Last week, I wrote about Mercury One’s place in a scandal involving the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois. In 2018, Glenn Beck and David Barton borrowed a copy of the Gettysburg Address from the Lincoln Museum for a Mercury One exhibit in Dallas. A anonymous complaint triggered an investigation by the IL Inspector General into allegations that the Gettysburg Address was improperly loaned out to Beck and Barton. The IG report confirmed those allegations. The report asserted that the former museum executive director should not have loaned the document given the slipshod logistical arrangements for the transfer and exhibit and the poor reputation of David Barton as a historian. The executive director was fired and the chief operating officer was allowed to resign.
After writing about the IG report, I noticed that Mercury One still lists the Lincoln Museum as a partner on a website devoted to one of the organization’s exhibits — 12 Score and 3 Years Ago. On that page, Mercury One claims: “For the first time, the exhibit is partnering with five world-class organizations including: The African American Museum of Dallas, The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Frontiers of Flight Museum, and Dallas Historical Society.”
I asked Dave Kelm, general counsel for the museum, if the Lincoln museum had any kind of partnership. After some research, he responded as follows:
So there was no partnership. Mercury One bought some pictures of the 13th Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation. Mercury One tried to borrow the Emancipation Proclamation from the Lincoln Museum and the museum staff turned them down because of David Barton’s reputation and the faulty processes used in the transfer of the Gettysburg address.
I think this is called spin or reputation management. Certainly the truth is different than the hype. In fact, the Lincoln museum declined to lend Mercury One an article because “under no circumstances” should the museum “be associated with him [David Barton].” Here is the expanded quote from Dr. Samuel Wheeler, Illinois state historian and Carla Smith, museum registrar:
Dr. Wheeler said that based on what he later learned about Mr. Barton, he believed that “under no circumstances” should the ALPLM be associated with him. Ms. Smith said that if she had known what she later learned about Mr. Barton’s reputation, the 2018 loan would have been an “instant no.”
You might recall the story of antisemitic right wing talking head Rick Wiles who blamed impeachment on a “Jew coup.” His video accusing Jews of plotting the murder of millions of Christians was removed from YouTube but has drawn no condemnation from Republicans who have appeared on his programs in the past. Apparently he has easy access to the White House via press credentials.
Yesterday, I become aware of a White House petition launched by attorney Marc Stanley which asks the Trump administration to restrict Wiles’ access to the White House. I signed it and I ask that you click the link and sign it too. The petition reads:
On a November 22, 2019 broadcast recording, TruNews founder and host Rick Wiles opined that the House impeachment inquiry is part of a “Jew Coup” to overthrow President Trump and install a Jewish “Cabal” to control the country.
On December 4, 2019, Wiles doubled down, saying, “Jewish socialist Jerry Nadler’s Judiciary Committee escalated the Jew Coup.”
Rick Wiles has a long history of spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, as well as radical Islamophobic and anti-LGBTQ propaganda.
In the past, Rick Wiles has applied for and been granted White House press credentials. His vile racism, bigotry, and appeals to hate and violence have no place in the White House and he should be banned for life.
Add your name to this petition and take a stand against Wiles, anti-Semitism and bigotry.
In any normal administration, this fact and the lack of response to it would have consumed at least one news cycle. However, in the Trump administration, it is just another hour of another day. However, this should not go without response, especially at a time when Trump is cynically courting Jewish voters. I hope you will sign on.
On the White House Twitter account, Gateway Church worship leaders Cody Carnes and Kari Jobe gush about Donald Trump’s work for the “marginalized” and all the great things the administration is doing. Watch:
In this taxpayer funded video, the two Christian singers tell viewers that the administration is helping marginalized people. She said:
But the thing that moved me the most is just how everyone is so for making sure we’re changing people’s lives and not leaving those that are marginalized and those that have been trafficked and those that are…A lot of times for those of us who don’t work in the White House, it can look really big and something that we can’t really end. But they are working to end these things and change these things. And I’ve just been in tears all day. It’s been incredible. I’m just so thankful to be a part of this today and to see what God is doing in our White House.
