Roman Catholics at Plymouth Rock?

In the department of strange bedfellows comes George Weigel’s praise for the Museum of the Bible:

On September 29, 1952, the publication of the complete Revised Standard Version of the Bible was celebrated at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C., and the principal speaker was the U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. The son of the Episcopal bishop of Connecticut, Acheson movingly described the ways in which the King James Bible, which the new RSV was to supplant, had once shaped American culture and our national life:

In the earliest days in the Northeast, the Book was All. The settlers came here to live their own reading of it. It was the spiritual guide, the moral and legal code, the political system, the sustenance of life, whether that meant endurance of hardship, the endless struggle against nature, battle with enemies, or the inevitable processes of life and death. And it meant to those who cast the mold of this country something very specific and very clear. It meant that the purpose of man’s journey through this life was to learn and identify his life and effort with the purpose and will of God.

That biblical vision helped form the bedrock convictions of the American idea: that government stood under the judgment of divine and natural law; that government was limited in its reach into human affairs, especially the realm of conscience; that national greatness was measured by fidelity to the moral truths taught by revelation and inscribed in the world by a demanding yet merciful God; that only a virtuous people could be truly free.

Of course, the U.S. is a free country and anyone can assemble the past in ways consoling.

But does anyone else feel a certain discomfort with a Roman Catholic recommending the Bible without also mentioning the objections that sometimes Bishops registered against Bible readings in public schools without comment? The United States would not have as many parochial schools as it does if not for Bishops who worried about sending children to public schools where teachers read the Protestant version of the Bible.

Not to be missed is the odd relationship between the Bible and the founding. If the settlers who came to America and launched the tradition of Thanksgiving wanted a society with a biblical vision at its bedrock, don’t you also have to mention that those same Bible-only Christians were a tad jittery about including Roman Catholics in the nation that emerged from their colonial enterprises?

This may be why some Roman Catholic political theorists are uncomfortable with Roman Catholics getting comfortable with the founding.

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How to Redeem Christmas

Let Protestants have it.

Thomas (nee Tommy) Kidd’s review of Christmas in the Crosshairs notices that not until Protestants took up the cause of December 25, the holiday became safe for the women and children.

Before 1800:

In the medieval era, Christmas became a fixture of Catholic festive culture, which sometimes featured drunken celebrations and “social inversions” such as the “Feast of Fools” and “Feast of the Ass” (that is, the donkey that carried Mary). These rites made Christmas a prime target for many Reformers, who viewed them as an unbiblical “popish” riot. In the 1640s, the Puritan-dominated English Parliament banned Christmas and “all other festival days commonly called ‘Holy-days.’ ” A century and a half later, radical French revolutionaries renamed December 25 “dog day,” viewing citizens who stayed home from work as potential enemies of the secular regime.

Then English-speaking novelists saw an opening:

By 1800, Christmas was in bad shape, associated largely with working-class drunkenness and violence. But in the early 19th century, Christmas “revivalists” like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens began recasting it as a generically religious, culturally wholesome, and family-centered holiday. Clement Clarke Moore made perhaps the most significant contribution with his 1822 “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” A friendly Santa Claus supplanted St. Nicholas’s traditional threats of wrath against disobedient children. Other menacing nocturnal visitors who had been fixtures of medieval Christmases, such as central Europe’s “Perchta the Disemboweller,” soon vanished before Santa’s kindly image. The gift-giving Santa also transformed Christmas into the merchants’ holiday par excellence.

As for me and my house, we’ll stick with Thanksgiving as the best holiday. Rule Americania!

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.

Between the Times

Curmudgeon reminds me of a thought I had last night while looking at holiday decorations on homes in the neighborhood. We are in that mysterious and wondrous period when Halloween decorations are still up and Christmas ones have dawned.

Further proof that the U.S. the greatest nation on God’s green (and getting greener thanks to added warmth) earth.

But I do wonder if Thanksgiving functioning as the start of the Christmas shopping season is really the product of Anglicans pushing Advent. Isn’t the Sunday after Thanksgiving always the first Sunday of Advent?

Gizzards, Pigskins, and Carbs

I am not sure why you might feel the need to turn Thanksgiving into another testimonial for Holy Mother Church. Can’t Protestants have anything to themselves? The converts say no.

