John Wilsey on Thanksgiving and the Past as a Foreign Country – Thanksgiving 2019

Today’s first guest post is from John D. Wilsey. Wilsey is Associate Professor of Church History at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America and American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

One of the fascinating things about the Thanksgiving celebration is its endurance in the national memory. From the “first Thanksgiving” in the autumn of 1621 to our own day, Thanksgiving as a civil religious high and holy day offers us a cultural and religious artifact in considering the process of change that occurs in a national community. Just think of Thanksgiving in terms of three benchmarks in history—1621, 1863, and the present day.
Here’s a little perspective: when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, he was more distant in time from the 1621 celebration than we are in 2014 to Lincoln. How much had changed in North America from the first Thanksgiving to the Civil War? And how much has changed from the Civil War to the present? As many historians like to point out, the past is a foreign country—but perhaps it is more accurate to say that the past is made up of many foreign countries.

It is good to remember that our present day context is different than that of the past. As a Christian, I remember that many things in the human experience do not change, namely, human nature itself. But I also remember that trying to draw a straight line from the Pilgrims to the present in an effort to make some point about “restoring America” can be dangerous, and in some ways, contrary to my own Christian tradition. That does not mean that we ignore the past. We can glean wisdom from the past without using it to advance an agenda. Considering Thanksgiving as a cultural and religious artifact helps us to do just that, while we celebrate and enjoy it in our own homes on November 27.

For all articles in this series, please click Thanksgiving 2019.