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The Mather Sermon and Related Hoaxes, from Family Christmas Online™

There is no question that European colonists and their descendants treated Native Americans brutally, with one inexcusable massacre or injustice after another. Because we now realize this, Columbus Day is no longer a celebration of an intrepid explorer, as much as it is a day of mourning for the hardships that invaders wrought on the native peoples. If Columbus himself hadn't tortured, murdered, and enslaved natives on his subsequent journeys, I might feel more sorry for him.

Sadly, within the last few decades, some folks have felt obligated to tar Thanksgiving with the same brush they used on Columbus Day. According to them, we should be ashamed to celebrate Thanksgiving because it, too, was really all about killing and dispossessing Native Americans.

It is too true that within 16 years of the original 1621 feast, later shiploads of Puritans began gleefully murdering Native Americans. And it's understandable that Native American writers bemoan Euro-Americans using romanticized accounts of "The First Thanksgiving" to imply generally friendly relations between the English colonists and the native cultures that were eventually driven to extinction. But there's also a growing tendency among European-American writers and educators to make Thanksgiving the "whipping boy" for five centuries of butchery by conquistadors and colonists of all stripes.

Unfortunately this article is not a "warm and fuzzy" story. It involves brutality, fraud, plagiarism, bigotry, and worse. So unless you really need to know the stuff I'm about to describe, please hit the back button and visit any other page on our site. You'll have a better day, I promise.

Note: You may notice that I don't usually use the word "pilgrim," except when referring to statements made by other people. They didn't call themselves that. It's possible that nineteenth-century writers started using that term to give the impression that the Mayflower's Puritans were somehow nicer than the Puritans who stayed in England, closed theaters, and murdered the king. But if I just say "Puritans," that includes later boatloads of zealots who committed unspeakable atrocities that the first boatload somehow never got around to. So when I say "Mayflower Compact survivors," I'm talking about a unique group of people who went through life-changing crises that later arrivals never did.

The Mather Sermon Hoax

I was recently given "proof" that Mayflower Compact survivors who celebrated the first (1621) Thanksgiving with the Wampanoag who had helped them survive were really ungrateful bigots who would rather have been murdering the natives in their sleep than sitting down with them to eat. The "proof" was a quote attributed to sermon ostensibly given by the Puritan leader Mather the Elder at a Thanksgiving feast in 1623.

In the following passage, I've included the introductory text to the "quote," since the introductory text is included wherever the "quote" appears. (The typos are original - some Internet versions clean them up.) Writing about Puritan intolerance, the author says:

    This is best illustrated in the written text of the Thanksgiving sermon delivered at Plymouth in 1623 by "Mather the Elder." In it, Mather the Elder gave special thanks to God for the devastating plague of smallpox which wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag Indians who had been their benefactors. He praised God for destroying "chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth", i.e., the Pilgrims. In as much as these Indians were the Pilgrim's benefactors, and Squanto, in particular, was the instrument of their salvation that first year, how are we to interpret this apparent callousness towards their misfortune?

Did The "Pilgrims" Bring the Smallpox that Decimated the Wampanoag?

We know that smallpox was introduced to North America by other Europeans going as far back as DeSoto's murderous rampage across the Gulf region in 1542. Nobody who knows history at all would accuse the Mayflower settlers of bringing the plague - it arrived before they did - but the way this article is written, it sounds like it happened after they arrived and the Wampanoag had already given them aid (". . . wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag Indians who had been their benefactors").

As reprehensible as this "quote" seems, some have made it even worse, taking it to mean that the Mayflower colonists had infected the Wampanoag on purpose. Others have accused them of being just as guilty as the Europeans who did (unintentionally) bring the plague. Why? Because they were also Europeans.

The short answer is, no, the Mayflower colonists did not bring the plague that decimated the Wampanoag.

Did the "Pilgrims" Thank God for the Plague that Decimated the Wampanoag?

Ignoring the unfortunate but probably unintentional implication that the Wampanaog's smallpox epidemic was caused by the Mayflower colonists, let's move on to the author's core assertion: that the Mayflower Compact survivors were grateful for it.

As an Internet user since DARPANET, I have learned to recognize urban legends. The first "red flag" was the fact that, although the "Mather quote" appears on over a hundred different Internet sites, every time the "Mather quote" appears, the whole passage, including the introductory text is repeated verbatim. That's a sure sign that all of the sites posting this quote got this content from a single source, which may or may not have been legitimate. But certainly, no one posting this quote has ever bothered to do anything besides blindly copying it to their own page.

