We’ve officially arrived at that time of the year when social media feeds are filled with well-intentioned posts of thankfulness. This is a welcomed reprieve from the numerous protest memes from evangelicals about the evils of Halloween and a small moment of quiet before the questions about the pagan origins of Christmas start to show up. Questions of whether Christians should involve themselves in the frivolities of Halloween or the festivities of Christmas are perennial. But no one ever asks if Christians should celebrate Thanksgiving. Perhaps this is because the history of Christianity in the United States is tightly interwoven with the lore surrounding the origins of this holiday along with its tradition and practices.
If you’ve grown up in the United States, it is likely you’ve participated in a Thanksgiving play at some point in your life. I recall with fondness how as a child growing up in Arkansas, most every year in elementary school my classmates and I would get dressed up as Pilgrims and Indians and sing about what we all understood to be the story of the first Thanksgiving. But as with all instances of nostalgia, the stories we received were more about making us feel better about our collective experiences than it was about understanding the truth of early American history. The traditional narrative of the first Thanksgiving, celebrated by the Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621, presents a problematic and oversimplified depiction of history. This story, often taught in schools, tends to romanticize the relationship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans while glossing over the harsh realities.
The traditional narrative tends to downplay the devastating impact of European colonization on Native American communities, as the arrival of the Pilgrims marked the beginning of a long history of displacement, cultural assimilation, and violence against indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the notion of a harmonious feast obscures the underlying power dynamics and exploitation inherent in colonial encounters. The Pilgrims, facing their own challenges, were not simply peaceful guests; they were settlers with their own agenda of land acquisition and expansion.
The selective retelling of history also omits the subsequent conflicts and atrocities, such as the King Philip’s War in 1675, which erupted between Native Americans and English colonists, resulting in widespread death, and suffering for indigenous communities. The war was named after Metacom, also known as King Philip, the Wampanoag people’s leader who played a central role in the conflict. Tensions had been building for years due to land disputes, cultural differences, and the encroachment of English settlers on Native American territories. The conflict erupted in Plymouth Colony when a series of incidents, including the execution of three Wampanoags accused of murder, inflamed hostilities. Native American tribes formed a coalition under the leadership of Metacom, seeking to resist English expansion and protect their way of life. The war spread throughout New England, involving various tribes such as the Narragansetts and Nipmucks.
The fighting was brutal and marked by atrocities. Many English settlements were attacked, and several towns were destroyed. The colonists, with the help of Native American allies who sided with them, eventually gained the upper hand. Metacom was killed in 1676, and his death marked a turning point in the conflict. The Native American resistance weakened, and the colonists emerged victorious. The consequences of King Philip’s War were significant. Native American communities suffered severe losses, with many displaced or decimated by the conflict and its aftermath. The war also had a lasting impact on relations between Native Americans and English colonists, contributing to a long history of mistrust and conflict in the region.
Recognizing and addressing these issues in the Thanksgiving narrative is crucial for a more accurate understanding of the complex and often tragic history that unfolded between European settlers and Native Americans. It prompts a reevaluation of historical narratives and encourages a more nuanced perspective on the impact of colonization on indigenous peoples.
Rarely, if ever, has the American church said much about indigenous peoples, especially regarding a history where the church and the US government worked together to harm Native Americans and their cultures. This collaboration, rooted in the Doctrine of Discovery from the 15th century, allowed European nations to claim lands not ruled by Christian leaders, considering the people there as less than human. This doctrine, foundational for both the American church and the nation, led to beliefs like Manifest Destiny—the idea that the United States is God’s chosen nation, and this continent is their promised land.
The Doctrine of Discovery is embedded in US law, evident in Supreme Court cases like Johnson vs. M’Intosh (1823), where it was ruled that Europeans had the right of discovery, surpassing the rights of indigenous occupancy. Despite the Declaration of Independence proclaiming equality, it was also influenced by the Doctrine of Discovery, implying that indigenous peoples were not fully human. Understanding this history is crucial, even if it challenges our perspectives, as it has deeply shaped our lives and thinking. But it wasn’t just indigenous peoples and later enslaved peoples that paid a price for Puritan hubris. Women would suffer greatly.
Certainly, while the Puritans came to the New World in hopes of escaping religious persecution, it wasn’t long before they inflicted on others the same kinds of persecution they sought to escape. For example, Anne Hutchinson, born in 1591 in England, was a brave woman who played a crucial role in the early history of the United States. She and her family moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634 motivated like other Puritans seeking religious freedom. However, Anne challenged the powers that be as an intelligent and outspoken woman questioning the traditional beliefs of the Puritan leaders.
In the colony, she began hosting gatherings in her home where she discussed religious ideas and interpretations of the Bible. This made her a controversial figure, as her views differed from those of the Puritan leaders. They believed that salvation came from strict adherence to religious laws, while Anne argued that individuals could have a personal relationship with God. Her outspoken nature and dissenting views led to her trial in 1637. The Puritan leaders banished her from the colony, and she, along with her followers, established a new settlement in what is now Rhode Island.
Later, women would once again serve as the object of the worst kind of persecution in the name of radical Christian beliefs. The Salem witch trials occurred in colonial Massachusetts in 1692, the trials were sparked by the accusations of witchcraft against several women in the town of Salem Village. The accusations led to mass hysteria and the arrest, trial, and execution of numerous people, mostly women, who were accused of practicing witchcraft. The trials began when a group of young girls claiming to be possessed by the devil accused others in the community of being witches. The legal proceedings were marked by a lack of due process, reliance on spectral evidence (testimony about dreams and visions), and the use of harsh interrogation methods. As a result, 20 people were executed, mostly by hanging, and several others died in jail.
Given all that we know to be true about the history of those involved in celebrating the first Thanksgiving, and the subsequent atrocities perpetrated in the name of Christianity, why is it that Christians never consider whether we should continue this tradition? Part of my argument here is facetious. I’m attempting to illustrate how often American evangelicals get worked up into a frenzy about imaginary evils associated with Halloween or Christmas, yet they never give any real consideration to the actual evils perpetuated in the name of the religion they claim to believe.
Certainly, thanksgiving should be the constant disposition of the followers of Jesus, and not just reserved for the holiday that bears its name. As for the holiday itself? Given what we know of the events associated with its origins, perhaps a posture of lament would be a better choice. Or at least a moment of silence for those who have suffered at the hands of conquerors and killed in the name of Christianity, thus dishonoring the name of Christ.