David Gelernter: Thanksgiving Is a Religious Holiday All Americans Can Celebrate





David Gelernter, in the WSJ (Nov. 24, 2004):

The First Thanksgiving is one of those heartwarming stories that every child used to know, and some up-to-date teachers take special delight in suppressing. Many teachers approach children nowadays with the absurd presumption that they are triumphalist little bigots who must be taken down a notch and made to grasp that their country has made mistakes. In fact they are little ignoramuses who leave high school believing that their country has made nothing but mistakes, and they never do learn what revisionist history is a revision of.

It is especially sad when children don't learn the history of Thanksgiving, which is that rarest of anomalies -- a religious festival celebrated by many faiths. The story of the first Thanksgiving would inspire and soothe this nation if only we would let it -- this nation so deeply divided between Christians and non-Christians or nominal Christians, where Christians are a solid majority on a winning streak and many non-Christians are scared to death, of "Christian fundamentalists" especially.

Christian fundamentalists were the first European settlers in this country, and Thanksgiving is their idea. (Puritans were one type of Christian fundamentalist -- "fundamentalist" insofar as they focused on biblical basics. The Pilgrims were radical Puritans.) Many Americans are afraid that fundamentalists are inherently intolerant and want to stamp out all religions but their own. Yet that first thanksgiving was celebrated by radical Christian fundamentalists, and American Indians were honored guests -- as every child used to know. Obviously fundamentalists are capable of tolerating non-Christians on occasion. In 17th-century America, some Christians used the Bible to explain exactly why American Indians must be treated respectfully. But another fact about that first thanksgiving is also worth pondering: no one tried to convert anyone else. Most of today's fundamentalist groups don't fish for converts either -- but those who do ought to contemplate thanksgiving number one.

The Pilgrims celebrated that first thanksgiving in 1621; Edward Winslow describes it in a letter to a friend. "Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours." There was a great celebration, "many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoit with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted." The Indian contingent "went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation."

The first settlers mostly wanted to be friends with the Indians -- and not only for obvious practical reasons. Alexander Whitaker was an early Virginia settler. His description of America was published in 1613. He doesn't think highly of American Indian religion, but goes on at length about American Indian talent and intelligence. ("They are a very understanding generation, quick of apprehension"; "exquisite in their inventions, and industrious in their labour.") And after all, he points out, "One God created us, they have reasonable souls and intellectual faculties as well as we; we all have Adam for our common parent: yea, by nature the condition of us both is all one."

In time, attitudes changed. American settlers and American Indians fell to treating one another savagely, and the Indians got the worst of it. But human greed and violence, not Christianity, brought those changes about. Christian preachers did not always condemn them -- but, Christian or not, they were mere human beings after all.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony -- settled by fundamentalists only slightly less radical than the Pilgrims -- declared its first thanksgiving in 1630. By the late 1700s, independence was in the air, and the Continental Congress proclaimed many days of thanksgiving. President George Washington lost no time declaring the first thanksgiving under the new constitution in 1789. Each of these early proclamations was good for a single occasion. But after President Lincoln had proclaimed thanksgiving days in 1863 and '64 -- specifying the last Thursday in November both times -- this characteristically American festival became a yearly custom. Lincoln was not only America's greatest president; he was our greatest religious figure, too. In his last speech -- four days before he was murdered, with the Civil War at an end at last -- he proposed one more day of thanksgiving. "He, from whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten. A call for national thanksgiving is being prepared."

What to conclude? In a democracy where the majority is Christian, you can no more nitpick public life free of Christianity (as if it were so much lint on a frazzled sweater) than you can hold down the top on a pot of boiling water. Public life in this country has been fundamentally Christian since the first European settlers arrived. It continued Christian when the new nation won its independence and proclaimed its Bill of Rights, and will stay Christian forever, or until a majority decides otherwise -- no matter how many antireligious rulings are extracted from how many antidemocratic power-mad judges.

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