Thursday, November 12, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: William Bradford & the Pilgrims

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

“I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.”  – John 15:14-17

William Bradford & the Pilgrims: Basic Facts

- William Bradford (1590-1657) was one of the original settlers of Plymouth Plantation, having crossed from England in 1620 on the Mayflower, and he became the colony’s governor for over thirty years. His record of the colony’s early years, Of Plymouth Plantation, has become a classic of early American literature. It was under his leadership that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621, and he regularly declared additional “days of thanksgiving” throughout the life of the colony. 

- Bradford, like the rest of the Mayflower pilgrims, was a “separatist”—a small branch of the Puritan movement which thought it was better to separate completely from the Church of England than to try to purify it from within. They were thus viewed as more radical than the later Puritan settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

- In drafting the Mayflower Compact before leaving ship, this small church family became the first group of European settlers in America to declare themselves a self-governing body.


1602 – Young William Bradford, 12 years old, starts to attend the church meetings of a strict Puritan group near his home. He is befriended by William Brewster, one of the congregants.

1603 – King James I takes the throne of England after the death of Queen Elizabeth. Contrary to the Puritans’ hopes, not only does he refuse to push through any new reforms of the Church of England, he declares that he will deal harshly with its radical critics. This could mean fines, imprisonment, or even death for dissenters.

1607 – Under the threat of government persecution, the little church begins to meet secretly in Scrooby Manor, the home of William Brewster, led by Pastor John Robinson. After being caught, fined, and imprisoned, they decide to look for a way to leave England.

1608 – After several mishaps, including having an English sea captain betray them to the authorities, they finally manage to book passage to Holland. 18-year-old Bradford goes along.

1609 – The Scrooby congregation settles in the Dutch town of Leiden, though most are forced to do menial jobs in poor conditions. Bradford has to live in an area known as “Stink Alley.”

1613 – Bradford, now having gained an inheritance from his family, marries Dorothy May in a civil ceremony (not in a religious ceremony, because “church weddings” aren’t in the Bible).

1617 – The Bradfords have their first child, John. But the Scrooby congregation is now considering leaving Holland, distressed that their young people are growing up Dutch instead of English, and surrounded by the worldly temptations of the tolerant 17th-century Dutch society.

1620 – They make arrangements to settle the northern part of Virginia Colony, and hire two ships to take them. One, the Speedwell, has to turn back, so all 130 passengers have to cram together in the 100-foot Mayflower for a two-month journey over rough seas. The Bradfords have to leave their three-year-old son behind in Holland. They make landfall in November, but don’t come to their final spot at Plymouth until December of 1620. Realizing that they were well north of their chartered location, they drafted their own Mayflower Compact as a political constitution. Dorothy Bradford dies while William is away on an exploratory scouting mission.

– About half of the group does not survive the winter, including the first governor. Bradford, now thirty-one, is elected to replace him. It is only after making a treaty with the nearby Wampanoag tribe, and gaining their assistance in planting and fishing, that the colony begins to thrive. This partnership leads to the first Thanksgiving, though the actual event was a good deal different from romanticized later notions of the feast.

1620s and beyond – The Plymouth colony faces a number of ongoing challenges: violence from tribes opposed to the Wampanoags, disrespect from the new Puritan settlers at Massachusetts Bay, the settlement of non-religious Englishmen in their midst, and a growing rebellion among the younger generation against the values of their parents.

Quotes from William Bradford

“All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”

“But though this had been a night of much hardship and danger, God gave them a morning of comfort and refreshment, as He usually doth to His children.”

“It was to the astonishment of many and almost to the wonder of the world, that from so small a beginning such great things should ensue - as in due time was manifested; and that there should be resting place for so many of the Lord's people here, when so sharp a scourge had come upon their own nation. But it was the Lord's doing, and it ought to be marvelous in our eyes.”