Carnes followed by saying the “faith community” was involved:
So many good things happening for the faith community and for the world. And things that we all believe in in the faith community that can change the world are being supported and are happening in this house.
In the comments under Carnes’ and Jobe’s tweet, Jobe’s college roommate left a message that confronted this rosy assessment with bright light. Jory Micah wrote:
I don’t even know what to say at the moment. Kari was my Bible college roommate. I am so sad to see @karijobe fall into nationalism. I know she knows Jesus. I know it. I know she loves the marginalized, but she is ignoring immigrants being abused by Trump & corruption. pic.twitter.com/UaDli1avhG
In October, no refugees were settled in the U.S. for the first time since the 1980s. There is an ongoing humanitarian crisis happening at our Southern border. Recently, a migrant teen boy died of the flu while in custody of U.S. Border Patrol. I could go on to discuss the Kurds and the faith community there that Trump left to be slaughtered by the Turks.
There is reason to believe the Administration’s rhetoric on human trafficking is faulty. Many of their policies toward migrants and refugees actually make trafficking worse. But because Christian leaders have stars in their eyes, they won’t challenge what they are being told or do any independent research. Because Trump and Pompeo say it, it must be true.
Christians are supposed to be monotheists. However, in the age of Trump, there are two gods in many of their lives, and as I have written before, Trump shall have the preeminence.
UPDATE: Bethel Seminary professor Andy Rowell has a list of the worship leaders who attended the Dec. 6 event at the White House.
In June 2018, Glenn Beck borrowed the Gettysburg Address from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. One of only five handwritten copies of the address from the time period, the document is valued at $20-million. In hindsight, the transaction, for which Beck paid $50,000, has become a political scandal in Illinois and triggered the firing of the executive director of the Lincoln museum. The Chief Operating Officer of the Lincoln museum was allowed to resign and eventually ended up working for Beck’s charity Mercury One. The IG report also contains an unflattering assessment of David Barton as a historian.
The incident, which Beck celebrated live in 2018, was investigated by the Illinois Office of Executive Inspector General due to a tip from an anonymous consumer. The report found that allegations of wrongdoing were sound and based in fact. The report states that the museum should never have let Mercury One have the Gettysburg Address given the slipshod arrangements and David Barton’s reputation as a historian.
In the quotes below, the players are Alan Lowe, former executive director of the Lincoln museum, Carla Smith, registrar of the Lincoln museum, Samuel Wheeler, historian with the state of Illinois, Nadine O’Leary, museum chief of staff, and Michael Little, Chief Operating Officer of the Lincoln museum (and now Mercury One). Other than Beck and David Barton, Courtney Mayden is also mentioned. She is an employee of Mercury One with some unspecified training in handling historical documents.
The Hasty Gettysburg Address Loan
On June 8, Beck’s charity Mercury One and the Executive Director of the Lincoln museum Alan Lowe initiated negotiations to bring the Gettysburg Address to Beck’s Right and Responsibilities exhibit in Dallas. After only 8 days, the document was shipped to Texas. Beck displayed the document to just over 2300 people who attended the exhibit.
The complaint alleged that Lowe mismanaged the loan process. According to the IG report, that allegation was accurate. From the IG report:
Mr. Lowe made the decision to loan the Gettysburg Address and other artifacts to Mercury One in violation of the HPA Board’s 2013 Resolution, contrary to HPA loan policies, and without following standard museum practices, much less providing the heightened level of care that would seem prudent for the rare and extremely valuable artifact Mr. Lowe described as a linchpin of the ALPLM’s collection. The allegation that Mr. Lowe mismanaged the ALPLM by loaning the Gettysburg Address and other artifacts to Mercury One, without following the HPA Board’s 2013 Resolution, HPA policies, or standard museum loan practices, is FOUNDED.
Earlier this year, Lowe was fired from his position by Governor J.B. Pritzker, although he did not say why. Two other players in the drama continue to have a connection to Mercury One.
