I had been wanting to post on this yesterday, or this morning at the latest, and to do so at greater length. Unfortunately, life did not cooperate. Even so, I couldn’t let Thanksgiving pass without at least noting an excellent column in the Boston Globe from eight years ago titled “The Opposite of Thanksgiving.” I also want to give my own thanks to my colleague the Rev. Winfield Casey Jones, who brought this piece to my attention. The column is by Eve LaPlante, who puts the point starkly in her third paragraph:
This modern version of Thanksgiving would horrify the devout Pilgrims and Puritans who sailed to America in the 17th century. The holiday that gave rise to Thanksgiving—a “public day” that they observed regularly—was almost the precise opposite of today’s celebration. It was not secular, but deeply religious. At its center was not an extravagant meal, but a long fast. And its chief concern was not bounty but redemption: to examine the faults in oneself—and one’s community—with an eye toward spiritual improvement.
A thanksgiving day, as actually celebrated by 17th-century Americans, was a communal day of fasting, meditation, and supplication to God.
LaPlante centers her account on the story of Samuel Sewall, one of the nine magistrates who presided over the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. In 1697, Sewall publicly repented of his part in those trials. After telling his story, she closes her column with this telling comment:
The belief in repentance—and its power to improve the American experiment—has also retreated. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that this Thursday a powerful leader will stand before the nation and admit to a disastrous mistake—or say, quoting Samuel Sewall, “I desire to take the blame and shame of it, asking your pardon, and especially desiring prayers that God would pardon that sin and all my other sins.”
I can actually imagine President George W. Bush doing so, or having done so. He’s about the only powerful politician of whom I can say that, though. “The belief in repentance—and its power to improve the American experiment—has . . . retreated,” and we are much the poorer for it.
“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” 1914, Jennie A. Brownscombe. Public domain.