I'm Thankful for Tracy McKenzie

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. A four-day weekend, a big meal, no gifts, a day to sleep off excessive consumption, and a meal that has lots of carbs. What’s not to like (and what wine do you pair with carbs)? But of course, the pressure is on to be thankful in a special way, as if I’m ungrateful or not sufficiently thankful the rest of the year. Not to go all New Calvinist, but I am in the habit of praying prayers of gratitude at least five times a day — more on Sunday.

So can’t we just enjoy this day without an extra dollop of piety? In these religiously charged times, no. In fact, Thanksgiving becomes a way to reinforce the meme of religious liberty and Christians creation of it:

More than any other group globally, Christians are under threat and restriction by many tyrannical regimes and violent ideologies. Our prayers this Thanksgiving must remember them.

The Pilgrim escape to New England emblematizes the centuries-long quest for liberty to worship God without coercion, a liberty that hundreds of millions from different faiths in our world do not have.

The feast celebrated by Pilgrims and Indians also models a transcultural and transracial harmony possible by divine grace and good will. May we always honor their persevering faith and continue today the quest for liberty under God for all people.

That’s why Tracy McKenzie’s reconstruction of the actual history of the Pilgrims is so valuable. He cuts through the sanctity and civil religion and shows how accidental history is:

When the Pilgrims spoke of holidays, they used the word literally. A holiday was a “holy day,” a day specially set apart for worship and communion with God. Their reading of the scripture convinced them that God had only established one regular holy day under the new covenant, and that was the Lord’s Day each Sunday. Beyond that, they did believe that the scripture allowed the consecration of occasional Days of Fasting and Humiliation to beseech the Lord for deliverance from a particular trial, as well as occasional Days of Thanksgiving to praise the Lord for his extraordinary provision. Both were comparatively solemn observances, characterized by lengthy religious services full of prayer, praise, instruction, and exhortation.

From the Pilgrims’ perspective, their first formal celebration of a Day of Thanksgiving in Plymouth came nearly two years later, in July 1623. We’re comparatively unfamiliar with it because, frankly, we get bored with the Pilgrims once they’ve carved the first turkey. We condense their story to three key events—the Mayflower Compact, the Landing at Plymouth Rock, and the First Thanksgiving—and quickly lose interest thereafter. In reality, the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued at least another two years.

This was partly due to the criminal mismanagement of the London financiers who bankrolled the colony. Only weeks after their 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims were surprised by the arrival of the ship Fortune. The thirty-five new settlers on board would nearly double their depleted ranks. Unfortunately, they arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as William Bradford bitterly recalled. Indeed, the London merchants had not even provisioned the ship’s crew with sufficient food for the trip home.

The result was that, rather than having “good plenty” for the winter, the Pilgrims, who had to provide food for the Fortune’s return voyage and feed an additional thirty-five mouths throughout the winter, once again faced the prospect of starvation. Fearing that the newcomers would “bring famine upon us,” the governor immediately reduced the weekly food allowance by half. In the following months hunger “pinch[ed] them sore.” By May they were almost completely out of food. It was no longer the season for waterfowl, and if not for the shellfish in the bay, and the little grain they were able to purchase from passing fishing boats, they very well might have starved.

The harvest of 1622 provided a temporary reprieve from hunger, but it fell far short of their needs for the coming year, and by the spring of 1623 the Pilgrims’ situation was again dire. As Bradford remembered their trial, it was typical for the colonists to go to bed at night not knowing where the next day’s nourishment would come from. For two to three months they had no bread or beer at all and “God fed them” almost wholly “out of the sea.”

Adding to their plight, the heavens closed up around the third week in May, and for nearly two months it rained hardly at all. The ground became parched, the corn began to wither, and hopes for the future began dying as well. When another boatload of settlers arrived that July, they were “much daunted and dismayed” by their first sight of the Plymouth colonists, many of whom were “ragged in apparel and some little better than half naked.” The Pilgrims, for their part, could offer the newcomers nothing more than a piece of fish and a cup of water.

In the depths of this trial the Pilgrims were sure of this much: it was God who had sent this great drought; it was the Lord who was frustrating their “great hopes of a large crop.” This was not the caprice of “nature,” but the handiwork of the Creator who worked “all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). Fearing that He had done this thing for their chastisement, the community agreed to set apart “a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress.”