Taylor Marshall claims:

The first American Thanksgiving was actually celebrated on September 8 (feast of the birth of the Blessed Virgin) in 1565 in St. Augustine, Florida. The Native Americans and Spanish settlers held a feast and the Holy Mass was offered. This was 56 years before the Puritan pilgrims of Massachusetts. Don Pedro Menendez came ashore amid the sounding of trumpets, artillery salutes and the firing of cannons to claim the land for King Philip II and Spain. The ship chaplain Fr. Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales chanted the Te Deum and presented a crucifix that Menendez ceremoniously kissed. Then the 500 soldiers, 200 sailors and 100 families and artisans, along with the Timucuan Indians celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in gratitude to God.

Christine Niles acknowledges Thanksgiving’s associations with English Protestants but also points out how marginal those Protestants were:

Queen Elizabeth had little patience for Catholics, but even less for Calvinists, who complained the Church of England remained too papist. In their desire to complete the Reformation and “purify” religion of popish trumperies, the Puritans broke from the Anglican Church, rejected the Book of Common Prayer, and preferred the anti-royalist Geneva Bible to the King James version. They instituted an independent congregationalist ideal that upheld the notion of the common priesthood of all believers, and thus granted an equal say among congregants in the election of the minister (some claim the roots of American democracy lie here). All of this naturally brought down on them the wrath of the Crown, and persecution commenced. A number of Puritans fled England and sought refuge in Holland, where they lived for a dozen years, before deciding to leave for the New World. After meeting another group of Puritans in Southampton, all boarded the Mayflower on September 16, 1620. Sixty-five days later, they sighted Cape Cod. The communal meal we know of as “Thanksgiving” took place in 1621 with about ninety Native Americans, and lasted three days.

And then Ray Cavanaugh argues that Squanto, a convert to Roman Catholicism, made the first Thanksgiving possible:

He bequeathed his possessions to his English friends, all of them Protestant Puritans who, despite their own need for religious freedom, were not especially tolerant of Catholicism. One wonders if these Puritans even knew of their benefactor’s Catholic conversion.

But the guy who wrote the book on the first Thanksgiving, Robert Tracy McKenzie, reminds readers that:

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.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving today, perhaps we might remember both of these occasions. The Pilgrims’ harvest celebration of 1621 is an important reminder to see God’s gracious hand in the bounty of nature. But the Pilgrims’ holiday of 1623—what they would have called “The First Thanksgiving”—more forthrightly challenges us to look for God’s ongoing, supernatural intervention in our lives.

None of these accounts can dissuade me from my ambivalence about this holiday at this point in this nation’s history. On the one hand, it is the best holiday of the year from the perspective of food, drink, and leisure. On the other hand, the covenant theology that informs a national day of thanksgiving (or fasting) does not fit the conviction that no nation occupies the status that Mosaic Israel did (not to mention fitting a society inhabited by Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and agnostics). Over at Front Porch Republic I develop this ambivalence.

Thanksgiving with the Coens?

lone biker of apocThe e-message this week from the nice folks at Christianity Today included a list of the five best movies on thankfulness. According to Annie Young Frisbee (imagine if she had married into the Boomerang clan) the Coen brothers come in at number five with – drum roll – Raising Arizona. She writes:

An ex-con and an ex-cop kidnap one of the Arizona quintuplets in hopes of creating the family they couldn’t have on their own. On the run from the law and a bunch of outlaws, their journey leads them to be grateful for the joys they have always had.

Raising is a great movie but hardly the warm fuzzy that Ms. Frisbee makes it out to be since the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse is an omen of the killer in No Country for Old Men, and the last line, said by H. I. while overlooking a Thanksgiving Day spread, about a fairer future for him and his beloved, mocks Utah. This means that it concludes with a swipe at the support Mormons gave to family values during those years when Reagan – that “sumbich”– was in the Whitehouse. (Frisbee’s take on Raising may confirm Ken Myers’ clever line that “evangelicalism is making the world safe for Mormonism.”)

For that reason, a better Thanksgiving Day pick may be Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. Yes, it has its dark moments and Woody’s funny but starting to get old complaints about love and death. But it begins and ends with a sumptuous Thanksgiving Day meal, and it is probably Allen’s most uplifting movie – ever.

The choice for the Harts in 2009, though, is Accidental Tourist, a movie based on the novel by Anne Tyler that is set in Baltimore – a plus for all fans of Machen and Mencken – and features an idiosyncratic family and their methods of cooking turkey. Yum, yum.