Another red flag was the fact that I couldn't find any more of the text of the sermon anywhere. Aside from the quotation above, I couldn't even find any evidence that the sermon had ever happened.

I kept digging deeper, until I learned that the words that Mather supposedly delivered (the ones in quotation marks in the quoted passage):

  • Weren't from a sermon,
  • Weren't from anyone named Mather,
  • Weren't from anyone who was in Plymouth in 1623, and
  • Weren't from 1623.

In fact, all of the words with quote marks are from a book that Edward Johnson published about 1653 (The Wonder-Working Providence of Sion's Savior in New England).

Admittedly, the actual quote is just as reprehensible as the fake quote. Here is the context from which the "Mather quote" was taken. You'll note that the first part of the "Mather quote" ("chiefly yong Men and Children the very seeds of increase") is taken verbatim from this text, and the second part ("thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth") is paraphrase of a sentiment expressed a few sentences down.

    Their Disease being a sore Consumption sweeping away whole Families but chiefly yong Men and Children the very seeds of increase. Their Powwowes which are their Doctors working partly by Charmes and partly by Medicine were much amazed to see their Wigwams lie full of dead Corpes and that now neither Squantam nor Abbamocho could helpe which are their good and bad God and also their Powwows themselves were oft smitten with deaths stroke. Howling and much lamentation was heard among the living who being possest with great feare oftimes left their dead unburied their manner being such that they remove their habitations at death of any. This great mortality being an unwonted thing feare d them the more because naturally the Country is very healthy. But by this meanes Christ whose great and glorious workes the Earth throughout are altogether for the benefit of his Churches and chosen not onely made roome for his people to plant but also tamed the hard and cruell hearts of these barbarous Indians insomuch that halfe a handfull of his people landing not long after in Plimoth Plantation found little resistance of whom the Author purposes not to speake particularly being prevented by the honoured Mr Winslow who was an eye witnesse of the worke. l onely thus much by the way they were sent to keepe possession for their Brethren and fellow Souldiers who arrived eight yeares after them as in processe of this story will God willing appeare and verily herein they quit themselves like men or rather Christ for and by them maintaining the place notwithstanding the multitude of difficulties they met withall at their first landing being in doubtfull suspence what inter tainment these Barbarians would give them having with prayer supplicated the Lord in the Name of Christ their King and guide in this their undertaking they manned out a Boate to discover what store of the Inhabitants were there. Now these men whose courage exceeded the number being guided by the provident hand of the most high landed in some severall places and by making fires gave signes of their approach.

Edward Johnson's sentiments are deplorable. Worse yet, they reflect the same attitudes toward the Native Americans that his fellow Puritans had been expressing with musket and sword since 1637 and continued to express until there was virtually no one left to drive away or kill. But they have nothing to do with Thanksgiving, and they were never (according to any historical record) given in a sermon.

Furthermore the person who supposedly uttered them - "Mather the Elder" - does not seem to be a real person at all. As far as colony records show, the first Mather to arrive in New England was Richard Mather, who arrived about 1635, making him about 12 years too late to deliver the supposed sermon. I have since seen the purported 1623 "Thanksgiving" sermon attributed to Increase Mather, who was born in 1639. The Mathers (some of whom who killed fellow English emigrants almost as readily as they killed Native Americans) were not nice people. But they were not time-travelers, either.

To summarize, someone determined to turn Thanksgiving into a black mark on American history:

  • Took words from a book published about 1653,
  • Made up a fictitious 1623 Thanksgiving sermon in which the words were supposedly pronounced,
  • Put the words in the mouth of a fictitious Puritan leader, named after a family that had no representatives in New England at the time, and
  • Published the entire hoax as fact (in an introduction to a school lesson plan that was soon widely dispersed - see below).

The short answer is that there is no historical record of the "Pilgrims" thanking God for the smallpox that wiped out the Wampanoag

Who Started the Hoax?

The story more or less starts with a relatively innocuous 1978 lesson plan for teaching about Thanksgiving. Cathy Ross, Mary Robertson and Roger Fernandes were apparently in charge of "Indian Education," at the Highline School District in Washington State. Their lesson plan is an honest attempt. Some of the history is "fuzzy," but their emphasis seems to be largely on helping students understand the daily lives of the Wampanoag people - a worthy goal at any rate. The lesson plan did not contain the hoax, but, unfortunately, the hoax got attached to it later.