The first one I will mention is Michael Little. The IG report documents over 50 contacts with Mercury One he had prior to being permitted to resign over this snafu. As a part of leaving state employment, employees are required to divulge contacts with new employers. Little said he didn’t have any with Mercury One other than his interview. However, the IG found over 50 emails between Little and staff at Mercury One. Little was subsequently hired as the Chief Operating Officer at Mercury One. So the current COO at Mercury One misled the state of Illinois just prior to taking his job.
An Instant No
That brings me to David Barton. For fun, I will quote what the IG report has to say about Barton.
According to an online Texas arts calendar, visitors to Mercury One’s Rights & Responsibilities exhibition in June 2018 could expect to see items Mercury One was sharing from its own collection, including an exploding rat from World War II, whose designer inspired the James Bond character Q; as well as a facsimile engraving of a draft Declaration of Independence; Mary Todd Lincoln’s dress; and Lincoln’s collar. The calendar indicated that Mercury One charged $20 for adult general admission, $750 for private VIP tours with Mr. Beck, $350 for private tours with David Barton, and $250 for private tours with other Mercury One staff. According to the calendar, during the private tours Mr. Beck, Mr. Barton, and the other staff were to provide their “own unique perspective on our rights and responsibilities.”
The Lincoln museum staff didn’t know anything about Barton until after the fact. However, as the passage below shows, they did a little late homework.
Ms. Smith and Dr. Wheeler told investigators that at the time of the loan, they did not know what else was going to be displayed at Mercury One’s exhibition. Ms. Smith said that information is relevant to the consideration of whether it is appropriate for the ALPLM’s artifacts to be displayed or interpreted alongside the other items in the exhibit. Dr. Wheeler said that it is a “betrayal of public trust” to not have known what the Mercury One exhibit was about, what other pieces would be displayed alongside the ALPLM and Foundation artifacts, or how the exhibit would be presented.
The museum registrar (Smith) and Illinois state historian (Wheeler) were bothered after the fact that Executive Director Lowe had let the Gettysburg Address be displayed along with artifacts of questionable reputation. But then they got to Barton’s reputation and they were really troubled.
In addition, Ms. Smith and Dr. Wheeler said they later learned concerning information about David Barton’s reputation. In 2012, Christian publisher Thomas Nelson recalled all copies and ceased publication of Mr. Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, after it learned that “there were some historical details included in the book that were not adequately supported.” The book was voted the “least credible history book in print” in a 2012 reader poll by the History News Network, a George Washington University online publication “created to give historians the opportunity to reach a national audience on issues of public concern.” Dr. Wheeler said that based on what he later learned about Mr. Barton, he believed that “under no circumstances” should the ALPLM be associated with him. Ms. Smith said that if she had known what she later learned about Mr. Barton’s reputation, the 2018 loan would have been an “instant no.”
No to the Emancipation Proclamation
Earlier this year, Beck wanted to borrow the Emancipation Proclamation with Barton listed as Curator of the exhibit. The museum, partly for that reason, turned Mercury One down.
Ms. Smith told investigators that after she received the letter of request and facility report, she convened the ALPLM collections staff, and the staff unanimously recommended to deny the loan request. She stated that she sent Mr. Lowe and Ms. O’Leary a detailed list of reasons why staff recommended not doing the loan. The listed reasons included that some of the information provided in the Standard Facility Report was incomplete or required clarification; concerns about Mr. Barton being listed as a Curator who would be interpreting ALPLM artifacts, given his reputation as a historian; and concerns about Mr. Little being listed as the Registrar or Collections Manager, given his lack of qualifications for handling artifacts. Ms. Smith said that Mr. Little’s history of mishandling artifacts at the ALPLM was also of concern.
In the end, the museum did not loan the Emancipation Proclamation to Beck’s project, 12 Score and 3 Years Ago. That didn’t stop Barton and Beck from promoting the event as if the Emancipation Proclamation was going to be there. Here is Barton claiming those in attendance would see it.
On Beck’s Mercury One website, the nonprofit still lists the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum as a partner. However, this does not appear to be accurate. Not only was Lowe fired, current Mercury One COO Michael Little is not allowed to ever work for the state of Illinois. Given the results of this report, it is hard to see the two organizations ever working together again. It is deceptive for Barton and Mercury One to tout a relationship that not only isn’t true but is the subject of a scathing report by the Illinois Inspector General.