As Edward Winslow explained, their hope was that God “would be moved hereby in mercy to look down upon us, and grant the request of our dejected souls. . . . But oh the mercy of our God!” Winslow exulted, “who was as ready to hear, as we to ask.” The colonists awoke on the appointed day to a cloudless sky, but by the end of the prayer service—which lasted eight to nine hours—it had become overcast, and by morning it had begun to rain, as it would continue to do for the next fourteen days. Bradford marveled at the “sweet and gentle showers . . . which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn.” Winslow added, “It was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived.”

Overwhelmed by God’s gracious intervention, the Pilgrims immediately called for another providential holiday. “We thought it would be great ingratitude,” Winslow explained, if we should “content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end; wherein we returned glory, honor, and praise, with all thankfulness, to our good God.” This occasion, likely held at the end of July, 1623, perfectly matches the Pilgrims’ definition of a thanksgiving holy day. It was a “solemn” observance, as Winslow noted, called to acknowledge a very specific, extraordinary blessing from the Lord. In sum, it was what the Pilgrims themselves would have viewed as their “First Thanksgiving” in America, and we have all but forgotten it.

The Pilgrims had their circumstances. We have ours. Cut me another piece of pie.

The Sabbatarian Option for the Benedictines

Noah Millman legitimately wants specifics about the Benedictine Option (and here I thought it was an after dinner cocktail):

Ok, then: monasteries were communities of celibates who held property in common. Anyone from the outside could join the community by taking the necessary vows, and non-votaries could visit, even dwell with the community for a time. But the monastic community was constituted by rules of considerable complexity, and it played a unique economic role in the larger society by virtue of its distinctive legal status. So I’d expect discussion of the Benedict Option to center on what such communities such look like, how they should relate to the larger, less-tethered community of co-religionists and the larger society as a whole. Should Benedict-Option Christians found communities outside of major cities, so as to be able to fully express their ethos, and encourage non-Benedict-Option Christians to visit them there? What should the economic relationship be between communal organs and individual adherents? What should the rules be for joining – or leaving? What kinds of legal protections would such communities need as corporate bodies? And how should adherents behave when they are among “gentiles?”

These are the kinds of questions that actual ethical communities – groups like the Amish and Mennonites, yes, but also Orthodox Jews, Mormons, American Sikhs, utopian Socialists, kibbutzniks, all kinds of groups – have wrestled with at their founding. Communal organization for a self-conscious ethical group within a foreign society – not necessarily hostile nor necessarily friendly, but foreign – is not a new problem. I’d expect advocates of the Benedict Option to be particularly interested in such forerunning models, and to be discussing how they might or might not be applied to the specific challenges of small-o orthodox Christianity in a society that still retains the trappings of Christianity but, from their perspective, can no longer be called Christian in any meaningful sense.

That, however, doesn’t seem to be the center of the discussion about the Benedict Option, at least not so far as I have seen. Instead, most of what I’ve seen is discussion of how corrupt and threatening to Christianity the surrounding culture is becoming, and how small-o orthodox Christians need to recognize that fact and prepare for it, combined with repeated assurance that the Benedict Option does not mean withdrawing from the world or compromising the Christian obligation to witness, spread the gospel, be in the world while not of it, etc. In other words, I hear a lot about why the Benedict Option is important, and a lot about what the Benedict Option isn’t, but very little that I can grasp with any kind of firmness about what the blasted thing is in the first place.

Protestants were not (and still aren’t) big on monasticism. Protestantism was a piety for life in the world and the doctrine that undergirded that real life was vocation.

But Protestants were also big on sanctifying the Lord’s Day, as in setting it apart:

This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (Confession of Faith, 21.8)

You could argue, then, that every Sunday is a kind of monastic retreat from the world and that’s certainly how many Protestants practiced it. Even my Baptist parents knew this and so when the prospects of Little League came, I had to decline because I would be compelled to play baseball on Sundays. Why my brother and I could watch the Phillies on Sundays thanks to the television was a question we didn’t ask. We wanted to watch. We weren’t in charge.

What if the wider Christian world (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant) treated Sunday as a day for a kind of monastic existence? No work, no inappropriate reading, no sex, lots of bread, even more beer. Couldn’t this be a way to set Christians apart without having to become celibate and so see Christianity go the way of the Shakers?