Ross, Robertson, and Fernandes' lesson plan went from innocuous to notorious about 1986 when an expert known then as "Chuck Larson" wrote an introduction that straightened out some of the "fuzzy" history and explained that the Puritans were not exactly nice people.

Larson's introduction contained the obviously faked "Mather quote" and introductory text listed above. I can not find the source for this quote, so at the moment I am assuming that he made it up. If he didn't make it up himself, he is certainly guilty of poor fact-checking, a charge that others have also applied to some of his supposed sources.

As far as I can tell, in 2003, a typed version of Larson's introduction and the lesson plan was scanned into computer, and sent out onto the Internet in PDF format. Since then, the two documents have also been published in straight text (HTML) format, but I have never yet seen them separated. In fact most people who post them on their sites seem to consider the combination to be one single resource. That resource was hosted on Washington State's K-12 web page until 2014. It has since been taken down. However you can view it here. Curiously, Larson's last name is also spelled "Larsen" in the typed version and many of the HTML versions, which made tracking him down a little more tricky.

Larson "annotates" his "Mather the Elder" "quote" by a reference to one book that mentions Cotton Mather (1663-1728) and another book that had very limited publication and is no longer available. So there is a slim chance that the rare book Larson references ("Chronicles of American Indian Protest, pp. 6-10") contains the original hoax, but if that's the case, it's dead certain that Larson didn't bother to verify any facts before he published it. (I have tracked Larson down and e-mailed him to get his side of the story, but he has yet to respond.)

Which begs the question - with all the evidence for European (and specifically Puritan) cruelty toward Native Americans, why invent this hoax? And why have so many people seized on it as proof of the true character of the Mayflower Compact survivors?

I'm hypothesizing here. Perhaps whoever went to these lengths couldn't tolerate the idea that once in American history European settlers sat down with Native Americans in peace and shared a meal that included prayers of Thanksgiving to the ("European") God. Or maybe the idea of being thankful to God for anything rubs people the wrong way.

The "Real" Story of Thanksgiving, According to Susan Bates

In my research, I often found Larson's introduction and the original lesson plan associated with a c. 2006 blog by Native American writer Susan Bates called "The Real Story of Thanksgiving." (The c. is there because the blog has been republished so many times and places that I'm not sure when it first came out.) As far as I can tell, Bates did not attach the materials from Larson, Ross, Roberts, and Fernandes to her blog at first, if she ever did. But now when you track down the Larson/Ross/Roberts/Fernandes documents on the Internet, you often find Bates' article pinned to the top of them, an introduction to Larson's introduction, so to speak.

Bates admits that the 1621 feast happened. But she doesn't consider it to be a "real" Thanksgiving feast. According to Bates, the first "real" Anglo-American Thanksgiving feast didn't happen until after a Puritan mob murdered everyone in a Pequot settlement in 1637. According to Bates, the bloody celebration that followed was the first of many "Thanksgiving" celebrations that happened whenever a significant number of Native Americans were killed.

Bates goes on to assert that it was those bloodthirsty celebrations that Lincoln was really thinking about - not the 1621 feast - when he established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863. There is far more evidence that Lincoln was motivated by a string of recent Northern victories and the growing popular interest in the history of the Mayflower colonists, but her point is worth explaining because it gave rise to even more radical assertions in the years that followed its original publication.

No doubt Bates resents 150 years of Euro-Americans using the 1621 feast to imply a (nonexistant) pattern of friendly relations between the Mayflower Compact survivors and the Native Americans who were soon being displaced and murdered wholesale. I can't blame her for that or for trying to transfer public attention from the relatively innocuous 1621 story to the 1637 story that was, sadly, far more typical of colonization in New England.

However, the widespread reposts of her blog have had one bizarre consequence - a number of other writers and bloggers (and probably thousands of readers) who know nothing at all about the history of Plymouth now know only the 1637 date for the "First Thanksgiving," and react with shock and outrage when you tell them that people who read more books - and not just blogs - assign an earlier date and different circumstances.

While I dispute Bates' implications about the history of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, I will give her credit for reminding readers that Europeans didn't invent festivals of thanksgiving for the harvest. Like the ancient Hebrews and every other culture that ever depended on agriculture, Native Americans had been celebrating "Thanksgiving" in their own way for millennia.

