Robert Tracy McKenzie is professor and chair of history at Wheaton College. He taught for many years at the University of Washington where he was the holder of the Donald W. Logan Endowed Chair in American History. He is the author of One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil War-Era Tennessee (Cambridge University Press) and Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War (Oxford University Press). He blogs at

The following is an interview with Professor McKenzie and is based on his recent book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History (InterVarsity Press).

* What was the spark(s) which motivated you to write this book?

There were two, really. At the most foundational level was a new sense of vocation. After two decades of writing primarily for other specialists in my field (which is what scholars in the Academy are trained to do and rewarded for doing), I began to sense a call to write more directly for the church, to enter into conversation with believers on the question of what it means to love God with our minds. More directly, the inspiration for this book was an invitation from my church several years ago to give a talk on the first Thanksgiving. In preparing for it, it dawned on me that the topic was a wonderful way to engage Christians interested in history and broach crucial questions in the process. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone interested in history who was first drawn to the past by a piece of dry academic scholarship. What initially captivates us is the stories. I came to realize that the story of the First Thanksgiving, retold faithfully, raises all kinds of important questions about what it means for to think “Christianly” about the past.

* Mark Noll points to the incarnation of Jesus as a key reason why Christians ought to seek to understand the past. Would you elaborate a bit on Noll’s observation?

In Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Noll writes, “If it is true that the Word became flesh, it must be true that the realm that bore the Word, the realm of flesh, is worthy of the most serious consideration.” In other words, the incarnation of Jesus gives great dignity to the material world and to the human story that Jesus became a part of and identified with. Elsewhere, Noll has observed that, if we take seriously the Christian teaching that God is sovereign over history, then there is a sense in which the unfolding of human history is a part of his revelation to mankind. This strikes me as another powerful reason for giving careful attention to history.

* True education, as the ancient Greeks understood it, is painful. It is painful because true education causes us to confront truths which necessarily force us to reevaluate our cherished beliefs. So I wonder, since you are writing about the cherished beliefs of Christians, how many have gotten angry at you for what you wrote?

No one has attacked me yet, but that may be because the folks most likely to be offended haven’t read it yet. By and large, Christian historians stopped writing for Christians outside the Academy long ago, so if Christians in the pews are a bit suspicious of us, we have given them reason to be so. This is why one of the things I tried to do in the book was to identify myself openly and immediately as an evangelical Christian. This will not spare me from criticism from Christian readers, but I did want readers to think of me as coming alongside them rather than confronting or admonishing them. Beyond this, I did my best to explain that my motive in writing the book was not primarily to “debunk,” to underscore all the ways that our popular memory of the first Thanksgiving is wrong. Rather, I am convinced that the mythical past we have created obscures aspects of the Pilgrim story that would bless us greatly. The truth is richer, more challenging, more potentially life-changing than the stereotypes we learned in grade school.

* What are a few of the biggest misconceptions about “the First Thanksgiving”?

The ones that we tend to get hung up on are not very important. For example, most of how we envision the event in our mind’s eye would never hold up in court. There is no conclusive evidence that the Pilgrims ate turkey and pumpkin pie, that they celebrated in November, or that they invited the local Native Americans to join in their feast. (It’s at least as likely that the Wampanoag showed up uninvited.) At the same time, I don’t think much is lost by our remembering the event in that way.

Far more serious, I think, is how we have totally lost sight of the mindset that the Pilgrims brought to the table. Indeed, I would say that the two most important things we have forgotten about the Pilgrims are also the two most elementary: how they understood Thanksgiving, and what they meant when they called themselves “pilgrims.” I note in response to another of your questions that the Pilgrims feared that a regularly scheduled Thanksgiving could easily become an empty ritual. And indeed, several generations would pass before their descendants would begin to observe an annual autumn Thanksgiving.

With regard to pilgrimage, we have lost the original meaning of that concept. When William Bradford wrote that “they knew they were pilgrims,” he meant that they were acutely conscious of the fact that this world was not their home. Bradford was quoting from the 11th chapter of the book of Hebrews, where the writer tells us that the great heroes of the faith had this in common, that they knew that they were strangers and pilgrims in this world, and sought as their ultimate home a heavenly country. We tend to remember the Pilgrim story today as if their promised land was the future United States.

* Your respect for the Pilgrims is clear. What are a few things you appreciate most about them?

