Actually, the legend of Plymouth Rock dates not from the journey of the Mayflower in 1620 but rather from the time of revival known as the Great Awakening in 1741. By then, the church at Plymouth—like many congregations on the Atlantic coast—was torn between the “Old Light” traditionalists and the “New Light” evangelists. Itinerant ministers such as George Whitfield traversed the coastal colonies, stirring up parishioners with their scorching piety. The itinerants often drew the ire of New England’s “settled pastors,” who tended to favor rational exegesis over religious “enthusiasm.”
As word of revival filled the air, one of Plymouth’s Old Lights—the church’s Ruling Elder Thomas Faunce—had himself carried to the beach to denounce plans for a new wharf. Pointing to the inconspicuous boulder, the 95-year-old Faunce declared that no wharf could be built without burying the stone “which had received the footsteps of our fathers on their first arrival.” At least that is how one young man—Ephraim Spooner—would recall the scene when he recounted the story years later. Old enough to remember some of the “first comers,” Faunce probably wove shreds of second-hand testimonials into his crusade against the new dock. That crusade succeeded—in its way. The wharf went up as planned, but with the Rock left protruding through the boards, more of a nuisance than an icon.
It would take another quarter century before the story of Faunce's march to the sea took hold. Then, with tempers between Massachusetts and the crown on the rise, several young men extolled the Rock as the cornerstone for the “old colony” favored by loyalists. Before long, a few rebels broke the stone in two while trying to steal it as an emblem for independence. But in 1741, at least for the Ruling Elder, the Rock apparently stood for a tradition threatened by change.
In so many ways, Thanksgiving is an Old Light story—an appeal to tradition and heritage. The custom of the day is to acknowledge the courage, faith and perseverance of our predecessors. The religious dissidents aboard the Mayflower—mostly English Separatists—were themselves drawn to the past. They spoke often of recovering the “primitive Christianity” of the first centuries, or the “purity” and “simplicity” of the Gospel before Constantine blended church and state.
But in other respects, Thanksgiving is a New Light saga—the tale of a continual awakening. As this story goes, the suffering and struggles of the Pilgrims’ early months on the icy coast of New England led to the steady renovation of their ideals. Their pastor John Robinson once famously reminded them that Christian doctrine and life were not static, for “the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.” That's about as charismatic as the good Calvinist would get.
Gratitude often gets pitched as a debt to the past, sometimes mere obligation rather than inspiration. Scholarly advances are even attributed to ingratitude—to the deep dissatisfaction with current conditions and the drive to find remedies. It is easy, then, to overlook how thankfulness might be a source of awakening. Yet plenty of psychologists confirm that the regular discipline of giving thanks (such as the daily listing of one’s blessings) leads to greater mental and physical vitality.
Some neuroscientists are now exploring how and why, noting correlations between gratitude and the limbic pre-frontal regions of the brain. As Robert A. Emmons observes, thankfulness does appear to be linked to the ability to imagine “contrafactuals”—or to envision what could have gone wrong. Those with neurological defects that inhibit their ability to envision alternatives usually show similar drops in gratitude. Others, such as Richard Hanson, have popularized the notion that the brain is biased toward suffering or negativity; they maintain that certain ancient—and mostly Eastern—forms of meditation can help neurons wire together in new ways to produce joy and contentment.
For me, though, the power of the Christian tradition of Thanksgiving is that it is a communal event, not simply an introspective one. "We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing"—words roughly translated from an old Dutch hymn that the Pilgrims would have heard during more than a dozen years in the Netherlands. It is in the capacity to empathize and to sustain one another—as well as our shared faith in Christ's presence among us—that is a source of renewal and awakening, especially in times of sorrow and weariness. I'd also hope that gratitude can be kindled by the liberal arts. Life within a liberal arts community should remind us how our intellectual debts spread beyond our disciplines and vocations. Though we can often romanticize the renegade scholar or artist, most intellectual breakthroughs come through the steady accumulation of small discoveries, one scholar building on another.
Admittedly, I ’m an Old Light by temperament, a contemplative rather than a charismatic. My heart gets strangely warmed by the syntax of old books, or by watching the sunrise on solitary walks. During our time in Massachusetts I took a few early walks in Plymouth, where you could view the narrow rigging and steep bowsprit on the Mayflower replica in silhouette against the Atlantic dawn. And I thought of that legendary stone at Plymouth when Arlyne and I recently watched the dusk settle behind the great volcanic boulder in Morro Bay. This sight is what most tourists expect the Pilgrims’ rock to be—a Gibraltar heralding the entrance to the harbor rather than the small stone that one might steal away in the back of a van.
Our trip to Morro Bay was a quick escape to catch our breath after the whirlwind of relocation and the launch of a new semester. This was one of my favorite camping spots as a young man. Standing beneath those pines and eucalyptus again made me feel as if no time had passed, even as it was easy to count the changes of the intervening decades. What struck me then was how those memories are still generative. I recalled a few conversations at this place with family and friends—some now deceased—and reflected on some of our shared hopes that are now either realized or unresolved. It was hard not to feel a rekindled longing and loyalty.
I was hoping for some daybreak silhouette during my walk the next morning, but Morro Rock and the sand spit were completely shrouded by the marine layer. So I made do by watching the harbor seals and pelicans stir around the docks. A few fishing crews on small crafts crept through the socked-in harbor channels. They had to find their way by radar—or by memory, aware that the rock, like so many things beautiful, was still present in the mist.