William Bradford, His Writings, and His Religion

Francis J. Bremer

The Religion of the Pilgrims

The people whose story is told in Of Plimoth Plantation have come to be known as the Pilgrims.1 Though Bradford does not tell us as much about their religious beliefs and practices in his history as he did in other writings, these were men and women of faith whose values and behavior derived from the debates that emerged following the English Reformation engineered by Henry VIII and his son Edward VI, reversed by Mary Tudor, and then solidified by Elizabeth I. The religious origins and history of the Pilgrims is an essential backdrop to the story of Plimoth colony related by Bradford.

Following the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 the Protestant character of the Church of England was restored, but not all reformers were satisfied with the extent of the changes. Unable to gain the support of the church hierarchy, those who were seen as the hotter sort of Protestants—“puritans,” as they were called—sought a more thorough repudiation of the Catholic past, including church ornamentation and ceremonies, and the placement of preaching clergy in every parish. They sought a Calvinist theological foundation for the church, and advocated for an anti-Catholic foreign policy. The puritans drew upon lay support and emphasized the role of the laity. Some laymen used their right to install clergy in parishes that they controlled to appoint puritan ministers. Fervent lay believers often pressured their ministers to resist episcopal demands to conform to matters such as wearing prescribed vestments and requiring that recipients of the Lord’s Supper kneel to receive it.

The Scrooby Church (photograph by Jeremy D. Bangs)

Some believers, finding themselves in parishes where reform was successfully resisted, separated themselves from the church and began to worship on their own. Such gatherings, branded “conventicles” by the authorities, who deemed them illegal, were a way for men and women to indulge in proper worship without tarrying for changes that might eventually be approved by the bishops. In the early years of the seventeenth century, such a group came together in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, where believers were hosted for prayer, psalm singing, and the sharing of spiritual insight by the layman William Brewster. Brewster had been raised in Scrooby, where his father was a royal post-master and bailiff of Scrooby Manor. He had briefly attended Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and then entered the employment of William Davison, a puritan who was one of Queen Elizabeth’s envoys. Brewster accompanied Davison on a mission to the Netherlands, but lost his position when Davison was disgraced for his role in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Brewster returned to Scrooby and succeeded his father as postmaster.

The first record of what was happening in Scrooby in the very late sixteenth century was when the parish churchwardens reported Brewster for “repeating sermons publicly in the church without authority.” Puritans were known for taking sermon notes and meeting with family and friends to discuss the points raised, and often these discussions could stray into other areas of faith and practice. Justifying such efforts, the layman Robert Cushman would write “that if the country and kingdom where we live take no public course for preaching, yet the Gospel may still be found in families, and from neighbor to neighbor.”2 The complaint against Brewster also noted that on occasion he travelled to neighboring churches to hear sermons preached—a practice called “gadding”—likely referring to nearby Babworth and Bawtry, where the puritans Richard Clyfton and John Deacon could be heard.3 At the time, Brewster only received an admonition.

By 1598 there was clearly a group of godly men and women who had gathered around Brewster to enrich their spiritual lives. They were probably among the many puritans who hoped that the new king, James I, would bring about the type of religious changes for which they had lobbied. But the king dashed those hopes at the Hampton Court Conference, and in the aftermath the church authorities began to demand and enforce closer conformity to prescribed practices. Many clergymen who refused were removed from their positions.

Puritans were forced to decide whether or not to continue in the church or to separate. According to William Bradford, the Scrooby conventicle organized into a congregation around 1605 or 1606, when “the Lord’s free people joined themselves (by a covenant of the Lord) into a church estate, in the fellowship of the gospel, to walk in all his ways made known, or to be made known to them, according to their best endeavors, whatsoever it should cost them.” The process they used—what would become the norm in Congregationalism—was described by John Murton, a disciple of a neighboring Separatist clergyman, John Smyth: “Do we not know the beginnings of [Robinson’s] Church?” he wrote, “That there was first one stood up and made a covenant, and then another, and these two joined together, and then a third, and these became a church, say they, etc.” In a world where parishes and ecclesiastical jurisdictions were created from above, the lay believers who gathered in the Scrooby Manor House asserted their right to form their own church. The congregation then chose Richard Clyfton, who had been deprived of a clerical living in nearby Babworth in 1605, as their minister. John Robinson, who had been ejected from a curacy in Norwich, joined the congregation. Both had been troubled by the implications of Separatism and had discussed it with fellow puritans before finally accepting the need for it.