The Pilgrims had their blind spots—as do we—but there is much in their example we can learn from. They were men and women of deep conviction, uneasily daunted, willing to suffer for principle’s sake. They loved their children, they loved the body of Christ, and they abandoned everything that was familiar to them in order to serve both. They exhibited enormous courage: can you imagine cramming 102 passengers into a ship’s hold the size of a school bus and making a 65-day voyage to a strange world? Having taken that initial step of faith, they then persevered in the face of unspeakable hardship and loss, half of the colony dying from exposure that first winter. Because the Mayflower stayed at Plymouth until the spring of 1621, the survivors could have returned to England, but none did. Finally, they exhibited a faith in God’s sovereignty that humbles me. What we remember as the “first Thanksgiving” was a celebration primarily of widowers and orphans. (Fourteen of the eighteen wives who made the voyage had died by spring.) That the Pilgrims could celebrate at all in this setting was a testimony both to human resilience and to heavenly hope.

* Unpack what you meant when you wrote, “At its best, the study of history always involves a simultaneous encounter with both the familiar and the strange.”

Basically, this is the idea that the people whom we encounter in the past will be like us in some ways and different from us in others. We may see the differences as quaint or mildly amusing, but rarely will we see them as relevant to our lives. One of the things that I argue in the book is that we need to pay much more attention to the ways in which historical figures were different from us. It is in wrestling with those differences that we have an opportunity to be challenged by the past, maybe even to learn from the past something we desperately need. One of the reasons that we so seldom take the strangeness of the past seriously is that we all too often go to the past already knowing what we want to find. This is the pitfall that I label the “history-as-ammunition” approach—where we approach the past looking for supporting evidence for a position we already hold. Sadly, we can never learn anything at all from the past when that is our motivation.

* It will undoubtedly surprise many to find out that the Pilgrims were suspicious of almost all regular holidays. Would you describe that a bit for us?

Sure. We can begin to understand by taking the term “holiday” seriously—the word is an elision of the two words “holy day.” A holiday was a day set apart for sacred religious observances. Second, we need to understand that the Pilgrims believed that the Catholic Church had wrongly invented countless rites and rituals not explicitly prescribed in Scripture, and they were determined not to duplicate this perceived error. As a result, they resolved not to recognize any holiday not authorized scripturally. As they read the Bible, they believed that only three such holidays were clearly authorized. The first was the Sabbath, which of course was to be observed regularly, fifty-two times a year. The other two holidays were to be observed only irregularly in response to extraordinary judgments or blessings of God. The first was a Day of Fasting and Humiliation. The second was a Day of Thanksgiving. (In 17th-century Massachusetts, holy days of Fasting and Humiliation were called about twice as frequently as days of Thanksgiving.) Finally, the Pilgrims believed that, like most human inventions, a regularly scheduled holiday could easily become a meaningless ritual.

* What can American Christians learn from the importance the Pilgrims placed on group identity?

This would be an example of taking the strangeness of the past seriously. The Pilgrims did not think of society as made up of a conglomeration of autonomous individuals. Rather, they thought in terms of groups: family, community, church. (The first laws of Plymouth did not even allow single men to live by themselves; they were assigned to live in households.) We often remember the Pilgrims as coming to America “in search of religious freedom.” As I point out in the book, the Pilgrim writers make clear that they experienced extensive religious toleration in Leiden, Holland, where they had settled after leaving England. What they stressed instead was “the hardness of the place,” in William Bradford’s words, by which he meant the great economic hardships that were their lot there. But even though they desired a home with greater economic opportunity, it would be misleading to think that they were primarily looking for a home where each individual could maximize his or her welfare. Indeed, Bradford is clear that many members of the Leiden congregation had been considering leaving Leiden because they were suffering so, and the search for a home in the Americas was primarily driven by the hope of keeping their congregation together. When we take this aspect of the Pilgrims’ worldview seriously, it helps us to see as with new eyes the rampant individualism of contemporary American culture that we take for granted.

* One question I have asked many writers is how they capture their research. Would you give us an overview of your own approach?

Aarrgh. I don’t think I would be a model for anyone, as I am both slow and inefficient. If I own a book or document, I mark it up extensively while I am reading it. When I have finished reading it, I take out my laptop and, without looking at the document, I type out a very quick overview, summarizing the nature of the document; its author, context, and reliability; and its main points. (I do this as an exercise to improve recall, but I can’t swear that it works in my case.) Finally, I refer to the document and flesh out the main points with fuller notes. For a book like this one, in the end I will have several hundred pages of typed notes and comments.