Rick Wiles is a far right conspiracy theorist who doesn’t like Jews. He also promotes his own “news” service called TruNews. In a recent podcast, he blamed a “Jew Coup” for Donald Trump’s impeachment problems. Right Wing Watch and various news sites covered it; watch:
Wiles started by saying Jews were liars and ended by claiming they planned to kill millions of Christian.
That’s the way the Jews work, they are deceivers, they plot, they lie, they do whatever they have to do to accomplish their political agenda.
According to Wiles the political agenda is impeachment and Jews have plans for those who resist.
This is a coup led by Jews to overthrow the constitutionally elected president of the United States and it’s beyond removing Donald Trump, it’s removing you and me. That’s what’s at the heart of it.
“You have been taken over by a Jewish cabal. The church of Jesus Christ, you’re next. Get it through your head! They’re coming for you. There will be a purge. That’s the next thing that happens when Jews take over a country, they kill millions of Christians.
Apple can fail, reject, or remove your podcast from Apple Podcasts for a variety of reasons. For example, Apple might fail, reject, or remove your podcast if the podcast or any content linked from the podcast contains any of the following:
There is a list of reasons given and one of them is this:
Content that could be construed as racist, misogynist, or homophobic.
I certify that Wiles content can be construed as antisemitic. There is nothing redeeming about spreading lies and prejudice. Wiles shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the White House or given interviews with people in the administration. Youtube removed his video of this message, now Apple should do the same. In fact a perusal of the rest of the content will quickly implicate much of it as in violation of Apple’s standards.
After being taken to task for his kids-not-kids book Donald Builds the Wall, Eric Metaxas now says the book was not originally for kids. In an interview with John Zmirak at The Stream, Metaxas said:
METAXAS: Oddly enough I did not originally write these books for kids!!! Some of us can appreciate what this president is accomplishing. Others enjoy the outrageousness of him as a lovable cave-man character on the international stage. So we deserve a book about him that is almost as entertaining as he is. Maybe almost as outrageous and funny.
Despite the facts that he told CBN that the book is “obviously” for kids and his publisher called the book “the children’s book and political parable that America needs right now,” Metaxas is now out with this contrasting narrative. Whatever age he wants to target, he thinks his book is hilarious.
Of course he does.
The interview with Zmirak has the quality of two frat boys ridiculing non-frat boys who aren’t nearly as cool or smart as they are. There is no recognition that criticism of his book may have merit or is sincerely offered. Those who don’t find the book to be amazing and shower praise on Metaxas are “ill-informed,” “self-righteous and pompous,” or likened to “fascists.”
This is a typical response from Metaxas. When John Fea and others found multiple historical errors in his book If You Can Keep It, Metaxas reacted with astonishment and attacked Fea’s patriotism and character. Metaxas has yet to acknowledge that he helped spread one of the most popular false quotes among Christians by incorrectly citing the follow phrases attributed to Bonhoeffer:
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
There is no record Bonhoeffer said or wrote this. Despite the fact that Metaxas is aware of this, he has yet to make a correction or acknowledge that he cited it incorrectly.
Metaxas told Zmirak he prays for his detractors. I don’t know how he could since he blocks them on social media when they cross him or raise a concern. He blocked me on Twitter when I raised the matter of the Bonhoeffer quote.
So, don’t like his book? Who cares. He doesn’t. Find historical errors? No, you didn’t. He doesn’t make errors. In fact, you are a loser for pointing it out. But take heart, self-righteous fascist, Rev. Metaxas will pray for you.
For more on what it is like to tangle with Metaxas, see my post on journalist Jon Ward’s revealing email exchange with Metaxas.
Eric Metaxas loves him some Donald Trump. Not only does he defend just about everything Trump does, Metaxas has written two illustrated books about the president. The most recent one is called Donald Builds the Wall. This one depicts Trump building a wall between the good people of the U.S. and swamp dwelling creatures of those swampy countries to our south. It is the casting of refugees as swamp creatures that has some people upset. Here is a tweet from Rondell Trevino, who founded an immigration group sympathetic to work with refugees.
