Beacon Street Diary blog

Honoring the Puritan and Pilgrim Legacy

Peggy Bendroth's new book The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past is not a story about Thanksgiving. But the declaration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, one of Abraham Lincoln's last acts as president, came at a striking moment for Congregationalists. Like the rest of the country they were struggling with some big existential questions as the Civil War wound to its conclusion. In their case the problem was history, and whether their storied New England past would be a help or a hindrance as they contemplated their future.

Congregationalists met in Boston in 1865, the first truly national gathering since the Cambridge Synod of 1648, determined to refit the old Congregational Way for new times and new challenges. Did being a Congregationalist mean believing a certain set of doctrines — maybe even Calvinism — or was the bottom line the independence of local churches? Which would best honor the Puritans?

The historical context of the Civil War and the Thanksgiving holiday made these question all the more urgent for those considering the Puritan legacy at the national council in 1865. Bendroth writes,

"The delegates did not just invoke the Pilgrims, they identified with them, having just 'emerged from the stormy deeps of a civil war' to find themselves 'standing on the verge of a vast and mysterious continent of the future.' We do to this day, they said, 'lift the psalm of thanksgiving where our fathers lifted it, mingling, as did theirs with the oar of the Atlantic surge to Him that sitteth King and Lord for evermore.'"

Without a doubt that Pilgrim and Puritan legacy brought Congregationalists into the center of the national mainstream. Suddenly, everyone gave thanks with a feast, and the image of a buckle-hatted pilgrim could be found hawking bread and gelatin. Puritans were everywhere. Thanksgiving made all Americans feel connected to the Puritans, and in a way, the story of Thanksgiving was elevated beyond any single denomination. Would Congregationalists keep their own story alive in the midst of all that celebration? Did the holiday have special meaning for them? And how would they honor the past while keeping their eyes on the future? Pick up Peggy's book to read the whole story.