Expanding the role of the laity was a critical element in the views of many reformers, and it is helpful to realize that this was a time in which there were no hard and fast barriers between the individual self and the spiritual cosmos. Ordinary men and women believed that they could be touched by the divine—and potentially by the devil. Belief in being led to truth by the power of the Holy Spirit was the more positive side of a continuum that included belief in demonic possession. As valuable as university training was, natural reason and education were deemed insufficient alone to understand Scripture. It was possible for ordinary believers, taught to read and given access to the scriptures, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to discern God’s will to a degree that could be greater than that of formally educated clergy. The Pilgrim Robert Cushman wrote of the clergy that “not one of twenty of them that are trained up in the University are fit to be Preachers, seeing as it is not humane learning that maketh a man a Preacher; but other helps of nature and grace, without which humane learning makes a man play the fool rather than the wise man.”4

At the same time, the lay and clerical leaders of congregationalism recognized that, even with the guidance of the Spirit, humans were fallible and agreement was not always possible for, as Cushman explained, “whilest we are here, we are frail men, and some frailties will still appear in us.” Robinson himself, according to Bradford, recognized his insufficiency “and was ever desirous of any light, and the more able, learned, and holy the persons were the more he desired to confer and reason with them.” Another member of Robinson’s congregation, Edward Winslow, captured the point in a recollection he published of Robinson’s teachings. Robinson, he remembered, “was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.” Robinson exhorted his congregation “to take heed what we received for truth, and well to examine and compare, and weigh it with other Scriptures of truth, before we received it; For, saith he, It is not possible the Christian world should come so lately out of such thick Antichristian darkness, and that full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once.”5

Having formed themselves into a separate congregation, the Scrooby believers found themselves, as Bradford wrote, “hunted, & persecuted on every side; . . . some were taken, & clapped up in prison, others had their homes beset & watched night and day, . . . and the most were fain to fly, & leave their houses, & habitations, and the means of their livelihood” (8).6 After two failed attempts, most successfully left England. They first settled in Amsterdam, worshipping with the church of the “Ancient Brethren,” as it was called. That congregation had existed in some form since 1593, but in welcoming new arrivals from England—not merely from Scrooby but from nearby English communities such as Gainsborough—the unity of the church was challenged. Bradford tells us that after about a year Robinson, Brewster, and other leaders of the Scrooby group, seeing “that the flames of contention were like to break out in that ancient church, . . . thought it was best to remove, before they were any way engaged with the same” (12).

They chose to move to Leiden, a city that Brewster had visited when in Davison’s service. Clyfton chose to remain in Amsterdam. Those who moved to Leiden chose Robinson as their new pastor, and Brewster as their Elder.7 In Leiden their openness to further light led Robinson and Brewster to engage in dialogue with faculty at the University of Leiden and discussions with other English exiles such as Henry Jacob, William Ames, and Robert Parker, as well as with the Dutch Mennonite Pieter Twisck and Dutch Reformed clergy such as William Teelinck. As a result of such exchanges, Robinson shifted his position on engagement with non-separatist churches. Whereas he had previously subscribed to the positions set out by early separatists such as Henry Barrow and John Greenwood, labelling parish church buildings as “idol houses” that no godly believer should enter, during the Leiden years Robinson came to accept that it was permissible for saints to listen to sermons and join in prayer in such churches, condemning only sharing the sacraments.8 This was the position of Henry Jacob, who allowed the members of the separatist church he established in London to have such interaction with parish assemblies, and it was an important concession for the Scrooby believers when they settled in New England. In the “Discourses” Bradford composed in his later years, he explained for the younger generation what the Pilgrims owed to these earlier separatists, and where they diverged from those teachings.

