding story, its flavor and texture, will be familiar to anyone who has skimmed the five books of Moses.” (Parini, 12–13)
Bradford’s account was almost lost to us forever, until someone rediscovered the manuscript in a British library right before the Civil War. Since then, the story of the “First Thanksgiving” it contains has become the template for American Thanksgivings through generations.
But as I was perusing Of Plymouth Plantation this week, which I have not done in several years, I was taken more with an earlier chapter in the story than I was with the all-too-brief summary of that first Thanksgiving. Earlier in the book, Bradford includes a letter written to the Pilgrim party as they are preparing to leave England. The letter was written by John Robinson, a leader in the Puritan movement who was for some reason unable to travel with those Pilgrims to the New World. In his letter, Robinson dutifully gives his sisters and brothers advice on how to be community in the newness and hardness that awaited them:
Loving and Christian Friends, I do heartily and in the Lord salute you all as being they with whom I am present in my best affection, and most earnest longings after you. Though I be constrained for a while to be bodily absent from you… I would have borne my part with you in this first brunt, were I not by strong necessity held back for the present. And though I doubt not but in your godly wisdoms you both foresee and resolve upon that which concerneth your present state and condition…, yet have I thought it but my duty to add some further spur of provocation unto them who run already; if not because you need it, yet because I owe it in love and duty. And first, as we are daily to renew our repentance with our God, especially for our sins known, and generally for our unknown trespasses; so doth the Lord call us in a singular manner upon occasions of such difficulty and danger as lieth upon you, to a both more narrow search and careful reformation of your ways in His sight;….
Now, next after this heavenly peace with God and our own consciences, we are carefully to provide for peace with all men what in us lieth…. And for that, watchfulness must be had that we neither at all in ourselves do give, no, nor easily take offense being given by others….Your intended course of civil community will minister continual occasion of offense, and will be as fuel for that fire, except you diligently quench it with brotherly forbearance.
[Another] thing there is carefully to be provided for, to wit, that with your common employments you join common affections truly bent upon the general good…. Let every man repress in himself and the whole body…rebels against the common good….
Lastly, whereas you are become a body politic,… let your wisdom and godliness appear, not only in choosing such persons as do entirely love and will promote the common good, but also in yielding unto them all due honor and obedience in their lawful administrations….
Sundry other things of importance I could put you in mind of, and of those before mentioned in more words, but I will not so far wrong your godly minds as to think you heedless of these things, there being also divers among you so well able to admonish both themselves and others of what concerneth them. These few things, therefore, and the same in few words I do earnestly commend unto your care and conscience, joining therewith my daily incessant prayers unto the Lord, that He who hath made the heavens and the earth…and whose providence is over all His works, especially over all His dear children for good, would so guide and guard you in your ways… as that both you and we also, for and with you, may have after matter of praising His name all the days of your and our lives. Fare you well in Him whom you trust, and in whom I rest.
An unfeigned wellwiller of your happy success in this hopeful voyage,
(Of Plymouth Plantation [New York: Random House, 1981], 55-58)
What I find so inspirational in this letter embedded in Bradford’s journal is Robinson’s careful insistence that his friends remember to be community in the trials that surely would face them. Be right with God. Practice forbearance with each other. Care for the common good. Choose and honor virtuous leaders. Remember what and who binds you together, he says, and practice the virtues of community, especially when things are not going well.
The recommendations Robinson makes in his letter remind me of another letter, the Letter of Paul to the Colossians, in which the writer compels the young Christian congregation huddled at the Mediterranean to “clothe” itself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, and love (Col. 3:12–14). Being community means practicing virtues together and being committed to the common good. It also means encouraging that commitment in one another, precisely when life gets rough—whether the community is facing first-century imperial persecution or the crises of a 17th-century transatlantic voyage.
Both Colossians and the Pilgrims also suggest that gratitude to God is the pretext for and the expected response from a faithful community. Colossians reminds us,
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:15–17)
Robinson channels this Colossians aspiration when he hopes in closing his letter to “have after matter of praising His name all the days of your and our lives.” William Bradford suggests that the Pilgrims did just that, for after they had weathered the trauma of their first year in a new land, they gathered together to “have after” a moment of thanksgiving, the first mythic thanksgiving. Another Pilgrim letter describes that moment this way:
Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might have a more special manner to rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us,…whom for three days we entertained and feasted.” (Letter from Edward Winslow, in Bradford, 100n8)
In the minds of those first Pilgrims, gathering together to give thanks for all good gifts as soon as possible was the appropriate thing to do as a faithful community. It was an act of celebration for weathering the storms they had been through. It was a practice of solidarity to reinforce them for the storms yet to come. Above all, Thanksgiving was an act of community, a reminder of social bonds in the midst of events that may have stressed those bonds, an inclusive ritual in which they acknowledged their dependence even on strangers, and remembered their experience of being strangers themselves.
I am well aware, of course, that our early history was more complicated than Bradford represents it. Neither the atrocities committed against native Americans nor those on African slaves are represented here, though they are inescapable parts of our larger national story. Our national history is morally complicated, and yet I don’t think that prevents us from revisiting it and taking chastened lessons from that history. The mythic tale of the first Thanksgiving reminds us of at least some of the better angels of our national origins: a vision of a society committed to the common good; inclusive embrace of the stranger; the deliberate practice of patience, forbearance, and mutual concern as collective character; leaders who are chosen and respected for their virtue and wisdom; the regular habit of giving thanks for the good gifts we enjoy.
Thanksgiving is an act of moral community. William Bradford and his colleagues remind us of that. Perhaps before the Thanksgiving holiday completely escapes us and we move on to Christmas, the act of giving thanks might inspire us to recommit to the aspirations and hard work of moral community. What might it mean for Americans to give thanks as an expression of gratitude but also as a challenge to ourselves—to be a nation of virtue, of neighborliness, of forbearance, and of commitment to the common good, as those first Pilgrims imagined?