Paul Greenberg

Yet the travelers seemed to have no second thoughts, perhaps because, to quote the account of their secretary and record keeper, Nathaniel Morton, "they knew that they were strangers and pilgrims here below, and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to Heaven, their dearest country, where God hath prepared for them a city (Heb. xi, 16) and therein quieted their spirits."

These wanderers were to prove the founders and forerunners of a commonwealth and nation and civilization beyond the fearful imaginings of those who saw them off. Perhaps because, on reaching their new home, and sensing the imminent destruction all about them, they remained fully alert -- and fully alive. Like soldiers in combat for their very souls. They seemed as aware of every danger as they were grateful for every deliverance, and saw the working of divine will at every turn. They took nothing for granted. But as the generations passed, they settled in, and grew complacent.

. .

"For the first several decades after the arrival in New England," notes the historian Daniel Boorstin, "fasts and thanksgiving days were unique occasions. ... There was nothing regular or perfunctory about these occasions; they expressed the needs or the satisfactions felt by the community at a particular moment. A day of fasting or thanksgiving in that earliest age did not mark the regular circuit of the calendar but was itself a symbol of the desperate unpredictableness of life in the wilderness."

But by the third generation in the new world, a change had taken place. Days of thanksgiving "were now fixed by legislation, defined by the passage of a regular span of time or the recurrence of the season when the community had learned that it would be likely to have cause for thanksgiving. Inevitably, these occasions became symbols less of the prostration of the community before its Creator than of the solidarity of its members: a time for complacency. In this sense there could be nothing more un-Puritan than Thanksgiving Day, once the day had been fixed by law and the calendar rather than the vicissitudes of life."

. .

The history of the Puritans, like that of Thanksgiving, might be described as a journey from Providence to pride -- a familiar enough course in human history.

Would those first pilgrims look with envy at all that has been wrested from the wilderness they encountered, and that encountered them? Surely, they would find reason to give thanks as they looked on the fruit of their quest, for they were not ones to be embarrassed by prosperity; they worked for it, prayed for it, blessed it, were grateful for it. They did not divorce the spiritual from the material, but sought to wed them, which remains the American way. They sought abundance -- an abundance of blessings.

Seeing what has been wrought on these shores, often enough in their name, would the Pilgrims proclaim a thanksgiving? Or would they look not much on these things, but ask: "Wherein lies the difference between this goodly and pleasant land and the Leyden we left behind?" And how, on this Thanksgiving, would we answer?


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.