This was a shift that was undoubtedly discussed within the congregation, because Robinson was one of the strongest advocates of lay preaching and discussion that was referred to as prophesying. This practice was one in which, as Cushman (who was a deacon of the church) wrote, “all the gifts and graces of the spirit are freely shown forth without restraint; there the Word of God is not bound in by policy, tradition, custom, &c.; . . . if you have a word of wisdom or exhortation, there you may utter it. If you would learn anything, there you may ask and receive freely. . . . Stand you in need of instruction, exhortation or comfort, they are ready to give it to you. Do you stumble or fall, either by error of judgment, of failing in conversion? Why, they will help both to raise and hold you up. Have you need of some gentle rebukes as a balm to your soul or of some sharp and severe threatenings to beat down your proud flesh, yea, need you aught either for soul or body? Why, there it is to be had freely, and whatsoever is wanting in the outward glory is supplied seven-fold in the inward grace.”9

After about a dozen years in Leiden, some members of the congregation proposed moving yet again. While these Englishmen were able to exercise their faith more freely in the Netherlands than in England, life in other ways was difficult. Most hadn’t learned to speak the language; earning a living was more difficult than it had been in England; and some of their children were drawn to the different cultural standards of the Dutch. The fact that a truce between Spain and the Netherlands would soon expire cast a further cloud over them, opening the prospect of war and possible reconquest of the Netherlands by Catholic Spain. Discussions about various options, negotiations to obtain a charter, and efforts to gain financial support for a move to the New World eventually led to the departure of the Mayflower and the eventual settlement at Plimoth.

John Robinson remained in Leiden with those members of the congregation who did not choose to or could not afford to emigrate at the time. While he hoped that he would later join the group in Plimoth, he died in 1625 before he could realize that plan.10 Some members of the Leiden congregation did trickle into Plimoth during the 1620s, but the colony did not receive its first acceptable clergyman until July 1629, when Ralph Smith was chosen to be pastor of the congregation. So, with the exception of the brief time in which the controversial John Lyford was in the settlement, the lay Elder William Brewster presided over the colony’s religious life throughout its first decade.

What emerged in that decade as the Plimoth Way rested on a congregation being formed by believing Christians who came together to draw up and subscribe to a covenant. Members were admitted on the basis of an assessment of a profession of faith but were not required to offer a personal narrative claiming that they were saved. The members then chose church officers based on an assessment of their gifts. Worship was in a plain, unadorned meetinghouse which was not considered to be holy ground. Initially, the lower level of the fort built for the community’s defense was the location. The service itself featured prayers, the singing of psalms, a sermon, and on occasion discussion of doctrine with questions and contributions made by members. Discipline of erring members was ultimately the responsibility of the congregation as a whole, though before it came to that efforts would have been made by individuals and then the church officers to correct the individual.

There is a mystery surrounding the early life of the congregation, and it centers on the role of women. There was a strain in the English reform movement over the opportunities available to women. Certainly there was no gender bias when it came to urging Christians to read the Scriptures. Going further than this, William Tyndale so distrusted the authority of ordained clergymen that he accepted that in special circumstances, “if necessity required,” women could preach and even administer the sacraments.11 The puritan Stephen Geree believed that the grace that enabled believers to understand Scripture was available to women as well as men, so that “sharpness of apprehension and soundness of judgment” was found among them as well as men.12 Certainly women often played a significant role in private gatherings of godly men and women who came together to discuss religious matters. We have examples of this in Bridget Cooke in Kersey, England, and in Anne Hutchinson, both in Alford, England, and then in Boston, Massachusetts.13 It comes from a later period, but it is worth noting that John Bunyan recounted how his own progress in faith had been prompted by encountering a group of women sitting in a doorway talking “about a new birth, the work of God on their hearts, and also how they were convinced of their miserable state by nature.”14 In the late sixteenth century the Dedham Conference (a gathering of puritan clergy from the towns near Dedham) debated but could reach no conclusion on the proposition that a woman could lead family prayers if she had a greater gift than her husband. There was no disputing that a woman could have a greater gift.15

Certainly, when a group of believers organized into a congregation women were expected to swear to the covenant to establish themselves as members. But what was their role once the church was formed? It is generally believed that they had a subordinate role, but there is no actual policy statement denying them rights. A striking piece of evidence to the contrary is to be found in the reconstitution of the English church in Rotterdam in 1633 under the leadership of Hugh Peter. John Forbes, representing the classis of English churches in the Netherlands, presided over the election of officers. The vote favoured Peter’s selection as pastor. But Forbes addressed the congregation, saying, “I see the men choose him, but what do the women do?” at which point the women raised their hands as well.16 Also, in the 1630s women in the English Reformed Church in Amsterdam were among the signers of a petition which among other things sought to give women a role in choosing the congregation’s minister. Such examples hint at the possibility that the role of women in puritan churches may have been underestimated.17