A new children’s book titled “Donald Builds the Wall” depicts Immigrants and Migrants as hideous, troublemaking, and dangerous swamp creatures who try to invade the U.S.
Metaxas responded that the creatures weren’t migrants but politicians.
This is getting hilarious. It’s an adult HUMOR book in the GUISE of a kids book. See the Amazon category!! And those monsters are POLITICIANS, not immigrants!! It’s very impressive that some people can make searing public judgements without any knowledge or context whatsoever! https://t.co/kqf3VKKvca
Obviously this is for kids, so you want to make it simple, but it is kind of that simple because we’ve lost sight of the basics of what it means. If you want freedom you have to guard your freedom. You have to make sure the people who are part of your nation buy into that idea of what it is to be free and these are really heavy ideas that are not being done justice in the mainstream media and we kind of thought in a children’s book, in a humor book we can say what you can’t say sometimes in a different form.
The publisher’s description of the book on Apple books describes it as “the children’s book and political parable that America needs right now. ”
So which is it Eric?
Caravan of Troublemakers
In the introduction the book, Metaxas and his illustrator Tim Raglin call refugees a “caravan of troublemakers” who are coming to “take over the country.”
This appears to be a reference to the recent waves of refugees coming from Central America who are fleeing violence.
I suspect that this is a book which historians will see as an indicator of the bankruptcy of evangelical leadership during the Trump era. The effort to get children to associate people wanting to find a better life in the United States with “bad news,” “troublemakers,” and “swamp creatures” is clear and indefensible. In the past, refugees leaving their homes and coming to America (think Neil Diamond) have been considered noble. In the pen and ink of Metaxas and Raglin, they are “troublemakers” and “bad news.”
Currently, we have a president who allows Stephen Miller – an open white nationalist sympathizer – to serve as an advisor to the president on the subject of immigration. Last month, for the first time, no refugees from anywhere were settled in the U.S. The State Department has a freeze on resettlements and a plan to reduce such moves to the lowest level in 30 years in 2020.
Metaxas’ book lionizing Trump doesn’t appear in the hands of children in a vacuum. This administration has steadily kneecapped the flow of legal immigration, even when that means keeping brown-skinned Christians out.
Thus, Metaxas book is fiction is more ways than the obvious one. He promotes a fictional narrative about Donald the swamp drainer and Donald the freedom preserver. And Metaxas now claims he isn’t targeting children. This is just one of many stories he can’t get straight.
Future Metaxas Books
Metaxas does have a wealth of material to work with. I can suggest some future titles:
Donald Bribes a Foreign President
Donald Abandons an Ally
Donald Grabs a Cat
Donald Loses a Trade War
Think of more? Leave them in the comments.
In previous media interviews, Metaxas calls these books “children’s books”:
Thanksgiving Revisited: A Blessed But Not a Chosen Nation
In November 1620, 102 English Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod after an arduous 66-day voyage across the Atlantic. The first winter, half of their company died. Nevertheless, after the residents of Plymouth gathered their first harvest the next November, Governor William Bradford invited Chief Massasoit and other Wampanoag Indians to join them for a feast that lasted three days. Describing the first Thanksgiving in “A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” in 1621, Edward Winslow thanked the “goodness of God” for the venison, wild fowl, and other food they enjoyed.
In 1777, during another trying time in American history, the Continental Congress issued the first official Thanksgiving Proclamation. Twelve years later George Washington proclaimed a national Thanksgiving to give gratitude to God for the newly ratified Constitution. The first president urged Americans to render unto “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be” “our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country … for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence,” evident in the nation’s “tranquility, union, and plenty.”
This belief that God has specially blessed America has been widespread in our history. Many Americans have insisted that this country has a unique calling from God. This theme is evident in the nation’s sacred ceremonies, quasi-sacred scriptures, and presidents’ inaugural addresses. Strongly identifying with ancient Israel, many Americans have concluded that God chose us to play a principal role in bringing his kingdom on earth.