By the way, I have been trying to find the site where Bates' blog was originally published, without success. To give readers access to the document I have been discussing, I have posted it here, along with extensive comments that I have emailed Susan Bates and asked her to review for accuracy and fairness. So far, I have not heard back.

White People Are At it Again

Speaking of European-Americans stealing from Native Americans, Bates' blog has been plagiarized widely, especially by bloggers who come out of the woodwork every November to bash Thanksgiving, as though that somehow helps Native Americans in any tangible way. I suspect that it's a seasonal entertainment for them, like carving pumpkins or watching football.

As an example, on November 25, 2010, Huffington Post blogger Richard Greener "borrowed from" Bates' blog broadly, without attribution, adding unsupported claims that the 1621 Plymouth feast was a nineteenth-century hoax that really never happened at all (an interesting conclusion, since the same historic materials Greener's obvious sources use to prove the 1637 massacre of the Pequot also describe the 1621 feast). Greener also implied the Plymouth Plantation survivors were somehow responsible for the Dutch settlers' treatment of the native peoples in what is now New York, because, after all, they were all Europeans. When commenters on his blog kept asking him where he got his "information," the "HuffPost" shut down the comments. But the blog is still online.

Confused? So are scores of other bloggers who have subsequently plagiarized both Bates and Greener, and come to even more outrageous conclusions.

What do YOU Celebrate at Thanksgiving?

The one-day-a-year activists would have you believe that when my family comes together to share a prayer of gratitude over a modern-day adaptation of the meal that the Mayflower Compact survivors shared with the Wampanoag in 1621, we are really wishing deep in our hearts that we could find some Native Americans to go out and kill after dinner. We're not, in case you wondered.

Regardless of the holiday's history, people who celebrate Thanksgiving in the twenty-first century are not celebrating genocide - they're celebrating one bright spot in our nation's remote past, and attempting to express gratitude for the blessings they have received in the past year. They're also commemorating a harvest tradition that goes back to the dawn of history for every civilization that has ever depended on agriculture.

Next Thursday morning, I plan to get up early and start the turkey, the beginning of a long day of relaxing with my family. After the turkey is cooked, I'll make gravy, while my grown daughters, home for the feast, mash the potatoes, and Shelia checks on her casseroles. Over the meal, we will all express our gratitude for the various blessings of the past year and pray for the year to come. After the meal, we'll clear the table and maybe start the dishwasher. I'll get the rest of the meat off the turkey and put it into containers for the refrigerator. We'll set the healthier scraps out for the cats. We may play a board game or watch a movie or football game, if we don't fall asleep first. Frankly, I'll probably pass out before anyone else does. Later on, we'll "raid the fridge," reheating stuff we were too full to eat the first time it was set out. I may read the newspaper. If the weather is nice, we may do something outside. We may even go visiting or have someone over.

I'm sure there are folks who can find fault with such a day, but I can't.

What's the "Take-Away?

I would not be surprised to learn that the experiences of the Mayflower Compact survivors had changed at least some of them, and that by, say, 1623, they really were seeing Native Americans (and even non-Puritan Englishmen) as fellow human beings. That phase, sadly was not to last, since the colony was soon overrun with newcomers who had not gone through the same crucible and who quickly reset the community back to its default Puritan state of brutal intolerance.

Still, one lesson might be to try finding common ground with people who are not like you, and to avoid the company of people who like drawing circles that keep other people out, lest you eventually be contaminated by their arrogance and bigotry.

Another lesson might be to practice gratitude. We live in an age when the people with the most advantages are, ironically, the most likely to take credit for every advantage that has come their way, including things like inherited fortune that they no control over. (How do you even respond to the politician bent on gutting programs for the "undeserving" poor calling himself a "self-made man" because he had leveraged his million-dollar trust fund into a ten-million-dollar company?)

The other side of the coin is compassion - stay away from people who tell you that everyone suffering hardship somehow deserves it - because when bad times come your way, or your children's way, they'll reject you and your family as well.

And when people try to tell you that it's morally repugnant for you to thank God for everything He's done for you -

- - - Thank Him anyway.

Enjoy the holiday, and especially enjoy any time you have to spend with your family in the coming months,

Paul Race

FamilyChristmasOnline.com


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