The next question is whether women could express their views in a congregation and vote on disciplinary and other matters. As for voting, they may well have been able to vote since the principle that distinguished Congregationalism from Presbyterianism and other polities was the understanding that Christ had entrusted the keys of discipline to the whole church and not just its elders. As for speaking, John Robinson never went so far as to allow unrestrained participation by women (or men, for that matter) in congregational discussions, but did allow that in cases where they were “immediately, and extraordinarily, and miraculously inspired,” women might speak without restraint.18 He further held that despite Paul’s strictures against the role of women in the church, women were free to speak up against perceived injustice or impropriety of doctrine. He allowed that “extraordinary gifts and endowments of prophecy” discussed in the Scriptures enabled “even women furnished with them to speak publicly, and in men’s presence, as appears in Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Anna, as also in Jezebel herself in regard of order, and others.”19 With the breakdown of ecclesiastical controls during the English Civil Wars, many women took to the streets to preach. It is likely that they had some experience of sharing their beliefs in less public settings, in conventicles and congregations, earlier.20

The Plimoth congregation met twice on the Sabbath and likely for a Thursday lecture. The Sabbath service would have consisted of prayer, a sermon by Brewster or another lay preacher, and psalm singing. As was the case in Leiden, individuals were free to raise questions or add insight by way of prophesying. According to Bradford, Brewster’s sermons were plain and direct, and capable of moving the emotions. As for leading the congregation in prayer, Bradford wrote that Brewster “had a singular good gift in prayer, in ripping up the heart and conscience before God in the humble confession of sin and begging the mercies of God in Christ for the pardon of the same.” He believed that it was better “for ministers, to pray oftener, and divide their prayers than be long & tedious in the same” (255) Brewster, of course, was not the only one to preach. Robert Cushman had written that “every Christian that hath received a gift of God for that purpose may preach the word, and so consequently be heard in any assembly where there may be an audience.”21 During a brief stay in the colony in the fall of 1621, he preached a sermon on The Danger of Self-Love, and the Sweetness of True Friendship. When in England in 1635 Edward Winslow was challenged by Archbishop William Laud about his having preached in the colony. It is likely that Samuel Fuller, and Bradford also, offered lay sermons in the 1620s.

A sense of how prophesying fit into the service can be found in an account John Winthrop recorded in 1632 on a visit to Plimoth on which he was accompanied by Boston’s Rev. John Wilson. Ralph Smith was the pastor at the time, with Brewster the Elder and Roger Williams a member of the congregation. During the afternoon service Williams “(according to their custom) propounded a question, to which the pastor, Mr. Smith, spoke briefly, then Mr. Williams prophesied, and after the Governor of Plimoth [Bradford] spoke to the question; after him the Elder [Brewster], then some two or three more of the congregation.” Brewster then invited Winthrop and Wilson to speak to the issue, “which they did.”22

The congregation held itself responsible for supporting members in special need, and Winthrop’s account of his visit indicates how funds were gathered for the purpose. At the end of the afternoon service, “Mr. Fuller put the congregation in mind of their duty of contribution whereupon the Governor and all the rest went down to the deacon’s seat and put it into the box and then returned.”23