The Puritans contended that they had a “divinely appointed errand in the wilderness.” John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose residents came ten years after the Pilgrims, declared in his 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people upon us.” Jonathan Edwards, America’s greatest theologian, expected a “great work of God” to soon begin in America. His grandson Timothy Dwight, an early president of Yale, claimed that the new nation was “by Heaven designed, the example bright to renovate mankind.”
Numerous presidents have argued that God selected the United States to perform a special mission: to spread democracy, liberty, and biblical morality to the world. They asserted that its seemingly miraculous birth; rapid spread across the continent; remarkable increase in population, industry, affluence, and might; successful assimilation of millions of people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds; modeling of republican government; and pivotal role in deciding the outcome of international wars all testified to God’s choice, use, and blessing of America.
Washington announced in his first inaugural address that “the destiny of the republican model of government” depended on America’s success. Thomas Jefferson labeled the American experiment “the last best hope of mankind,” and Abraham Lincoln called the Union “the last best hope of earth.” “Upon the success of our experiment,” alleged Theodore Roosevelt, “much depends … as regards the welfare of mankind.” “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history,” declared George W. Bush, “to be a model to the world of justice.”
The United States’ success and support has encouraged people in countries around the globe to throw off the shackles of despotism and embrace democracy. As Dwight Eisenhower put it, “The American experiment has, for generations, fired the passion and the courage of millions elsewhere seeking freedom, equality, [and] opportunity.”
Although the conviction that God has selected the United States for a special mission in the world has contributed to some good results, it is biblically suspect. The Bible provides no basis for believing that any nation enjoys a unique relationship with God, as Israel did in Old Testament times. This Thanksgiving (and continuously) we should thank God for the many blessings our nation has enjoyed. Our geographical location, rich resources, fertile soil, unique blend of peoples, numerous liberties, and outstanding leaders have indeed been great blessings.
At the same time, we must reject the idea that we are God’s chosen people, a conviction that has helped motivate and vindicate America’s actions at home and abroad. Belief that God has assigned the United States a mission has helped inspire Americans to engage in countless acts of self-sacrifice, generosity, and charity. However, it has also contributed to imperialism, concepts of racial superiority, cultural insensitivity, and unwarranted interference in the affairs of other nations. It has stimulated Americans to fight injustice at home and abroad, but it has also contributed to simplistic moralizing, overlooking of our national flaws, ignoring moral complexities, and a hatred abroad of American hubris.
Therefore, while we celebrate Thanksgiving and give gratitude to God for his bounty, let’s remember Christ’s statement, “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Hopefully this will motivate us to reach out in compassion to the needy throughout our world
The third post today is a brief note from Barry Hankins. Hankins is Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of History and Resident Scholar, Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.
Christians can celebrate Thanksgiving by infusing it with all kinds of religious and national significance. But, people of other faiths and of no faith at all can celebrate the holiday equally. Christians have no corner on being thankful. Moreover, Thanksgiving has an advantage in this respect over Christmas and Easter. Although those holidays, especially Christmas, are commercialized and secularized to a large extent, they are still specifically Christian. In fact, they are the two central events of the Christian liturgical calendar, which means that to celebrate them commercially non-Christians have to ignore their potent religious meaning. Not so for Thanksgiving, which commemorates a national event, not a religious event. So, Thanksgiving is what I call “America’s perfect civil religion holiday.”
To read all articles in this series, click Thanksgiving 2019. Tomorrow I have a post from retired Grove City College history professor and first professor emeritus from the school, Gary Scott Smith on America as a blessed but not chosen nation.
Today’s second guest post is from friend and Grove City College colleague Andrew Mitchell who is an associate professor of history at the college.