* Speculate a bit about how you think David Barton would review your book.

That’s a tough one. He and I have never met, although I have read several of his books. I want to be careful in responding. I admire David Barton’s zeal and his courage, and given that I have spent a great deal of my professional life focused solely on the Academy, I respect his determination to reach out to a broad audience of Christian readers. And I would hope that, if Barton should read my book, he would at least recognize in me a Christian brother who sincerely wants to serve the body of Christ. At the same time, if he were to read the book perceptively, he would have to find much that is troubling (and I would hope, convicting). To be candid, I think that Mr. Barton violates most of the principles that I advocate for thinking Christianly about the past. He ignores the strangeness of the past, he goes to the past for ammunition rather than enlightenment, and he teaches about the past in a way that promotes arrogance more than humility.

* Thanks for taking the time to write such a terrific book! What are some of your future book projects?

I am considering a variety of possibilities. What I know for sure is that I want to continue to try to be in conversation with Christians outside the walls of the Academy. One possibility is a book of meditations on the American Civil War, a cataclysm that was saturated with eternal questions. I’ve also long wanted to write a book on the rise of American democracy in the form of a series of vignettes. Finally, although it is not a book, I would absolutely love to create a video course on American history for Christian schools and home schools.


Many will remember the name of Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina.  Sanford’s adulterous relationship overseas was big news a few years back.  Sanford currently serves as US Congressmen for the first district of South Carolina.

What is it like to be a political speechwriter?  What is it like to be a speechwriter when a major crisis hits?  Barton Swaim writes about all this and more in The Speechwriter: a Brief Education in Politics (

Moore: Why in the world would a guy with a PhD in English from the University of Edinburgh become a speechwriter?

Swaim: What a lot of people working on their English PhDs don’t realize – what I didn’t realize – is that in any given year, there are about twice the number of new doctorates as available jobs. I spent almost three years looking for a sufficiently remunerative job in English, and I came up with nothing. I had to get creative, and that’s when I inquired about writing for the governor. I read his stuff – op-ed and whatnot – and it was just awful. He needed a writer; I offered to be that writer; and off we went. 

Moore: You write about the difficulty of crafting speeches that conveyed Sanford’s unique voice.  How difficult was that to do?

Swaim: Writing to sound like someone else is always a tricky thing to do, but in his case it was all but impossible because – and this is where the fun comes in – his way of running an office was to hate everything anybody did. That very much included written products. So I would give him something I thought was near what he was looking for, he would say it was junk – and sometimes say so in very strident terms – and the whole thing would end badly. That’s how almost every major piece went. It was a kind of destructive never-ending cycle. Not fun at all to live, but a lot of fun to write about.

Moore: What in graduate school prepared you best for your job as a speechwriter?

Swaim: Probably nothing I learned in school, exactly. What prepared me best was that I had been writing for a long time. People sometimes ask how do you get published? I never know how to answer, but if I had to tell the truth, it would go something like this: Start reading and writing all the time; don’t think about anything else all your waking hours; write and write some more, and read it aloud to see if it’s any good. Do that for about ten years straight, and by the end of it you should be a pretty decent writer. That’s what I did. That’s not the full story, of course, but in some ways, formal schooling was just an addition.

Moore: You speak openly about how the job pressures affected your young family.  Is it possible to be involved meaningful in modern politics and still maintain a strong family life?

Swaim: It is. It all depends on who you work for. People used to talk about “Sanford widows” – the wives of guys who worked for him. He was just one of those people whose total myopic view of the world, whose bottomless self-regard, demanded all your time and all your attention – and then you still couldn’t please him. Sadly, a lot of people have emailed or called me since the book came out to say they work for a boss just like that.

On the other hand, I used to hear about other politicians who were a joy to work for. Tellingly, I guess, there were never any jobs available in those offices.

Moore: One of my takeaways from your book, and I hope I am wrong, is this: There are incompetent, but likeable people in politics.  And there are competent, but not particularly likeable people.  It is rare to find competent and likeable people.  Am I cynical or is there some truth to this?

Swaim: I think that’s close to the truth, only instead of likeable I’d say “good.” In politics – and in many other areas, but it seems especially pronounced in politics – the most effective leaders are not what you would readily describe as good people. They’re just not. The good ones – the truly honest, the ones whose humility is genuine and not of the ersatz variety – just don’t win. It’s something I think many of us need to get used to. We want to like certain politicians because we think they’re essentially honest and true. Well, it’s in their interest as politicians to persuade you that they’re honest and true; but they might not be. You may well be fooled. The lesson, for me, was to stop looking for good people in politics.

