Historical essay
Nursing Thanksgiving

Nursing Thanksgiving

In November 1820, the Reverend John Marsh delivered a Thanksgiving Day sermon in Haddam, Connecticut that couldn’t have been more orthodox and run of the mill, despite its auspicious occasion, the bicentenary of the Pilgrims’ First Landing in 1620. The town fathers deemed the homily worth publishing, and reading it today is perhaps a slog. But midway through, we are stunned by these jarring, gender-bending words:

[gblockquote]Their [New England’s] rulers were all pious men, and became nursing fathers of the Church. “There never was, perhaps, before seen,” says the Rev. Thomas Prince, their correct historian, “such a body of pious people together on the face of the earth … . Their civil and ecclesiastical leaders were exemplary patterns of piety.”[/gblockquote]

Wow. Let’s put aside the matter of what might constitute a “correct” historian. Instead let’s consider those “nursing fathers,” a term that is arresting to us, though not necessarily shocking to 18th- or 19th-century Protestants. It comes from Isaiah 49: 23, at least in the King James Version of the Bible, and we can find it as well in Numbers 11: 12 (KJV), when Moses whines to God about the burdens of leadership, compounded by God’s apparent failure, in Moses’ view, to have his back:

[gblockquote]Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father [emphasis added] beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers?[/gblockquote]

Nursing fathers!? We find nothing peculiar about male nurses today, of course, though the profession has been conventionally marked as female. And male nurses were not absent during the mid-19th century, when Abraham Lincoln declared the first national Thanksgiving celebration (in 1864) — as Walt Whitman’s famous Civil War service attests. But that’s not really what’s meant here, as the biblical reference in Numbers suggests with its bodily focus on the bosom and suckling children. No, the nursing allusion, though metaphorical, points directly to breastfeeding, a clear and evocative symbol of motherhood. (Later biblical translations would finesse the gender anomaly by substituting the less world-rocking “foster fathers” or “guardians” for nursing fathers.)

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," by Jennie A. Brownscombe (1914). (Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal/Wikimedia)
“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” by Jennie A. Brownscombe (1914). (Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal/Wikimedia)

What might we make of this bizarre male expropriation (at least figuratively) of an exclusively female practice? In the early modern Christian world, in Europe as well as America, devotees saw the world as a social, civil, and spiritual commonwealth — a decidedly gendered, hierarchical order, with a male God on top, and organized through a chain of obligations and responsibilities below. Analogies of God’s relationship with His mortal followers could transgress prescribed male/female heterosexual norms (God was special — simultaneously male and beyond sexual categorization), and sometimes the language that expressed these relationships could even be highly sexualized, as when the feminized soul (which resided in both men and women) bonded erotically with Christ, in some Puritan discourse. If God was above humanity, men were above women, and the most pious men should lead not merely in manly ways but apparently in womanly ones as well.

By 1820, Capital-P Pilgrims and Capital-F Founders, Fathers, and Forefathers were ubiquitous and conventional. And the power of patriarchy was such that even something as basically, physically female as nursing — again, referring not to medical treatment, or simple nurturing, but literally to the suckling of infants — could be rhetorically appropriated by men. If we were to follow Marsh and others, pretty much every American achievement was masculine. Writing about New England in 1835, Jacob Abbott declared, typically, “blessed him who invented ‘Thanksgiving.’” Did forefathers nurse Thanksgiving as an emerging American holiday?

Portrait of Sarah J. Hale, by James Reid Lambdin (1807-1889). (Wikimedia)
Portrait of Sarah J. Hale, by James Reid Lambdin (1807-1889). (Wikimedia)

No. Thanksgiving was not a male invention. As is increasingly the case today, we might challenge the use of the pronoun in Abbott’s blessing. Thanksgiving’s prime architect and tireless promoter was the New England author, editor, and activist Sarah Joseph Hale (1788-1879), and though Lydia Maria Child’s famous poem “Thanksgiving-Day” talked of rushing “over the river and through the trees to grandfather’s house,” it quickly and rightly shifts to grandmother, who presided there and dominated the preparations, proceedings, and popular lore of Thanksgiving. Patriarchy coats the holiday, but how thickly?

Despite the Reverend Marsh’s fixation on 1620, when the Pilgrims invaded (not how he might put it), the more important date for the American festive calendar was 1621 — when the newcomers celebrated a three-day thanksgiving feast, together with their new Native neighbors, to commemorate their survival and first harvest. Unlike Landing Day or Forefathers Day (celebrated on December 22 by New England Societies, with manly banquets to mark the colonial intrusion at Plymouth Rock), Thanksgiving was (and is) a domestic, inclusive, generous event, one centered on giving, not on taking, on peace not war. Thanksgiving is what Americans have made it, and they have persistently shaped it to reflect their own changing image.

Presentation of a Thanksgiving Turkey to President Kennedy, 1963. (Robert Knudsen White House Photographs/National Archives and Records Administration)
Presentation of a Thanksgiving Turkey to President Kennedy, 1963. (Robert Knudsen White House Photographs/National Archives and Records Administration)

Thanksgiving is so popular in part because it offers a refuge in our calendar and in our lives. It is conservative — restorative and traditional — and yet filled with radical transformative potential. Though public and national, Thanksgiving is private and particular in its observance, within households, among diverse families. It offers the rare opportunity to be patriotic, but with broad discretion about how we live and embody our American-ness. It is prescribed as a bipartisan or apolitical fete, and yet it is ultimately political in the way that the personal is inherently political. The households and families that celebrate the feast need not resemble the iconic Norman Rockwell patriarchal dinner party of the 1943 “Four Freedoms” painting. They can be as queer and as straight as nursing fathers, as they nourish and bend and remake America’s oldest and most modern holiday.

Matthew Dennis is Professor of History and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon. His books include Cultivating a Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in 17th-Century America (1993); Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (2002); Riot and Revelry in Early America (co-editor, 2002); Encyclopedia of Holidays and Celebrations, 3 vols. (editor, 2006); and Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic (2010). His essays, both popular and scholarly, have assayed a range of subjects, as material as Plymouth Rock and as ephemeral as dreams and visions, as celebratory as American holidays and festivals and as dire as death and mortal remains. His current book project is American Relics and the Politics of Public Memory. In 2015-16, he is Visiting Fellow at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History Material Culture, in New York City.