Thanksgiving: An Odd Reconciliation

Mark Twain once remarked that when he was fifteen his father was the stupidest man alive, but by the time he turned twenty-five he was surprised at how much the guy had learned in ten years.

That pattern can be seen all over the place.

Consider the Pilgrims’ Progress over the past four centuries. In their day, these Angry Young Men were, as Angry Young Men usually are, certain they were where History was going. The Puritan stormed out of the ecclesial house in a huff in the 17th Century. In that, he was a little like and a little unlike his Anglican father who had himself walked out of the Catholic house a century before. The Anglican had mostly done so, not out of religious zealotry, but because Henry VIII wanted to remarry and he and his buddies had their eye on all that delectable property that the Church was blowing on such wasted pursuits as educating the poor and caring for the sick.

Of course, once Henry was gone, it became necessary for the winner of the Darwinian struggle for the throne, Elizabeth I, to consolidate Henry’s victory lest she lose the power Dad had won for her. So with ad campaigns against the Catholic “Bloody Mary” and assiduous cultivation of “Virgin Queen” mythology (imagine walking into your local Catholic parish and finding all the statues of Mary replaced with likenesses of Michele Obama if you want to get the hang of how crass it was), she pulled it off. In the great revolt of the rich against the poor that was the English Reformation, the Church was pillaged of its dangerous affinity for the oppressed and made the docile servant of Caesar. But as the revolt began to age and the Anglican Church became the tool of the rich that its royal architects had always intended it be, something happened that they did not intend: real religious zeal was unleashed by extremist 17th Century Radicals called Puritans who took way too seriously all that Calvinism that was getting Continental Protestants worked up. The Puritans looked at their Anglican fathers and said, “You guys sold out!”

So, like all hotheaded young turks, the Puritan set himself to show the old man he could do it better. Dad, said the Puritan, had rejected the Pope but retained popery. The young Puritan, full of the future with his New Model Army and exciting theories about election and predestination, would at last scour the Faith clean of all the smells, bells, feasts, fasts, images and statues and become Purely Spiritual (see here). He rejected anything with a popish scent as the worship of Satan. He was particularly hostile to religious images and smashed them with zeal. With a sort of silly logic, he set himself against feast days because a) they gave honor to saints instead of God Alone and b) they provided the shiftless poor with a day off to have fun instead of inculcating the famous Protestant Work Ethic that would make the Industrial Revolution so much fun. Indeed, he was so distrustful of the Catholic idea of “sacred time” that, in addition to inventing Grinch behavior by banning Christmas, some Puritans even tried to ban speaking of “Monday, Tuesday” etc. because these names came from Norse and Roman deities. However, the attempt to inaugurate “First Day, Second Day, Third Day” and so forth failed due to the congenital English inability to maintain religious fanaticism once the mood passes. So did Cromwell’s attempt to get rid of the King, theatres, feasts and pretty much anything else the English thought was fun. In the end, England had enough of the Pure and brought back the King, Christmas, theatres, feasts and all the rest (except the stuff—like the Catholic Church—that threatened the rich winners of Henry’s revolt). Not without reason does Chesterton express the general feeling of “good riddance” that reigned at the time of the Restoration when he remarks that “In America, they have feast to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims. Here in England, we should have a feast to celebrate their departure.”

Thanks to America, the failure of his English political fortunes did not spell the end for the Puritan. Long after his star fell across the Pond, the Puritan soldiered forth on our shores, fretting that someone, somewhere was having a good time. But something odd happened during the long years after the death of Cromwell. As time went on the Puritan found that the face staring back at him from the mirror each morning was looking more and more like his comfortable Anglican Father’s.

As an example of what I mean, consider the curious interior of King’s Chapel in Boston. An amalgam of Puritan and Anglican heritage, it was assiduously scoured clean of any Romish imagery that might tempt the unwary Puritan into the sensuous worship that characterizes the benighted papist. However, it is also a chapel which was essentially funded by the prosperous local burghers and young capitalists whom the American colonies produced with such fertility. It being only their due for such public-spirited generosity, the benefactors naturally received the thanks (one might even call it the “veneration”) of a grateful church in the form of dozens of statues and busts bearing their likeness which adorn every nook and cranny of King’s Chapel. And so the Puritans achieved the overthrow of Rome and all its pomps and works—its crucifixes, stained glass, baroque saints, shrines, and rosaries—and proceeded to put in place of all this Romish piety… the statues of a bunch of rich guys. Eventually, they also created a civilization in which the central architectural feat was no longer the Romish cathedral of ignorant superstitious Dark Age faith, but the sleek, modern skyscraper dedicated to the forthright worship of Mammon.

All this was a bit awkward for the architects of the City on a Hill, so it was necessary to establish a Creation Myth for the new country that preserved something more ennobling than, “As a matter of fact, you can serve two Masters.” But it couldn’t be a creation myth that acknowledged the Roman Menace as the 19th Century Know Nothings called the Catholics in their midst. So instead a 19th century Protestant culture naturally established a Protestant creation myth starring…well, that’s the funny thing.

You see, as the children of a young country began to crowd around the portly and prosperous Puritan, asking him to be a heritage, identity, and guide, the once-rebellious Puritan found he had to submit to the humiliating process of become Venerable. He discovered that he could not build a life on mere protest. He couldn’t be Pure anymore, because his children needed him to be human. So the old firebrand who once swore to burn down every last vestige of popish pomp found himself dragging such things as Tradition out of the attic in order to teach his children. The hater of religious images started turning up in paintings hung in churches all over America. The smasher of statues got his graven image covered in pigeon doo all over America. This old radical whose rebel hero Cromwell had beheaded the King had to invent a government, and eventually fight a Civil War in which his heirs in Boston and Washington DC found it necessary to crush rebellion.

And most ironic, the government prosecuting that war found it necessary to raise the spirits of a battle-weary nation by pointing to none other than the Puritan’s honored example in the establishment of what amounted to (horrors!) a civic liturgical feast to be held on a particular sacred day every November. In the supreme plot twist, this despiser of Holy Days wound up being remembered by a nation hungry for a creation myth as the establisher of the first holiday celebrated on American soil—a Feast whose name, in Greek, is “Eucharist.” Indeed, the day would eventually arrive where his children would fight as hard to honor this feast as he had fought to destroy all such liturgical celebrations. They would find themselves protesting the War on Christmas as vociferously as he had protested Christmas.

And most ironic? As the Puritan went through all these changes, he would discover another, rather unexpected, voice close beside him: the voice of the Holy Father in Rome, speaking out against tyranny, speaking out for the Gospel of Life, speaking out for the Gospel of Christ, speaking out to give thanks to God as he had done in that first Thanksgiving. In this curious development, we may discern a bit of Malachi’s prophesy that God would turn the hearts of the fathers toward their children and the hearts of the children toward their fathers (Malachi 3:23-24). And so we can pray that the day will come when all the children of Puritanism give thanks (as so many already have) for the Holy Father who, like Twain’s father, turns out to have learned an amazing amount in 400 years.

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a Catholic author, blogger, and speaker.

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