Moore: Speaking of cynicism, how did you keep from becoming a cynic?

Swaim: Maybe I didn’t keep from becoming a cynic. I don’t know. I think what I learned, though, was to take politics less seriously. Politics is always going to be dominated by self-aggrandizing and essentially dishonest personalities. Once you come to terms with that fact, you can begin to enjoy politics more. When you believe that politicians used to be good and now they’re bad – and when you believe that what we need is to get good people back in office – it’s enormously taxing on your emotions. Because it’s false. Sure, some things have declined – I do believe that. But people in power have always been prone to abuse their power, politicians have always survived on their vanity, and people in authority have always done stupid things with that authority. Yes, the government is vastly larger than it used to be, and the debts are greater and the stakes are higher; but that just means we’re closer to a decline and fall that’s always been inevitable. Is that cynical? Maybe, but in my view it’s truer.

Moore: Would you ever consider being a speechwriter again?

Swaim: No. But even if I would consider it, who would hire me?


Many of us are tempted by “chronological snobbery,” the term C.S. Lewis made famous.  We assume (as J.I. Packer once put it), that “the newer is the truer, only what is recent is decent, every shift of ground is a step forward, and every latest word must be hailed as the last word on its subject.”


Ryan Pemberton is the author of Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again (  It is a moving memoir about the beauty, mystery, and pressures of being a student at Oxford University.  If a good book is measured by whether it makes you choke back tears or laugh out loud, then this book qualifies, as it did both for me.  Pemberton serves as Minister for University Engagement at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California.

Moore: Give our readers a general feel for what your book is about.

Pemberton: Called is a story about what it was like to wake up and go to bed night after night with this deep feeling that I was supposed to be doing something very different with my life, to make a dramatic change not only in terms of my career, but also in terms of my general life direction. It’s a story about what unfolded after I took this step in faith that I never could have seen coming. Called is as much a story about failure as it is about success, and it asks what it looks like to be called, specifically as a Christian, in the midst of all of that.

I wasn’t completely comfortable with how many Christian writers were writing about calling as I was wrestling with my own questions on calling, and I was also feeling like my own personal experience forced me to think about calling in a different way than when I first left home, community, and career to pursue what I believed to be God’s call. I wrote this book to get at all of that, and to say, “Maybe this will help you.”

Moore: When and how did you know you wanted to be a writer?  More accurately, how did you know you were a writer even before publishing anything?

Pemberton: This was a process for me, a series of moments, rather than any one particular moment. I had a longtime fascination with words growing up—spelling them over and over again, feeling their texture on my tongue. I loved English in school, and writing stories especially, though I never considered writing as something I’d spend my free-time doing, especially not for pay. But I remember this moment in my first job out of college when I realized I was not only being paid to help my clients tell their stories, I actually really enjoyed this work. That was an important moment for me. I was also beginning to write for myself around this same time, though I wasn’t thinking of writing as a vocation—it was therapeutic for me, getting to write what I wanted to write about. The only person I shared this with at the time was my wife. Jen was the first person who encouraged me that writing was worth my time. She began sharing my work with others, which led to more and more encouragement. That kept me taking writing seriously when otherwise I’m not sure I would’ve thought much of it. There were other moments: my sister-in-law Hayley reading and sharing my words with others just before her unexpected death and getting some of the responses I did from those whose job it is to know quality writing. It was a struggle for a long time, actually, admitting that I not only wanted to be a writer, but that I somehow was a writer; I talk more about that process of realization in my book.

Moore: You mention how Lewis was such an enthusiastic teacher.  How has his love for conveying truth in a winsome and creative way influenced your own teaching?

Pemberton: I’m not so sure I would say it was C. S. Lewis’s love for what he did that influenced me, but simply experiencing how he did it. It was feeling the impact of Lewis using his creativity and his razor-sharp logic to ask the difficult questions of life and faith in Christ; it was reading his best attempt to help others come to a response to these questions; and it was his willingness to say, after all of that, “That’s the best I can do. If it’s not helpful, throw it out.” That’s what left such a mark on me, personally; seeing Lewis use his God-given gifts to help others look at the world through the lens of Christ’s in-breaking, reconciling work, and showing the difference this made for all of life. My gifts are different than Lewis’s, so my work will necessarily look different, but my aim is pretty similar. And that winsome, intellectual humility that Lewis modeled so well is something I try to emulate, though even there I go about it differently. Lewis has courage that I lack.

