Of Plymouth Plantation | Study Guide

William Bradford

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Of Plymouth Plantation | Book 1, Chapters 5–6 | Summary



Book 1, Chapter 5

Once the Separatists decided to leave Europe, they considered a variety of possible destinations. Guiana was ruled out as too warm and too close to the colonies of England's European rivals. Virginia—meaning the extensive territory of the Virginia Company—was more promising, though the Separatists worried that settling in an established colony would threaten their religious liberty. Agents of the Virginia Company promised the Separatists would be granted religious freedom, but no one could offer an official guarantee.

Seeing no better option, the Separatists sent two agents, Robert Cushman and John Carver, to negotiate with the Virginia Company. Letters in this chapter show the Separatists' efforts to explain the basis of their religious beliefs in a way that would be palatable to King James and his counselors. After some wrangling over details of religious practice and leadership, the Separatists made their position clear to their potential sponsors back in England. Soon, however, they found the plans for their voyage further delayed by conflicts within the Company. Finally, after years of negotiation, they received official authorization to settle in Virginia. Encouraged by this development, the Separatists began preparing for the voyage.

Book 1, Chapter 6

This chapter mainly concerns the agreement between the Separatists in Leyden and the London investors. Believing their departure to be imminent, the Separatists selected passengers for the first ship, with the rest to follow "as soon as they could." London merchant, Thomas Weston, a new arrival in Leyden, agreed to help with supplies and transportation. After some further debate, the Separatists chose to settle in New England, a portion of North America "wholly separated" from the oversight of the Virginia Company.

Soon, however, new disagreements surfaced over the terms of the contract between the Separatists and their backers. In London, Separatist agent Robert Cushman agreed—rashly, in Bradford's view—to different conditions from those stipulated in Leyden. According to the original conditions, the colonists would work the communal lands for most of the week, with two days off to tend their own houses and gardens. Cushman approved a modified contract that omitted this provision. Bradford includes a series of letters that provide details of the resultant dispute.


In attracting official support—or at least official noninterference—for their project, the Separatists had to walk a fine line. King James I, who ruled England from 1603 onward, was nominally tolerant of different Christian traditions within his kingdom. In fact, until the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 forced his hand, James refused even to enforce existing penal laws against Roman Catholics. He was, however, firmly opposed to the Puritans—including the Separatists—on one point: they wished to abolish the hierarchy of bishops who governed the Church of England. "No bishop, no king," he observed at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, underscoring the strong connection he saw between the episcopal hierarchy and his own control of the kingdom.

In operating under such a king, the Separatists naturally played up the ways in which they conformed to established traditions. They cited the many similarities between their own teachings and those of the Reformed Churches popular in James's native Scotland. When possible, they emphasized their orthodoxy and avoided stirring up controversy, even though certain aspects of the established church were abhorrent to Bradford and his followers. The hierarchy of bishops, in particular, was something they rejected in favor of local church self-governance. Moreover, Bradford and the others made it clear that they would remain loyal subjects of the Crown and that their religious separatism would not give rise to political sedition. The Mayflower Compact—the 1620 document in which the New Plymouth colonists established their own form of government—contains an explicit pledge of loyalty to the king.

Economic support was also important. In the early 17th century, few colonial ventures were underway in North America, and investors were actively seeking new colonists to establish settlements there. The Leyden Separatists initially sought the help of the Virginia Company, best known, as the name might imply, for its role in establishing the colony of Virginia. Apart from its considerable financial resources, the Company had a royal charter authorizing it to establish colonies throughout a vast area of the North American continent. Ultimately, however, the Separatists decided to settle farther northeast—in what is now New England—so as to retain their religious and governmental independence from the other colonists.

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