Reclaim the Spirit of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is one of only two holidays Americans celebrate that consciously looks back to a colonial past. It also happens to be the only national holiday that is relatively free of political implications, at least on first glance. That is quite remarkable, since Americans are, and have been, a diverse group of people—of different ethnicities and faiths—who have agreed to unite over a number of political principles. It has been our commitment to those principles, rather than to specifically religious or economic ones, that has helped the nation endure for close to 250 years. Recently, historians, following the general trend of academia, have directed their research at exploring American diversity, and holiday celebrations have not escaped scrutiny. By stripping away the legends associated with “Pilgrim Fathers,” a fascinating story emerges.
It is quite evident now that the first “American” Thanksgiving celebration did not take place in 1623 at Plymouth, nor in 1619 at Berkley Hundred, nor in 1610 at Jamestown, but rather on 8 September 1565, in present-day St. Augustine, Florida. On that day a group of Spanish-speaking Catholics gave thanks to God for their safe travel across the ocean and afterwards held a modest feast, inviting the local tribe of Timucuan Indians to join them. In fact, regardless of whether the Plymouth Separatists were giving thanks to God or to Massasoit and the Wampanoags, it is clear that the Puritans of New England and their descendants ignored them entirely. The word “Pilgrim” to describe the Plymouth colonists only shows up in 1799; the record of their 1623 celebration first published in 1841, during a time when New Englanders and Southerners were ransacking historical sources, engaged in a fierce fight to prove that their traditions (and theirs alone) were authentically “American.” In light of this, Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 proclaiming a “day of thanksgiving” on the last Thursday in November appears more controversial—an affirmation right before his reelection that the Northern (New England-influenced) side had won. Indeed, despite subsequent presidents continuing Lincoln’s tradition, most Southern states did not acknowledge the day, or develop any rituals around it, until the last decades of the nineteenth century.
Sadly, the history of Thanksgiving is not devoid of political wrangling and gamesmanship. Franklin Roosevelt—in this as in other elements of his presidency—deviated from the traditions established by his predecessors, by moving Thanksgiving a week earlier in 1939. Roosevelt was acting on the recommendation of his Secretary of Commerce who was concerned that the lateness of Thanksgiving (30 November) would compromise Christmas-season retail sales. The president’s decision created a significant uproar across the country. In a response that demonstrated how politicized America had become, nearly one-half of the states ignored the presidential declaration and celebrated a “Republican Thanksgiving,” instead of “Franksgiving.” The following year, 16 states kept to the traditional date. In 1941, after conclusive evidence that retail sales had not significantly improved, Congress passed a joint resolution declaring the fourth Thursday in November as “Thanksgiving Day.” Nevertheless, the reality of rationing during the Second World War meant that most Americans did not come to share in Norman Rockwell’s idealized depiction of until 1945.
Rather than being disconcerted by revisionist demonstrations that popular conceptions about our national celebration is little more than a peculiar New England tradition writ large and embellished, traditionalists should see in them a chance to celebrate. Despite the diversity of language and creed, all European colonists to the Americas acknowledged their need for giving thanks, and demonstrated their joy through unusual periods of festivity, whether the religious ceremony was accompanied by culinary indulgence or not. Furthermore, all of these thanksgiving celebrations, from Florida to Virginia to Massachusetts, included guests: strangers who were made welcome and encouraged to share in the community’s bounty, and for a few moments, perhaps, united in fellowship. For these people, most of our ancestors, thanksgiving was not a single day made special through capitalization, but one of life’s essential rituals, too important to practice only once every 365 days, and too special to keep to one’s own.
With increasing evidence from the realm of psychology that giving thanks is good for the mind as well as the body, perhaps this provides Americans today with something solid to grasp. In a society whose members are increasingly concerned about diversity and yet increasingly isolated from one another, whose daily call to self-indulgence tends to dull our physical and spiritual palates, perhaps we need to focus on the thankful theme that has united us in the past. By scaling back our own daily consumption (starting, perhaps with the last Friday in November), by beginning to reach out in loving hospitality to the strangers in our midst, we might be able reclaim some of that attractive spirit—and lifestyle—of giving thanks that all our ancestors (and their guests) shared.
For further reading, Dr. Mitchell recommends:
Diana Appelbaum, Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History.
Kathleen Curtain, Sandra Oliver, and Plimouth Plantation, Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie.
Robert Emmons, Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.