Religion and Race On the Origins of Thanksgiving

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe’s, “The First Thanksgiving.” is an iconic painting of the origins of the holiday.  It depicts a prayer being offered while Puritans sit at the dinner  table with native American chiefs, as others sit or kneel nearby.  The painting was  hung in most school rooms. This mythical depiction would today be labeled as “fake news.”  If there was peace with the Indians it did not last long.

In 1517 Martin Luther challenged the supremacy of the Catholic Church, setting off the Reformation with major religious upheavals that lead to division and disastrous wars. In 1534 Henry VIII  separated the Anglican Church from Catholicism  broadening  religious disruption in England.  One  group that thought the Anglican Church needed to be  purified of its Catholic roots.  The Puritans as they became known  were  persecuted  and some were imprisoned in the early 1600’s, including some destined to make history;  William Brewster, William Bradford and John Smyth.

England went to  war with Catholic Spain who also was at war in the Low Countries which are  today’s Belgium and the Netherlands.  These were wars over religious toleration. Eventually a  Twelve-Year Treaty with Spain provided for some religious tolerance.  Several hundred  Puritans saw this as their opportunity to practice their religion freely and left England for the Low Countries. First in Amsterdam then in Leiden the Puritan community practiced their religion but suffered severe hardships. They were farmers from the countryside in England, but now were clothe weavers living in the cramped slums of Leiden.

By 1620 the Treaty with Spain was ending, and  new religious wars threatened. Rumors of a New World across the Atlantic offered promise. A small band of Puritans left Leiden, returned to England and bought passage to Jamestown by indenturing themselves to the Virginia Company. After a long a difficult voyage they landed at Plymouth Rock.   The first winter was grueling and only half  survived.  The following fall after the harvest of 1621,  53 survivors and 90 American Indians held a feast.  It was described by William Bradford, and depicted by Brownscombe in her famous painting.

In the next sixteen years many more Pilgrims came to Massachusetts creating strife with the native Americans.  The Pilgrims  brought Old World diseases that killed off much of the local Pequot Indian tribe.  By 1636  the Pequot population had collapsed from an estimated 8,000 to just 1,500. Then strife broke into open warfare that ended  with the killing of 400 to 700 Pequot at a battle known as the  Mystic Massacre.   Afterwards a bounty of 20 shillings was put on every Indian scalp, and 40 shillings for every captured Indian. Many Indians were scalped and hundreds more were captured and sold into slavery in the West Indies.

In 1637 the good Christian Governor of Massachusetts Bay, John Winthrop proclaimed the first official “Thanksgiving.” For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Massachusetts’s Governor was proclaimed to honor the Mystic Massacre, thanking God that the battle had been won. It read, “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”

Now young people are being encouraged to  speak up at the Thanksgiving dinner table and challenge the ideals of white privilege, rather than “playing nice.”  It might provoke  something nasty, but nasty disagreements are exactly the origins of Thanksgiving.Yes, maybe the young and old should speak up at the Thanksgiving dinner table and remind people that nasty violent disagreements between races and religions are exactly the origins of Thanksgiving. Or maybe while being aware of the past, we should celebrate and give thanks for all that we have today and put to rest the human horrors from times past.

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