Over the years, historians have debated the extent to which Plimoth influenced the shaping of the churches of Massachusetts, and thus all New England. During England’s Civil Wars of the 1640s, proponents of Presbyterianism sought to discredit English congregational advocates of the “New England Way” by associating it with Plimoth and claiming that Plimoth followed a rigidly separatist path. Defenders of the colonial churches such as John Cotton rejected that narrative and argued for other, non-separatist puritan influences and sought to diminish the influence that Plimoth had had on their system. Williston Walker, in his magisterial The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (1893), argued that a reading of a letter by Salem’s Charles Gott makes clear that his congregation had been formed after Plimoth deacon Samuel Fuller visited the settlement and discussed matters of church formation, and before the Salem congregation selected Samuel Skelton and Francis Higginson to be pastor and teacher.24 But many scholars, notably Perry Miller in Orthodoxy in Massachusetts (1933), followed the lead of colonial writers who had sought to distance themselves from Plimoth’s influence, contending that there was a sharp difference between the separatism of Plimoth and the related but very different non-separating puritanism of the Bay colony and the sister Bible Commonwealths of Connecticut and New Haven. Miller not only sought to establish a separate, distinctly intellectual, line of thinking that led to Massachusetts orthodoxy, but also to prioritize the role of a hierarchical elite in crafting that orthodoxy. This remained the dominant view for most of the last hundred years, but recently scholars such as Michael P. Winship and Francis J. Bremer have been reasserting the role that Plimoth played.25 Of Plimoth Plantation and Bradford’s other writings offer important evidence for those engaging in this debate.

There was considerable nuance to the views held by the Pilgrims and puritans in general. But it is possible to provide a general overview of their beliefs. The starting point of all puritan doctrine was accepting that the almighty God was unknowable. As John Robinson expressed it, “The essence of God is known only to himself, but is undiscernible to all men, and angels, partly by reason of its infiniteness, which therefore no finite understanding can comprehend, and partly for that no voice, sign, or form can sufficiently express it either to sense or reason.” Those striving to understand God and his will could only know that which God revealed to them, and even with grace, comprehending God and his will would be imperfect. This is why, through prayer and meditation, believers reminded themselves of their frailty even as they tried to find further light.26 Aspects of God were revealed in the world, the creation revealing aspects of the creator. History suggested aspects of God’s providential design. But the most important source of understanding God was what was revealed in the Scriptures. This was why the ability to read and discuss the Bible was central to the Protestant mission in general and that of the puritan in particular.27

Their God was a triune deity, a single godhead consisting of three distinct and coequal persons—Father, Son (Jesus Christ), and Holy Spirit. How this could be true was, like so much else, a mystery accepted by faith but incomprehensible to natural reason. God was immutable, eternal, and infinite, with attributes that included goodness, power, love, and wisdom, among others. The puritans tried to convey some of what they believed about God by using analogies drawn from human experience—for example, God was a loving father, a just judge, a good shepherd. But while such images might enlighten believers about certain divine attributes, they carried with them a danger of confusing the image with the reality. This was why the puritans rejected the use of painted, carved, or sculpted images of God in their churches—God might behave like a father but he was not simply masculine. The true God also had maternal attributes, which some puritan focused on in their writings.

There was no such hesitancy among puritan preachers when it came to discussing humankind, though here too most warned about trying to reach hard conclusions about the matter. For the most part they followed the understanding of human nature and destiny explicated by the French Protestant reformer John Calvin. Man was originally good, created in God’s image, and offered eternal happiness in return for perfect obedience to God’s will, a bargain some referred to as a Covenant of Works. But the parents of humankind, Adam and Eve, violated that covenant, losing their innocence through the original sin, corrupting their natures by that offense, and passing on that taint to all that came after them. As the New England Primer would put it, “In Adam’s Fall, We Sinned All,” though how that corruption was inherited was a matter of contention among theologians.

Following the Fall, God set forth commandments to lay out the path of righteousness. But the corruption of original sin led all men and women who followed the first parents to commit their own actual sins, choosing forms of self-gratification rather than obeying the law of God. Sin required punishment and the penalty was damnation. One of the key points in puritan self-understanding was recognition that one was a sinner, in thrall to sin, and deserving of damnation. Nothing an individual could do on his or her own could break this addiction to sin or earn God’s favor. But because God was loving as well as just, there was hope, for God chose some individuals to be saved despite their unworthiness. God had become human in the person of Jesus Christ, who atoned for the sins of the elect by his own suffering and death, and who offered renewed lessons of hope and love. There were nuances that were not clear. Calvin himself had urged that his followers not delve too deeply into the mysteries surrounding this doctrine of predestination, but many did so anyway. In choosing, did God explicitly select some to be damned as well as those to be saved? On what basis did God choose? Was there anything a person could do to influence that choice? Were those saved required to participate in the process in some way?

