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This is the day on which Americans learn the truth of the ancient Greek wisdom that true happiness lies in the exercise of restraint and moderation. And like most wisdom, we acquire this one through foolishness—an afternoon of outrageous excess, followed by stupefied slumber, and in most households hours of spectator sports on the television. That is the comfortable ritual I grew up with—the anxiously anticipated family gathering, the banquet of excesses, sometimes occasional sparks of anger, conflict and infantile regression among the school kids returning home for the holidays.
But there are some deeper thoughts worth contemplating on a day like today. For instance, the promise of the original English settlers of the seventeenth century. The thoughts of John Winthrop, particularly his sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” said on board the Arabella in 1630. Winthrop spoke in distinctly Calvinist tones of a divine providence which brought wealth and comfort to some, but destitution and slavery to others. He preached a duty of brotherly love, of kindness to those in the unknown world before him
The Law of Nature would give no rules for dealing with enemies, for all are to be considered as friends in the state of innocency, but the Gospel commands love to an enemy. Proof. If thine Enemy hunger, feed him; Love your Enemies, doe good to them that hate you.
Winthrop spoke of the cold world beyond the sea, of tales of destruction visited upon communities of the unrighteous, and then he said
Now the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke, and to provide for our posterity, is to followe the counsell of Micah, to doe justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, wee must be knitt together, in this worke, as one man. Wee must entertaine each other in brotherly affection. Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities. Wee must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekeness, gentlenes, patience and liberality. Wee must delight in eache other; make other’s conditions our oune; rejoice together, mourne together, labour and suffer together, allwayes haueving before our eyes our commission and community in the worke, as members of the same body. Soe shall wee keepe the unitie of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his oune people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our wayes. Soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdome, power, goodness and truthe, than formerly wee haue been acquainted with. Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it likely that of New England.”
For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
It always seemed strange to me that as this message is relayed, it is the vision of that “city upon a hill” that persists. A message of promise but strangely filled with pride. But this is not authentic. Winthrop’s vision was a careful balance between the glorious promise of righteous life and the mortal and temporal perils that meet those who fall from it.
Winthrop’s vision is what we should see behind the first Thanksgiving. A wish to depart from the vanities and pretense that weighed so heavily on England. The vanities were sumptuous dress and drink, of course, but also vainglorious military operations beyond the seas—the wars and intrigues that the young king Charles was so set upon pursuing on the continent. And also the oppressive weight of a monarch who sought with each passing year to strip more from the prerogatives of the yeomanry and who in the end, with the words “rex est lex,” held himself above even the law. Those original settlers carried the germ of revolution within them, a revulsion against authoritarian rule, and a simple conviction that democracy was the proper political system for the community of the faithful. And that would manifest itself, first within a generation when the colony became the last redoubt of the Roundheads, and then in the great revolution that gave birth to America and marked the arrival of modernity.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving today, the cavalier lifestyle and thinking that are reflected so beautifully in Ben Jonson’s poem “Inviting a Friend to Supper” seem to win out over the Puritan essence of Winthrop’s vision. But it is the latter that demands to be on our minds. This is a strange contradiction. And it needs at least a bit of balance.
The first Thanksgiving was for the promise of a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which society could be begun afresh, to avoid the errors of the society they left behind.
And today on this Thanksgiving it is fit to put aside the elementary school pageant and its myth making, the grotesquely oversized turkey, the sumptuary rites, and remember the promise and challenge that John Winthrop saw. Look closely and think deeply. The challenges we face today are not so dissimilar. Winthrop’s passion and simplicity seem alien in the frivolities of our world. But they are filled with a vision of enduring truth, a candle within, which can yet give inspiration to a nation that embraces it.
To all readers, I wish a day of contented gluttony, but also a moment of peace and fellowship with those who assemble with them. A pause and a break. A time to think about the things that we should contemplate but that our daily rituals keep us from.
More from Scott Horton:
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Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”