Retro Post: A Review of “Mayflower” by Nathaniel Philbrick

mayflower54 years after the first Thanksgiving the Pilgrims and the Natives were engaged in one of the most devastating wars in American History. King Philip’s War was “more than twice as bloody as the American Civil War and at least seven times more lethal than the American Revolution” (xv). Sadly, however, today Americans have all but forgotten this tragic war which killed nearly 3,000 pilgrims and many more natives. This week we will celebrate Thanksgiving without a thought of these events which transpired by the same parties. Nathaniel Philbrick would have us all remember it, however. In his book Mayflowerhe seeks to give us a better picture of who these people were, I would encourage you to read it in order not to make similar mistakes with your thankfulness this week.

There is, of course, much debate that swirls around the relationship of the pilgrims and the Indians of early colonization. There are two opinions, both somewhat romanticized, of what took place during these days. Philbrick summarizes:

My initial impression of the period was bounded by two conflicting preconceptions: the time-honored tradition of how the Pilgrims came to symbolize all that is good about America and now the equally familiar modern tale of how the evil Europeans annihilated the innocent Native Americans. (xv)

Both of these pictures are held in their usually respective corners in American culture. Both, Philbrick rightly argues, are overly simplistic.

I soon learned that the real-life Indians and English of the seventeenth century were too smart, too generous, too greedy, too brave – in short, too human – to behave so predictably. (xvi)

What Philbrick does so well is to put on display this humanity. He demonstrates the sometimes goodness of some Pilgrims (Benjamin Church) alongside the sometimes ignorant hatred of others (Josiah Winslow). He does an equally efficient job of unpacking the cowardice and deviousness of some Natives (namely, Philip) and their bravery. He unpacks the ways in which the Natives were loyal to their heritage and how they cheated the English. He unpacks too how the English were violent and wicked and how they were brave and courageous. The story is complicated and yet gripping.

Philbrick does a tremendous job of telling this story in all its ugly and beautiful truth. And it is important that we hear this story. For, too often we celebrate Thanksgiving and move on with our lives. Thankfulness is a once a year event. But what we lack is this kind of historical perspective that demonstrates what can happen when we forget the debt we owe to others…and especially to God. We need to remember thankfulness must continue or what we were thankful for at one moment we can at the very next despise. Mayflower is just the type of book to help give us that perspective. I commend it to you this Thanksgiving season.

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