Saving grace could come in a moment of blinding revelation, comparable to the experience of Paul on the road to Damascus, or it could make itself felt in a slow, often unclear, progression with the individual alternately experiencing doubts and reassurance. But the elect, those who were chosen to be saints, received not only saving grace but the sustaining graces that helped them better to comprehend and do God’s will. Evidence of such comprehension and action were among the signs looked for as an individual examined his or her own spiritual progress, and by a gathered congregation in assessing a potential candidate. But while good behavior could be seen as evidence of a person having been saved, it could never be a cause of salvation.

What did the men and women of Scrooby, and their fellow puritans, believe constituted good behavior? This is the aspect of puritanism that is most misunderstood. Contrary to popular notions, the puritans were not killjoys opposed to drink, sex, or other activities. The starting point for understanding their views was the belief that all of the creation was good because the creator was good. “Evil,” wrote John Robinson, “stands in the abuse of good.” Drinking wine, beer, or ale was acceptable. But, wrote Robinson, sin occurs when things that are good are “unmeasurably used, as is said of wine, that the first cup quencheth thirst, the second procures cheerfulness, the third drunkenness, and the fourth madness.” In cases such as this it was immoderate use that led to sin.

In other cases, such as in expressions of sexuality, sin resulted from applying God’s gift “unaptly, or to wrong ends, or persons.”28 Many puritans actually viewed intercourse as a joyous expression of love bestowed upon humankind by God to bind a couple together. Preachers urged upon their congregations the “duty to desire.” The English puritan minister William Gouge wrote that intercourse between a husband and wife should occur often, willingly, and cheerfully. In Massachusetts, the Boston church on one occasion excommunicated a man for withholding sexual favors from his wife. But while intercourse between husband and wife was viewed as the proper use of the sexuality that God had bestowed upon humans, any other use of that gift was an abuse. Thus, puritans condemned and punished fornication, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, and other sexual indulgences outside of marriage. Bradford expressed his concern for the appearance of such sins in the latter parts of Of Plimoth Plantation.

The images of somber-looking figures dressed in black trudging through snow to church services, so typical of nineteenth-century depictions of Pilgrims and puritans, are fundamentally misleading. Estate inventories reveal clothing of expensive fabric and vibrant colors. It was not uncommon for a gentleman such as William Davison or William Brewster to wear a suit of yellow canary silk or cardinal red satin. The heart of puritan views about dress was to wear what was appropriate to one’s station in life. Laborers and farmers had limited wardrobes, often consisting of woollen outfits that were dyed in earth tones, colors less likely to reveal dirt and dust. At the other end of the social spectrum, the wealthier members of society might very well wear garments that you may have found worn by courtiers at the royal court, some of whom were, in fact, puritans. Magistrates and ministers (among those most likely to have their portraits painted) were likely to own clothing that was dyed black, but this was not a sign of somberness but of distinction since black was the most expensive fabric dye and a sign of high status.

While the stereotypes of puritan morality on these and other issues are misleading, it goes without saying that these men and women made choices that differ from how many people today would choose. And there were, of course, differences among puritans as to where to draw the line between use and abuse, proper and improper behaviour. But it was not their understanding of God, salvation, and proper behavior that caused trouble for William Brewster and his fellow believers in Scrooby. It was their decision that membership in the Church of England required practices that led them away from the truth and inhibited them from properly pursuing it.

William Bradford

William Bradford became a key player in the story of the Plimoth colony and its most important chronicler. He was the third son of the elder William Bradford, the most prosperous yeoman farmer in Austerfield, Yorkshire, where he was baptised in 1590. His father died when he was one and he was taken to be raised by his grandfather following his mother’s remarriage. But his grandfather died in 1596 and his mother in the following year. William was taken in by two of his uncles, one of whom, Robert Bradford, inherited his brother’s status in Austerfield. William was raised to be a farmer, like his father and uncles. He learned how to read and write, but we don’t know how. His uncle Robert was a parish churchwarden and likely one of those Protestants who valued the importance of reading as a means of accessing the Scriptures. William may have been taught by his uncles, or they might have sent him to a local school. There is no record of him proceeding to a grammar school (where he would have learned Latin and Greek). It is clear that he never attended a university. But throughout his life he demonstrated a thirst for knowledge and an aptitude for learning. Cotton Mather, who wrote the earliest biography of Bradford, indicated that he endured a “long sickness” as a youth, and he may have used the time this offered to read. Mather also indicated that Bradford achieved facility in the classical languages and also proficiency in Dutch and French. In his later life he sought to teach himself Hebrew, a subject addressed in this volume.29

