Thursday, November 24, 2005

History, tradition disagree on Thanksgiving

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (Nov 24, 2005): The first Thanksgiving, in 1621, had an undercurrent of unease during the feast of gratitude the Pilgrims held after their first successful harvest in the New World.

What little we know of that three-day celebration is contained in two short passages from colonists, one written by Edward Winslow Dec. 12, 1621, and published in 1622; and the other written at least 10 years after the event by William Bradford, the colony’s governor, in “History of Plymouth Plantation,” according to Lisa Wolfinger of Cape Elizabeth, who with her husband Kirk Wolfinger owns Lone Wolf Documentary Group in South Portland.

Lisa Wolfinger, who spoke Sunday at a special service at Blue Point Congregational Church, UCC, in Scarborough, is working on a three-hour documentary about the Pilgrims, to air as “The Mayflower” on the History Channel around next Thanksgiving.

There is no Native American record of the feast, in the oral or written traditions of the tribes in the area, Wolfinger told the congregation, who wore name tags bearing Pilgrims’ names. Some children wore construction-paper Pilgrim hats, and the service was conducted “in the manner of the Pilgrims, as best we can,” said Rev. Carol Kerr, who may appear in the film as an extra, and whose son Gavin plays a young gentleman named Jonathan Brewster.

“The story of the Pilgrims is a great adventure,” said Rev. Kerr, “a story of great adventure and powerful heroes with God on their side.”

Creators of tradition

The group wanted to worship in their own way, reading the Bible and interpreting it for themselves without a priest explaining or giving an “official” version of the scripture. They objected to the Church of England’s traditions, many of which descended from the Roman Catholic Church, as separating people from God.

The Pilgrims were a sect called Separatists, which split from the Church of England to form a new church, as opposed to the Puritans, a group who wanted to “purify” the Anglican Church from within, Wolfinger said.

“Congregationalism, our church, descended directly from their faith,” Kerr said. Even the fact that she wears academic robes during services – rather than a priest’s ornate garb – descends from the Pilgrims, whose ministers wore academic robes to signify the belief people should “use reason and your mind” to understand God, she said.

The Blue Point Church building is “much more Anglican” than the Pilgrims would have liked, she said, with stained glass and an organ – what the Pilgrims called “the devil’s bagpipes” – featured prominently.

Other traditions created by the Separatists survive, including the Congregational practice of a church choosing its own minister, rather than having a bishop or pope to make that decision, said Kerr, who was picked by a committee of church members.

Saved by English-speakers

Despite the lasting traditions they created, “the Pilgrims were a little crazy, if you ask me,” Kerr said. In a fervent desire to worship their own way, they left their homes in England for Holland, and then packed 102 of themselves onto a small wooden ship built to carry 75 people – the Mayflower – and set sail for America.

They slept on bare wood decks, had little or no sanitation and ate uncooked food during the 66-day voyage, which ended when the Pilgrims, with almost no provisions and nothing for shelter, arrived off Cape Cod in November 1620, just as winter was setting in, Kerr said.

About all they did have was faith. In one of his last speeches before the group left Holland, Rev. John Robinson, the sect’s leader, who stayed behind, told the Pilgrims to keep their eyes, minds and hearts open to new ideas and understandings of God and the Bible, “for I am verily persuaded that the Lord hath more truth and light to break forth from His holy word.”

And the Pilgrims had a little luck. When they landed, there were no natives in the area. Nearly all of them had been killed off by a plague, possibly smallpox brought by European explorers, Wolfinger said.

There were villages nearby, all vacant, and some with bones on the ground because so many had died “there was nobody left to bury them,” she said.

The Pilgrims moved into an area that had been cultivated, but only barely survived by hunting and gathering through the winter. By the spring, half of them had died of scurvy and pneumonia.

In March, an English-speaking Native American showed up, Samoset. He had learned the Pilgrims’ language from explorers and traders who had preceded them. He arranged a peace between the Pilgrims and Massasoit, the local chief.

Massasoit even arranged for Squanto – a Native American who had been kidnapped and taken to England and Spain and spoke English too – to live among the Pilgrims to help them. In 1621 he had just returned from Europe to find that almost all of his tribe, the Pawtuxet, had been killed by the plague, Wolfinger said.

Without the natives’ help, “the Pilgrims would not have survived,” she said.

Indians not invited?

But survive they did, and after their harvest they held a celebratory feast. The few records we have of the event show “how far we’ve distorted what actually happened,” into a holiday where families get together to eat and watch football, Wolfinger said.

One of the key debates among historians is whether the Native Americans were invited to the feast, as many American schoolchildren learn. Neither of the written accounts says they were, though Winslow’s letter says the Pilgrims “exercised their arms,” or performed military-like drills, including possibly firing weapons, which Wolfinger said might have concerned the Native Americans, whose chief then showed up with 90 warriors.

“There’s a baseline level of unease in this celebration,” she said, and the “raw footage” clips she showed of the film-in-progress reflect that, with no joyous conversation between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, even as they sit together to share a meal.

“You’ve got all these people showing up for a party, there’s not that much food, and they won’t leave – and they’re fully armed,” she said.

Sidebar: First-hand accounts of the first Thanksgiving

Edward Winslow, printer, in a letter dated Dec. 12, 1621,and published in 1622 as chapter six of “Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth:”

“Our corn (i.e. wheat) did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

William Bradford, the colony’s governor from April 1621 on, in “History of Plymouth Plantation,” written between 1630 and 1650:

“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”

Sidebar: Elements of Pilgrim worship

The service began with a drummer calling people to worship, and with a member of the congregation thumping a “tithing rod” three times. (The wooden rod was used to prod men – and a similar one with a feather on it was for the women – who fell asleep during the four-hour services in unheated sanctuaries.)

Men and boys sat on the right-hand side of the sanctuary and women and girls sat on the left.

The beadle, a church official who kept religious order in the community, carried the Bible to a bench at the front of the church, and the minister walked up the aisle last.

The service started with “free prayers” – written by the minister or made up on the spot, not written down in anything like the Anglicans’ “Book of Common Prayer” – conducted while minister and congregation members alike held their hands upraised. This was also called the short prayer: “The short prayer was the 15-minute prayer at the beginning of the service,” according to Rev. Carol Kerr.

If the minister said something people liked, they would call out “Amen.”

Then there would be a hymn in a call-and-response format, with some members of the congregation leading and everyone else following along, line by line.

When the scripture readings were complete, people could comment about what they heard, and ask questions.

After the sermon, there would also be a time for questions and comments.

Then, before the offering and benediction ending the service, there would be a time called “censures,” when congregation members would stand up and report on the misdeeds they had seen others doing. “This is probably a part of Pilgrims and Puritanism that you’re glad we don’t do anymore,” Kerr said.

Source: Rev. Carol Kerr