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The Deacon's Bench

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An interesting observation from author Bruce Feiler, to ponder as you’re preparing for tomorrow’s big feast:

The real story of Thanksgiving has deep biblical roots. A few years ago, I set out on a 10,000-mile journey through the hidden symbols of American life that became the basis for my book, “America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America.”

My journey began on a visit to Plymouth, Massachusetts, where I boarded The Mayflower II. A re-enactor was reading from the Bible. “Exodus 14,” he explained. “The Israelites are trapped in front of the Red Sea, and the Egyptians are about to catch them. ‘Hold your peace!’ Moses says. The Lord shall fight for you.’ Our leader read us that passage during our crossing.”

I had never associated the biblical prophet with this most American of holidays, but his fingerprints are all over our turkeys. How did this happen?

The answer begins with the Protestant Reformation. All through the Middle Ages, Catholics were not allowed to read the Bible directly, but the Reformation, coupled with the printing press, brought vernacular Bibles into the hands of everyday believers. Many of those believers were Protestants who felt oppressed by the Church. They related to the story of the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham who were enslaved in Egypt around 1200 B.C., were set free by Moses, then set out for the Promised Land.

The Pilgrims, a band of Protestant outcasts, saw themselves as fulfilling this biblical story. After all, in coming to the New World, they, too, had to cross a tumultuous sea, arrive in an untested wilderness, and build a new “Promised Land.” When they embarked on The Mayflower in 1620, they described themselves as the chosen people fleeing their pharaoh, King James. On the Atlantic, their leader, William Bradford, proclaimed their journey to be as vital as “Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt.” And when they arrived in Cape Cod, they thanked God for letting them pass through their fiery Red Sea.

The pilgrims were so enamored of Moses, the Bibles they brought with them were emblazoned on their title pages with pictures of Moses. They even named their children biblical virtues like Fear, Patience, and Wrestling, as in “Wrestling with God,” the English translation of Israel.

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