Tag Archives: Robert Tracy McKenzie

Squanto, Thanksgiving and the Rest of the Story

Squanto sculpture at Pilgrim Hall Musuem in Plymouth, Mass. (Credit: Wall Street Journal)

Squanto sculpture at Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Mass. (Credit: Wall Street Journal)

If you are a Christian, you have probably heard of the story about Squanto and the Pilgrims, at Plymouth, generally retold around Thanksgiving. If not, I would encourage to read or listen to it. You can find it at the BreakPoint blog online, or through a wonderful children’s book written by Eric Metaxas. I will not retell the whole story here, but I will touch on the highlights.

Before the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in the early 1620s, a young Patuxet Native American had been kidnapped by an English sea captain, and brought back to Europe. Squanto was bought from slavery in Spain by a Catholic monk, and eventually Squanto made his way to work in a horse stable in England, where he learned English and the Christian faith. He longed to go back home to his people in America.  But when he finally returned across the Atlantic, he discovered that his Patuxet tribe had been completely wiped out by disease, most probably small pox.

As providence would have it, Squanto then met the near-starving English Pilgrims. Squanto soon acted as an interpreter between the English and the native Wampanoag tribe, thus establishing peaceful relations between the English and the Wampanoag for at least fifty years. Squanto taught the English how to grow corn and catch fish, enabling the fledgling community to survive. Squanto appeared at just the right time… God’s time… to help establish this small Christian community in a new and hostile world.

It is a great story to tell around Thanksgiving. But often, as in the Breakpoint article/podcast linked above, some important details are left out when Christians typically retell it. Since the Christian aspect of Squanto’s story is hardly ever told in our public schools or secular media, it is understandable that the neglected details of God’s providential care be emphasized to try to balance out the history.

However, this particular Christian retelling of the story gives the false impression that Squanto was some type of angelic character, without sin, spot or blemish. But as Wheaton College historian, Robert Tracy McKenzie, tells us, there is more to the story.

As it turns out, Squanto felt at home neither with the English Pilgrims, nor the Wampanoag tribe, who essentially held Squanto as prisoner. William Bradford and Edward Winslow, the chroniclers at Plymouth who told the story, both described Squanto as someone who would play the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag off of each other. Squanto would use his unique role as language translator to enhance his standing in both communities, spreading false information about the intentions of both parties, setting himself up as the only one who could heal the divisions and prevent war. When the Wampanoag realized that Squanto was double-dealing, they sent a message to the Pilgrims, encouraging them to kill Squanto. But the Pilgrims still needed Squanto’s services, so they offered him protection. This made the Wampanoag mad, but neither did the Pilgrims trust Squanto the way they had before. Just a few years later, Squanto died of disease living among the English, confessing Christ as His Lord, but much remains unknown as to how much of a rift remained between Squanto and the others around him at the time of his death.

This does dampen our image of Squanto, but it still fits within a Biblical view of reality. The patriarchs of the Bible are hardly examples of moral perfection: Abraham offered his wife up as a prostitute, Moses was a murderer, and David was an adulterer and a murderer. Every human under the sun, including folks like Squanto, including you and me, are sinners in need of grace. When we fail to grapple with our insecurities and other sins, just as Squanto did, we break down relationships of trust.

The lesson is appropriate these days: After perhaps the most contested Presidential election in recent memory, the American nation is in many ways very divided today. Trust has broken down between many groups in American culture, and many are fearful. Trust has broken down even within the church, the household of God. The civic bonds that have traditionally held Americans together in the past have become greatly strained. The loosening of those civic bonds have further shown us where Christians, those of us in the church, have sought for unity in the wrong places. However, as followers of Jesus, if we really know and believe the Gospel, we can trust God and model for the non-believers around us what it means to love God and love one another. If we really wish to see healing in our land, such healing must begin within the household of God.

Yes, let us learn from the positive example of Squanto regarding the providence of God. But let us also keep in mind the negative example of Squanto, that we should re-examine ourselves, deal with our own sin before being quick to mistrust others, and model for others what it means to live in a community that loves God and loves one another.


