Of Plymouth Plantation | Study Guide

William Bradford

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Of Plymouth Plantation | Book 1, Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Of Plymouth Plantation consists of two larger sections and 35 chapters. Book 1 has 10 numbered chapters, and Book 2 has 26 chapters, one for each year from 1620 to 1646. For the purpose of summary and analysis, this study guide groups some chapters together.

Summary

Book 1, Chapter 1

New Plymouth, William Bradford writes, was founded by a group of English colonists seeking to escape religious persecution. During the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation swept across England, ushering in a debate about how Christianity should be practiced. Some people, like Bradford, preferred a simple and unceremonious expression of their faith, while others held relatively close to the devotions and hierarchies of the Catholic Church. As the latter group gained power within the Church of England, their opponents, called Puritans (a derogatory term given to them) were oppressed. After imprisonments, house arrest, and other injustices, Bradford reports, the Puritans resolved to leave England in secret.

Book 1, Chapter 2

Getting out of England, however, was almost as difficult as living there. First, the Puritans attempted to hire an English sea captain, but he sold them out to the English authorities and allowed his ship to be raided. The passengers were jailed and their goods and money confiscated. After this setback, those not imprisoned made another attempt, this time with the help of a Dutch captain. The group managed to meet him on the appointed day, but only one boatload of passengers was able to board before a posse of armed villagers came out to capture the rest. Those who managed to get on the boat arrived in Amsterdam, though only after a violent storm at sea. The others gradually made their way over from England one way or another and, according to Bradford, inspired many others by their example.

Analysis

Bradford frames the entire history of Plymouth Colony as a quest for religious liberty. Certainly, the desire to escape persecution by the established church was a major motivator for many of the Plymouth colonists—especially the Pilgrims (called Pilgrims because of their pilgrimage in search of religious freedom) or Separatists, who are discussed in these chapters. From the beginning, however, Plymouth was made up not only of "Saints," as Bradford occasionally called the colonists who followed his religious leanings, but also of "Strangers" who joined the project for economic or personal reasons. Bradford remains privately suspicious, but officially tolerant, of the "Strangers" throughout his time as governor.

Again and again in Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford will explain the colony's policies in terms of a desire to keep the congregation together. At the outset, he expresses some unease about the idea of having two churches, one in Leyden (spelled Leiden in the present day) and one in the New World. This unease will resurface as Plymouth Colony gets underway and brings over one new preacher after another, sometimes threatening to split the congregation apart. Near the end of his record, Bradford's chief complaint will be that the Plymouth church has largely dispersed, as new churches are established in outlying towns. At that point, the colony is a political success, but Bradford worries about its spiritual fate.

Bradford's emphasis on religious unity is not surprising, given the history of the Plymouth Pilgrims. A spectrum of religious opinions, from staunch traditionalism to radical reformism, had emerged in the Reformation's wake. The Separatists themselves, a small group within this spectrum, often suffered from disagreements. What kinds of reforms were necessary? How much reform was enough? Which traditional practices should be kept and which ones discarded?

Even before they left for North America, the congregation witnessed the departure or defection of some members, including a few early leaders. For Bradford, such losses were tragic because they undermined the image—as he believed it to be—of the true followers of Jesus. Whatever made the Pilgrims look bad made Christ and the Gospel look bad, too. This desire to project a positive image to the world is a main driver of Bradford's political and economic policies.

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