FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 01/13/2009

Thanksgiving 2008: Here Follow Some Thoughts on the Burning of Westmont

November 25, 2008                                            Volume 1 Issue 5
 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Mark Sargent's personal essay, posted in its entirety on Of it, he says: "A few weeks back, when I was asked to write something (for Faith + Ideas =) on the Pilgrims for Thanksgiving, I weighed several themes--immigration, religious liberty, and so on-but the fires on my son's campus (in Santa Barbara, CA) certainly altered the way I think this year about giving thanks."

By Mark Sargent
Thanksgiving, we often forget, is a holiday carved from grief.  Usually, though, our national November rhetoric has been an anthem to a plentiful GNP, the presumed imprint of God's favor.  Christmas marketing all but subsumes the day. The morning's great parade, after all, is sponsored by a department store.   More and more, Thanksgiving sanctions neither gratitude nor inspiration but sleep:  a high-carb, tryptophan-rich rest before televised football and the Friday-morning discounts.

We seldom recall that Lincoln inaugurated the national day of Thanksgiving in the wake of deaths at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, anxious to retrieve great sadness as a preface to peace. This was a time for the president to commend "to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife." The Pilgrims' famous 1621 feast, recast for modern uses, gets told so often as a tale of multicultural and agricultural bounty that we often ignore the sorrowful prologue. The ninety Wampanoag men who brought venison to Governor Bradford for the three-day festivities were a remnant of a great Rhode Island tribe decimated by European germs-and fearful of hostile Narragansetts to their west. Bradford recalled the unburied skulls and bones left above ground by Massasoit's villagers too sick to bury their victims.  

The English settlers themselves-some religious dissidents, others fortune-seekers-were only half of the party that disembarked from the Mayflower.  Four months of scurvy, dysentery and cold left just a few families intact. Desperately ill, Bradford, a new widower, watched flames spread over the thatched roof of the colony's one common house, driving the sick shelterless onto the frozen soil. Yet, by summer's end, with a modest harvest, the survivors found reason to be grateful, despite the fierce price. The Pilgrims, for all of their Calvinism, were more psalmists than prophets, slow to forecast the ways of God, quick to see his mercies in the wilderness.   

Thoughts of Puritan trials and Westmont fires almost immediately drew my mind to the verses of Anne Bradstreet, an early settler of Ipswich.  Three hundred and forty-two years ago, at some unidentified spot not far from our own campus, the Bradstreets' servant dropped a candle, igniting the blaze that spread through their dwelling.  The flames took it all, including a library of hundreds of volumes.  On a "loose paper"-apparently all she could scrounge up-"Mistress Bradstreet" wrote a string of couplets "On the Burning of Our House."  It endures as one of New England's landmark poems.  Early on, she confesses fear-"piteous shrieks of dreadful noise"-before signaling her quick embrace of God's will.

            And, when I could no longer look,
            I blest his Name that gave and took,
            That layd my goods now in the dust:
            Yea so it was, and so 'twas just.      

To be honest, I doubt I could muster the will, so quickly, to accept such haphazard destruction as God's design.  Perhaps that's why I am taken by the transparency of her later lines. Bradstreet embraces her faith without forbidding mourning. She turns toward God, but still surveys the damage, the lost possessions and lost potential: 

            Here stood that trunk, and there that chest;
            There lay the store I counted best;
            My pleasant things in ashes lye
            And them behold no more shall I . . .
            No candle 'ere shall shine in thee,
            Nor bridegroom's voice 'ere heard shall be.
            In silence ever shalt thou lie . . .

Such emotional candor makes her final assurance-"my hope and treasure lyes above"-even more compelling.  I have seen that spiritual resilience in our own faculty. Virtually all of those I know who have lost their lives' possessions in a fire confess that the losses can be refining.

After lightning struck his Gloucester land, torching his house and his studio, Bruce Herman (our Lothlorien Distinguished Chair of Fine Arts) put it well, "All things hang lightly on us."   

Dr. Mark Sargent is the Provost at Gordon College. Out of 600 member colleges across the country, he recently received the 2008 Chief Academic Officer Award from the Council of Independent Colleges. He and his family live in Hamilton, MA.


Copyright 2008 by Mark Sargent @ Gordon College in Wenham, MA, U.S.A.
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