Kirk Cameron’s Revive Us National Family Meeting

Last night, I went with members of our small group to a local movie theatre, to view Kirk Cameron’s Revive Us, a film urging Christians to pray for America, and be involved in the political process. Along with former Presidential candidate and brain surgeon, Dr. Ben Carson; public intellectual and Charles Colson BreakPoint radio commentator, Eric Metaxas; and inspirational author/speaker, Jennifer Rothschild, who has been physically blind since a child; Cameron led what he called a “national family meeting.”

I had some mixed thoughts about the movie event. It was actually better than I thought it would be. But let me tell you about why what Kirk Cameron is doing is significant, then speak to the difficulties I had with the film, and then close by telling you what I thought was really good about Kirk Cameron’s Revive Us.

Unless you have been disconnected from the power grid for the past year or so, you have probably heard something about the 2016 Presidential campaign, perhaps one of the most …. errrh ….. uuhmmm…. “interesting” cultural events I can ever recall in my American life. Lurking underneath the present national discussion is a very profound cultural shift going on in American culture, that has been having repercussions in evangelical Christian communities. Christian leadership has been undergoing great change, as elder statesmen, like Billy Graham, are no longer providing the type of glue needed to keep evangelical Christians together. Denominational barriers are breaking down, but with the fast pace of information exchange brought on by the Internet and 24×7 social and news media, Christians are finding it difficult to figure out what really brings us together. If doctrine is not able to unite us, then what does?

Most of the news we hear in these media outlets is bad news. Christians are anxious about the nation’s future, as the presence of some critical, assumed Christian values in the culture at large appears to be rapidly disappearing. For many, the voting process is about deciding over the lesser of two evils. “Where is our culture going, and why does it look like God is not doing much about it,?” as many of my Christian friends might put it.

Into the breach steps in Kirk Cameron, an outspoken, Christian movie actor. Frankly, I was a bit nervous about what Cameron might do. Though I will have to give him credit. He admits that he is not the smartest guy in the world, and he has a lot of passion about what he cares about, and I share many of his concerns. But I was a bit embarrassed by some of the factual and interpretive missteps in his 2012 cinematic attempt to “correct” popular errors in American history, Monumental. When we attempt to fix false understandings of history by passing on further misinformation, where key facts and ideas are misrepresented, it only leads to further confusion.

So, I really had a rough start, in the first twenty minutes or so, of Revive Us. Dr. Ben Carson suggested to Kirk Cameron that Americans need to learn the “real history” about America. Carson is a brilliant brain surgeon, but “real history?” I can give him some leeway here, but this is coming from a man who believes that the pyramids of Egypt were built to store grain, from the days of the Biblical Joseph, instead of accepting the well-known archaeological research, showing that the pyramids were actually burial tombs.

But when Cameron interviewed Eric Metaxas in Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there were moments I wanted to crawl under my seat. Yes, the importance of religious freedom as being essential to the American experiment, and that only a virtuous people can keep democracy, are two basic ideas that we are losing in an age when the knowledge of America’s past is being forgotten, as many young people seem more interested in their iPhones than they do in learning about history. As I have noted before, Metaxas is to be commended on this account, but he injudiciously passes on half-truths to an eager Kirk Cameron, according to historian Robert Tracy McKenzie, a Christian scholar teaching at Wheaton College. Metaxas misled the audience when he recalled that Benjamin Franklin, hardly an orthodox Christian, called for prayer at the Constitutional Convention in the late 18th century. Metaxas conveniently does not tell Cameron that Franklin’s call to prayer was ignored by most of the other participants at the Convention. Franklin later wrote, “The Convention, except three or four persons, thought Prayers unnecessary” (Eric Metaxas: That is kind of an important detail to leave out, do you not think?).

Furthermore, Metaxas wrongly attributes the aphorism, “America is great, because America is good,” a phrase currently serving as a motto for the 2016 Democratic Presidential candidate (who also gets it wrong as well), to Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French observer of American culture in the early 19th century.

Thankfully, pastor Francis Chan finally got the evening back on track. Chan reminded Kirk Cameron that the central issue regarding the plight of the American nation is ultimately a problem with the American church. Pray for the nation, yes, but the real battle is to pray for revival in our churches. For too long, Christians have looked to the state to provide assistance in promoting Christian values. Instead, we as the church, as Christ’s body, are to  lift up His name. Then and only then, can we expect God to move among our secular neighbors and institutions, throughout our nation.