When he was around the age of twelve, he began to show an interest in religion. And he was soon walking to Bawtry, a village about a mile from Austerfield where the reformer Richard Clyfton preached without license after he was deprived of his living in Babworth.30 Bradford would remember Clyfton as “a grave and reverend preacher, who by his pains and diligence had done much good and under God had been a means of the conversion of many.” When the lay people who gathered at Scrooby formed a church, they chose Clyfton as their pastor. Bradford became a close friend and protégé of William Brewster, in whose manor house the group conducted worship. One of the first members of the congregation, he recorded the essence of the covenant when he wrote that they threw off the “yoke of Antichristian bondage. And as the Lord’s free people, Joined themselves (by a Covenant of the Lord) into a church estate, In the fellowship of the Gospel to walk in all his ways, made known, or to be made known unto them . . . whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them” (6).

His life became entwined with that of the congregation, and much of it can be followed in Of Plimoth Plantation. He wrote of the decision to leave England, the frustration of initial attempts, the dangerous voyage he experienced crossing the North Sea to the Netherlands, the reasons of the congregation originally settling in Amsterdam, and their removal to Leiden in 1610.

In Leiden, Bradford found work as a serge weaver, and in 1612, having inherited family property in England, he bought a house large enough to fit a loom required for the trade.31 In that same year he was admitted to citizenship in the city.32 In November 1613, he was betrothed to the sixteen-year-old Dorothy May. This occurred in Amsterdam, where she was living with her parents. The betrothal was then recorded and the banns published in Leiden.33 Their marriage was a civil ceremony in accordance with Dutch practice, which was adopted by the Pilgrims and introduced into the New World. In Of Plimoth Plantation he described the difficulties these English refugees experienced in their new home, and the reasons that prompted them to consider moving yet again, this time to America. Bradford was still a young man during his years in Leiden, so it is not surprising that he did not play a significant role in the life of the congregation at that time. Unlike those such as John Carver, Samuel Fuller, and Robert Cushman who would later play an important role in the Pilgrim colony, Bradford neither held an office in the church, nor is there a record of him preaching in Leiden by way of prophesying. His account suggests that he played a role in the discussions about whether to move and where to go, but he was not entrusted with any of the negotiations. The decision having been made, in 1619 Bradford sold his house as a means of raising funds for his move to America.34 William and Dorothy made the difficult decision to leave their young son John, about two years old, with friends in Leiden rather than subject him to the difficulties they anticipated in crossing the Atlantic and planting a new colony. They were not alone in this; the Brewsters and others also left children behind in expectation of being reunited when the colony was established.

Having determined to settle in the vicinity of Cape Cod, which was outside of the bounds of the patent they had received, William was one of those who signed the Mayflower Compact, an agreement or covenant whereby the colonists bound themselves to abide by the decisions reached by general approval. John Carver was then elected governor of the colony. Following this, Bradford was a member of the armed groups that explored the land in search of a promising site for their settlement. His own account offers little detail about his involvement in these efforts, but Edward Winslow related how, while the party was examining a Native deer trap, “William Bradford being in the rear, when he came looked also upon it, and as he went about, it gave a sudden jerk up, and he was immediately caught by the leg.”35 Returning from one of these expeditions, Bradford learned that in his absence Dorothy had fallen overboard from the Mayflower, and drowned. He never wrote of the event, and the circumstances of her death remains unknown, though subject to much speculation long after the event.36

The Austerfield Church, where William Bradford was baptized.

