Since moving to Virginia I have experienced a divided mind although I know scripture warns against such. Growing up on the east coast of Florida, I have a strong inclination to side with the claim that the first Thanksgiving really occurred on September 8, 1565 between Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and the Eastern Timucua, who had long lived on the land around the great St. Johns River. Menéndez had just defeated the French and founded St. Augustine, the oldest inhabited city in the United States. After his victory a mass was celebrated, followed by a feast of thanksgiving. I find the Latino blood pulsating through my heart strangely warmed by the story, which is actually one of several accounts about thanksgiving masses.
Now a Virginian, I live a few miles south of First Landing State Park and only a bit farther from Jamestown and historic Williamsburg. A little farther beyond Williamsburg is Berkley Plantation, where the first Thanksgiving occurred on December 4, 1619 after Captain John Woodlief made his way up the James River. One could also mention Cape Henry where Christopher Newport and company first landed in 1607 and gave thanks to God for their safe journey, but this was a more spontaneous combustion comprised of two parts relief, one part exhaustion. Nevertheless, the Virginia thanksgiving appeals to my Southern sensibilities in the face of what could be described as New England priggishness.
Nor do I lose sleep over any Texan claims to the first Thanksgiving, with all due respect to the people of that great state. There is enough Texas pride to last for a long time. As an example, on one trip to London some friends pointed out to me the former site of the embassy of the Republic of Texas. True Texans know its location.
Despite my double mindedness, however, I am drawn to the views of providence that lurk behind these deep expressions of gratitude. Whether Catholic, Anglican, or Puritan in inspiration, all of these thanksgiving events teem with thankfulness “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” (to borrow Lincoln’s words). Indeed, Abraham Lincoln’s and William Seward’s use of phrases from the Book of Common Prayer in their Thanksgiving proclamations of 1863 bathes America’s national feast day in a Eucharistic hue.
A little over a decade before Lincoln issued his declaration two views of providence were enshrined in two novels that remain with us today. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables (1851) represents the first with its view of providence as the slow, steady unfolding of the divine will through time and history. Harriet Beecher Stowe communicated the second in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) in which the slow hand of providence gives way to a revivalist God who intervenes and alters.
Hawthorne places his story in a cosmic setting with the intertwining of two family histories (the Pyncheons and the Maules) and their development over two centuries. The novel begins with the Puritan patriarch Colonial Pyncheon orchestrating Matthew Maule’s execution for the crime of witchcraft so that he can take Maule’s property and build his “dream home.” On the day Colonial Pyncheon welcomes guests into his new house, he mysteriously dies, his face and beard saturated in blood. Almost as an aside, Hawthorne notes that old Matthew Maule’s ghost could be heard saying “God hath given him blood to drink.” With this seemingly innocuous detour, Hawthorne places the words of Revelation 16:6 into the mouth of Matthew Maule (“For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink; for they are worthy”). The invisible hand of providence has appeared.
The story, however, is not about Colonial Pyncheon and Matthew Maule, but a house, two families, and a hidden hand. Two hundred years later the same words are placed in the mouth of Maule’s descendant just before Judge Pyncheon, the heir of Colonial Pyncheon’s power and despotism, dies. The wrongs perpetrated by the family patriarch were only righted with the death of his descendant. In Hawthorne’s tale vice and providence together render judgment, but it is a slow, steady hand that rights evils over the course of centuries. Although it is sure, the justice of providence unfolds slowly and it takes a keen eye to see it. Hawthorne’s view of providence undergirded the political idea that slavery would right itself in due time if people had the patience to wait for it.
Conversely, in Stowe’s narrative the presence of God is palpable, hovering in hymns, visions, and revelatory moments that change the characters, bring judgment, and drive the narrative forward. At a climactic point, after Uncle Tom experiences a vision of the crucified Christ in preparation for his own martyrdom, the slave owner Legere begins to beat him and then suddenly realizes that “it was GOD who was standing between him and his victim.” The same chapter concludes with Cassy, another slave, at the point of despair asking Tom to kill Legere whom she had drugged. Tom refuses, responding instead that God can still deliver her at which point Cassy receives a revelatory insight—a plan that flashes through her mind and becomes the mechanism of her freedom through escape and Tom’s through martyrdom.
Stowe’s view is not of the God of Revelation who stands behind history and whose will is sure, but the God of the Gospels and Acts who visits Joseph and Mary in dreams, utters prophetic words, and provides immediate direction for the community of faith. It is in this context of an interventionist God that Stowe implores her readers to read the signs of the times: “Is not this power the spirit of Him whose kingdom is yet to come, and whose will to be done on earth as it is in heaven?” Stowe’s interventionist account of providence calls for radical activism by abolitionists and apocalyptic upheaval to align heaven and earth.
Both views of providence are subject to abuse. Martin Luther King, Jr. decried the slow-hand approach when he expressed the fatigue of African Americans over the term wait, the very term Stowe placed on Cassy’s lips when she asked Tom for aid. The Methodism and Baptist revivalism that fueled historic Black Christianity, with its prophetic consciousness, could not abide Hawthorne’s view that in time God would give their persecutors blood to drink. At the same time, the activism inherent to revivalism rushes in where angels fear to tread, preferring upheaval to inaction.
In truth we need both perspectives on providence. The slow-hand view reminds us that our lives even now have been shaped by the prayers of ancestors uttered centuries before us. One early death, one different marriage partner, and many of us would not even exist. But we must follow God’s mission to right the world; we cannot simply wait and do nothing as though that is what God requires of us. Both views of providence bring forth gratitude in our hearts for the surety of God’s justice even in the long years of waiting and the suddenness of God’s justice when we least expect it.
Regardless of one’s views on providence, the Feast of Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude, if for no other reason than that life is a good to be celebrated and embraced.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is meet and right to do so.