So, by the time, we got this idea straight…. at least, I hope we got this straight… I felt much, much better about Cameron’s “national family meeting.”  Sure, it was a bit weird to think of going to the movie theatre, watching a film recorded from the week before (apparently, this was a second showing… presumably the first showing was a live event), and trying to maintain a sense of worship. For those Christians who treasure the classic hymns, you might have stumbled a bit with the contemporary worship music Cameron had lined up, nearly all played in U2-style, with lots of drums, guitars, and acoustic delay.

Furthermore, Cameron’s urging that all Christians should get out and vote on November 7, referring audiences to lookup MyFaithVotes.org, failed to account for the theological reasons why some Anabaptists would conscientiously object to voting. But the nuances required to address issues like these were not in Cameron’s purview. Cameron’s goal has been to encourage Christians, who do not think too much about wider issues in the culture, to start thinking more about these things, and engage these issues instead of waiting on the sideline.

Thankfully, neither name of the main Presidential contenders were mentioned during the nearly two-hour film. No flashpoint issues of public policy distracted from the main theme. In this way, I was glad that this was not a “political” event, despite the undercurrent of American election controversies that are difficult to ignore. To the extent that Cameron was able to encourage Christians to view the question of America’s future as really a question about the condition of evangelical churches, and the need for revival in our homes and churches, I would then say that Cameron did well to call this “national family meeting.”

The “Replacement Theology” of Eric Metaxas?

Eric Metaxas, If You Can Keep It, encourages our culture to consider the legacy of American exceptionalism. I like a lot of what Metaxas has to say. But does he take us down the right road theologically?

Eric Metaxas, If You Can Keep It, passionately encourages our culture to consider the legacy of American exceptionalism. I like a lot of what Metaxas has to say. But does he take us down the right road theologically?

While your hot dogs are grilling and you wait for the fireworks…

There is much talk about “replacement theology” in the church today, as I am exploring in this summer’s blog series on Christian Zionism, concerning how national Israel relates to the Christian church. However, as the Fourth of July is nearly upon us, I wanted to briefly tackle a more pressing kind of “replacement theology” that dangerously threatens Christianity today. There is a disturbing trend among some Christians, who, in a sense, see the American nation as somehow “replacing” either the church or national Israel, or possibly both, within the plan and providence of God.

Popular Christian author and public intellectual, Eric Metaxas, has written a new book based on a saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. When asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got? A Republic or a Monarchy?,” the elder statesman replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Metaxas’ If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, is a spirited defense of American exceptionalism, the idea that the American nation has a special, unique and even divine calling in world history.

Now, let me first say that I highly recommend Eric Metaxas to you as an astute public thinker. His Socrates in the City interviews with other thinkers are very helpful and stimulating. He has written one of my favorite biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But when I read two reviews of Metaxas’ latest book, first by Wheaton College historian Robert Tracy McKenzie, and the second by the Masters College  historian, Gregg L. Frazer,1 a question was raised in my mind.

In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas’ reviewers note that the author makes a number of historical errors that hamper his otherwise noble thesis. One of the most egregious errors concerns a common misreading of Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Metaxas misreads the famous line by Winthrop, that “we shall be as a city on a hill,” to be a reference to the American nation for all time. However, the original context of Winthrop’s sermon is concerning the witness of Winthrop’s particular Christian community, going back to the teaching of Matthew 5:14. In other words, Winthrop is teaching about the church, not about America as a nation.

Think about it: By replacing the church as the “city on a hill” with the American nation, does this not radically change the message of Matthew 5:14?

Furthermore, Metaxas proclaims that Founding Father, John Adams, was a “theologically orthodox Christian.” However, an observant reader in colonial American history will know that Adams rejected a number of core tenets of orthodox Christian faith, such as the deity of Christ, the atoning work of Christ for salvation, and the belief in the Triune nature of God.2 Adams also preferred the Hindu Shastra as the best source for “orthodox” theology.

Think about it: Does remaking the great patriot, John Adams, into an honorary evangelical Christian really help Metaxas’ case? Does not this mishandling of historical data, at the very least, confuse the reader?

So, while I am very sympathetic to Metaxas’ call to virtue and the role of Christian values in public life, his reworking of some details of American history raises this  disturbing question: Is Eric Metaxas promoting a kind of “replacement theology,” whereby the American nation replaces either the church or national Israel in the message of the Bible? For starters, read those two book reviews, previously linked above, read Winthrop’s sermon, or even allow Eric Metaxas to make his own case. Examine the evidence, think about it as you enjoy your hotdogs and the fireworks this weekend, and then come to your own conclusion.


1. The Masters College is affiliated with the ministry of Southern California pastor and teacher, John MacArthur.

2. Concerning Adam’s views on the Trinity, popular evangelical speaker and writer, David Barton, has also made the same error on numerous occasions, suggesting that Unitarians prior to 1839, like John Adams, actually believed in the Trinity. Really??? Is not the whole point why Unitarians have historically called themselves “Unitarian” is because they reject the Trinity?

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

A steep, dugout embankment defending Redoubt #1, off of Quarterpath Road, where Confederate troops waited for advancing Federal soldiers to attack from Tutter's Mill Pond below, during the Battle of Williamsburg. Sadly, relatively very few of my fellow Williamsburg neighbors even know that this place even exists.

A steep, dugout embankment defending Redoubt #1, off of Quarterpath Road, where Confederate troops waited for advancing Federal soldiers to attack from Tutter’s Mill Pond below, during the Battle of Williamsburg. Sadly, relatively very few of my fellow Williamsburg neighbors even know that this place even exists.

Does the American national tragedy over the Civil War have something to teach us about how we are to read the Bible?

As a kid, I grew up near the remains of an oft-forgotten, Civil War battlefield. Whenever I ran among the dugout, redoubt embankments, I always kept in mind the warnings of neighbors to be careful, as there was likely to be found unexploded ordinance somewhere underneath my feet.

On the same day, hundreds of miles away, when Mexico was resisting the French on May 5, 1862, remembered now as Cinco de Mayo, Federal forces met Confederate forces just east of my town, for the Battle of Williamsburg, with nearly 4,000 casualties among both sides. Within a couple of years, the significance of that battle faded, displaced in memory by placenames like Antietam and Gettysburg.

Efforts to preserve the battlefield from being run over by suburban housing developments have been somewhat, moderately successful, though the land, as well as the intellectual debates that the led up to the war, have sometimes been forgotten. I often wonder myself, if such a national crisis could have been averted, without such terrible bloodshed.
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I recently had dinner with some folks from another part of the country, where we talked about the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, soon to be followed by the famed “first ” Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, or thereabouts. Having grown up near Jamestown, Virginia, I am continually astounded when I hear that many Americans are completely ignorant about Jamestown as the first English settlement in the New World (1607), predating Plymouth Rock by thirteen years (1620). Furthermore, the thought that Virginia has had a “leg up” on the New Englanders with a Thanksgiving festival at Berkeley’s Hundred (1619) at least two years before the famous Pilgrim feast, comes as quite a surprise to many.

But while New Englanders and Virginians can have a friendly quarrel over dates, it is probably more disturbing how well-intended Christians have at times variously modified the first Thanksgiving event to fit within a particular historical narrative. But as Wheaton College historian Robert Tracy McKenzie and author of the The First Thanksgiving argues, the tendency to change the story is generally not malicious in motive. Furthermore, many contemporary readings that try to secularize Thanksgiving history can be just as guilty! Rather there is this universal human proclivity to see things in a way we want to see them, which provides an incentive to fudge a bit on the sparse details. However, as believers in a faith where history is vitally important, it is worth it as Christians to try to set the record straight.

In many ways, the story of how we have come to celebrate Thanksgiving is just as amazing as the original event itself.

Over the past few weeks, Professor McKenzie has been blogging a number of posts regarding the theme of Thanksgiving and understandings of its history over time, such as the following one. I hope you enjoy it as you feast on your traditional “turnips and boiled eel” instead of turkey this year…

Faith and History

History is not the past itself, but only that tiny portion of the past that human beings remember.  I’ve shared in a previous post the memorable word picture that C. S. Lewis has given us to illustrate that distinction.  In his essay “Historicism,” Lewis concluded that even a single moment involves more than we could ever document, much less comprehend.  He then went on to define the past in this way:

The past . . . in its reality, was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination.  By far the greater part of this teeming reality escaped human consciousness almost as soon as it occurred. . . . At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of “history” falls off…

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