(photograph by Sue Allan)

The first winter was a difficult one, with close to half the colonists dying. Bradford himself was taken seriously ill, but survived. When, in the spring, John Carver fell down in the fields and soon died, Bradford was elected governor, a post he would hold for thirty-one of the next thirty-six years. His history Of Plimoth Plantation recounts those years and his role in the colony’s history. That account ends in 1646 (his last year as governor), though he wrote the dates 1647 and 1648 as if he intended to add more to the story, appears to have corrected some of the early narrative, and added an observation on the English Civil Wars and the evident triumph of the puritan cause. In 1650, he also prepared a list of the original Mayflower passengers, grouped by household, with information on the “the increasing and decreasing of these persons” over the previous three decades. As noted above, the history does not reveal much of his personal feelings and beliefs. These are more evident in the dialogues and poems he wrote late in his life. During the years after he stopped writing Of Plimoth Plantation he sought to learn Hebrew so that he could read the scriptures in that language. He also served as a Plimoth representative to the 1647 Cambridge (Massachusetts) Assembly that sought to define the region’s religious practices and principles.

Bradford died in May 1657, leaving behind his second wife, Alice, whom he had married in Plimoth in 1623, their three children, and his son John from his first marriage. The inventory of his estate included listings of thirty-two published works, some containing multiple volumes. This likely underestimates his collection, since books he had lent to others would not have been included, and in his writings he quoted from works that are not found in the inventory. Equally of interest, his will mentioned “some small books written in my own hand.”

Bradford’s Other Writings

One of those books was likely the manuscript of Of Plimoth Plantation. A second volume, though it is hard to imagine it as “small,” was the Letterbook in which he copied out correspondence relevant to the colony’s affairs. The extant portion of that volume starts on page 339 with a letter from the colony’s London investors in 1624, and it ends with a letter in August 1630 dealing with events in the new colony of Massachusetts. Many of the letters were copied into the text of Of Plimoth Plantation, but in doing so Bradford on occasion omits important passages found in the Letter Book.37

During the last decade of his life, when he no longer served as governor and had ceased chronicling the history Of Plimoth Plantation, Bradford had engaged in a number of other pursuits resulting in other “small books.” He wrote three dialogues, framed as conversations between the “ancient” of the colony and the younger generation. In the first of these, composed in 1648, he went into great detail about the religious tradition from which Plimoth emerged.38 In England at the time, puritans were debating what course to pursue in reforming the Church of England. At the Westminster Assembly and in public forums, congregationalism was identified as the New England Way. Opponents of that polity sought to undermine it by arguing that the churches of New England derived from extreme separatism by way of Plimoth. Bradford claimed an identity with the churches of Massachusetts and sought to distance the churches of Plimoth from the separatism of “rigid Brownists and Separatists.” He discussed the separatist martyrs such as Barrow and Greenwood, and discussed the views of more recent separatists such as Henry Ainsworth, John Smyth, Richard Clyfton, and especially John Robinson. He emphasized that under Robinson the Leiden church had abandoned rigid separation and established communion with non-separatist English puritans, but also with other Protestant groups.

The second dialogue does not survive, and we have no indication of what it discussed. In the third dialogue, written in 1652, the “ancients” identify completely as New England congregationalists. He analyzed for the “young men” the errors of Roman Catholicism, the Episcopal Church of England, and Presbyterianism (about which he had some good things to say), while explaining the benefits of Congregationalism such as practiced by the Plimoth colony churches and the majority of New England churches. In the process he also criticized some of the heresies that had sprung up at the time. In these dialogues Bradford gave far more information on his religious views than in his history Of Plimoth Plantation.

While working on these dialogues Bradford also wrote several poems.39 Writing poetry was not unusual. Many puritan clergy and laity engaged in writing poetry, though not reaching the qualitative level achieved by Anne Bradstreet. Bradford’s poetry dealt with history and religion and was a venue for expressing feelings that he tempered in his other writings. The poems went further than his other writings in identifying Plymouth with New England as a whole, and its congregationalism with the views of John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, and John Winthrop. Most notably, his “Some Observations of God’s Merciful Dealing with us in this Wilderness” contains harsh rhetoric about the Natives. He castigated the Natives as “a people without God or law,” writing that “lust’s their law, and will’s their utmost end.” He marveled that the colonists “have lived so long, Among these folk, so brutish and savage, Without tasting of their injurious rage.” This view of the Native peoples was very different from that expressed in the writings of colonists such as Edward Winslow and Roger Williams.

We know of at least one other “small book” composed by Bradford. In Thomas Prince’s Chronological History of New England (1738), he includes excerpts from a volume he refers to as Bradford’s “Registur.” Some items are notes of deaths, but others are descriptions of legal offenses.40