Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

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.



Happy Thanksgiving, from your friends at Veracity. Wheaton College history professor, Robert Tracy McKenzie, and blogger at “Faith and History,” will get you right about Thanksgiving. Enjoy!

Faith and History

Many of you may be headed to the airport or the interstate for holiday travel, and if so, you might want to pass the time by listening to the podcast of a recent interview that I did with Professor Al Zambone of Augustana College.  Zambone maintains a great site called “Historically Thinking” that features conversations with historians on a wide range of topics.  Al and I had a lengthy conversation recently about popular memory of the First Thanksgiving, and you can find it here.

Alternatively, you might be interested in a different podcast on Thanksgiving that I did with my old University of Washington colleague, political scientist Anthony Gill, who moderates a wonderful site titled “Research on Religion.”  You can access that podcast here.

Both individuals are wonderful scholars and you would find much of value on their sites.

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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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The First Thanksgiving

I had a great Thanksgiving. How about you?

The turkey I ate was wonderful, just like what the Pilgrims ate….. or was it? Did they even have turkey to eat in 1621?

The study of American history is a tough thing to deal with for Christians. We are annoyed and quite accustomed to revisionists who want to exorcise Christianity out of America’s past. On the other hand, a lot of ideas about history that have been passed down to us over the generations do not always line up with the facts. Is there a responsible Christian way to approach our nation’s past?

Robert Tracy McKenzie, an historian at Wheaton College, has written a new book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History, that attempts to set the record straight (with a measure of humility with respect to the challenges to doing history) and still show us the Biblical and historical lessons that we can learn from our nation’s forebears.

Here is the book’s trailer and then a brief interview with the author addressing a question that many evangelical Christians merely assume to be true, “Were the Pilgrims just like us?”:

More discussion is available here at the Patheos Book Club.

Audio podcast with Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Society, interviewing McKenzie here.

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