Moore: Walter Hooper, Lewis’s longtime secretary, has a habit of writing everyone’s name down when he first meets them.  How has this influenced the value you place on each and every individual?

Pemberton: I know what you’re talking about—Walter’s habit of writing down names of those he has just met—but I’m not so sure that specific act has influenced me. I don’t write down names, but Walter is a master of hospitality, and part of that comes simply from attending to people well. On that note, I think Walter has rubbed off on me, because I’ve been a recipient of his generous hospitality. Sometimes that comes simply from doing all I can to remember names, but other times it means taking the time to learn people’s stories, which Walter did with me, and which meant so much. Walter was a dear friend to me when I needed one—showing up in a foreign city, being dreadfully intimidated by Oxford and the people there—and when his life was already so full! I would like to think that he has helped me be a better friend to people I’ve only just met.

Moore: Michael Ward (aka “Spud”)said you might best fit as a “bridge” between academia and the church.  Do you think his counsel is accurate?

Pemberton: It’s funny, that was one of the most pointedly true, even prophetic things that anyone has ever said to me. I’ve chewed on that line for years. I think what Spud was getting at was that my work would be the work of interpretation. And even when I didn’t know exactly what that would look like, I knew Spud’s words were true, somehow. I have never thought I was being called to be a traditional, Sunday morning pulpit minister. Nor, however, did I see my role squarely in the academy. Somehow I felt like my work was going to be more for the general public than for my scholarly peers. Even though I am quite happy to be doing that scholarly work, I felt like I wouldn’t be respecting God’s call were my work not to be reaching someone who would never be interested in scholarship. And so, yeah, that has left me in a funny, in-between spot. This word was more challenging than helpful for a long-time, but now that I’m in the role I’m in—employed by a church in a highly educated, predominantly secular city, working with those who spend most of their time in the world of higher education—Spud’s words feel prophetic.

Moore: You heard from a Dominican priest that “Good theology makes us do something.”  How does this inform your present ministry?

Pemberton: One of my favorite C. S. Lewis quotes is “I warned you that theology is practical.” Karl Barth talks about the Subject of Christian theology as the God who condescends into lived experience. One of my favorite professors from Duke Divinity School when I was there, Dr. Willie Jennings, used to say all the time, “Put this on the ground.” That’s what theology is to me: practical, embodied, “on the ground.” Or else, what are we doing? I’m just as tempted to get lost in my head, lost in abstractions, as anyone, but I don’t think we get that privilege when it comes to theology. If we’ve missed that “on-the-ground-ness” of theology, we’ve missed the point, somehow. That’s central to any and all of the work I do, anytime I am talking God, about the life of faith. I am constantly trying to encourage the students I work with, for example, to think about the difference Christ makes for their life here, in this city, of all places, at this time, of all times.   

Moore: You studied theology at Oxford and Duke Divinity.  They have very different philosophies of learning.  Oxford’s culminates in several big tests at the end of one’s studies.   Duke, like most American schools, has discrete semesters or quarters where you get closure on those classes and then move on to a new set of courses.  Which one do you think better facilitates learning?

Pemberton: Pedagogy is not something I spend much time thinking about. Obviously the Oxford model has been around for a long time, and it’s not likely to change anytime soon (though Cambridge did finally move away from this model not all that long ago). The tutorial system, the opportunity to work one-on-one with your instructors, is an unbelievable privilege, and that’s simply not something that many institutions can offer. But the difference in exam systems, in particular: that’s more difficult to answer. Is my recollection of the material I studied at Oxford better than that which I learned at Duke? It’s hard to say. It probably depends more on those I was working with than the institutional exam system, to be honest. I can very easily tell you which one I’d prefer never to do again!



As heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we revel in God’s grace.  This is a good thing.  However, any good thing can become a bad thing if we forget other important truths.  We don’t have to work for our salvation, but we are to work it out (Phil 2:12,13).  It was the grace of God which motivated Paul to work hard (II Tim. 2:1-7).

Whenever I see someone going to great lengths to be the best they can be, I am humbled by Paul’s statement that many do it for a perishable wreath while we run for an imperishable one (I Cor. 9:24-27).  When I see someone giving intense effort and focus to something other than building up God’s kingdom I am humbled by my apathy.  Here is a good example of what intense focus looks like: