Of Plymouth Plantation | Study Guide

William Bradford

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Of Plymouth Plantation | Context


Reformation and Dissent in 16th-Century England

Much of Bradford's history—particularly the opening chapters of Book 1—takes place against the backdrop of the Protestant Reformation, which swept through Europe in the early 16th century. The movement responded to the perceived corruption and rigidity of the Catholic Church hierarchy and led to the establishment of new Christian denominations, including Lutheranism and Presbyterianism. In England, where the Reformation reached its height during the 1530s, the Church of England—which had been fairly established by the 4th century—separated its ties with Rome, and a state religion known as Anglicanism began to emerge. This church acknowledged the English monarch—not the Pope—as its head and preserved its own hierarchy of bishops. In many respects, however, its liturgy, theology, and organization mirrored those of the Roman Catholic Church. The differences were set down in 1534 when King Henry VIII implemented two laws defining the Church. First, the Act of Succession validated Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn, both of which the Pope had disapproved. Second, the Act of Supremacy formalized the king's position as head of the English Church.

These acts, however, were not England's last word on the matter. Henry proceeded to seize monasteries and other former Church possessions in the late 1530s (the Dissolution of the Monasteries). Toward the end of his reign, the doctrines and practices of Catholicism came under attack along with its remaining clergy. The relative religious unity achieved under Henry was threatened under his young son and successor, Edward VI (reigned 1547–53). His ministers' attempts to establish a uniform doctrine for the Anglican Church led to a result that was too reformist for the Catholics and too conservative for the Protestants. Catholicism underwent resurgence under Mary Tudor (r. 1553–58), who was also known as Mary I or Bloody Mary. But Anglicanism returned in full force under her successor Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603). Elizabeth's moderate reforms, known as the Elizabethan religious settlement, were accepted by many and formed one pillar of her long and stable reign. The settlement was rejected, however, by the Puritans, who felt the Anglican Church had not gone far enough in "purifying" itself of Catholic doctrines and practices.

When James I acceded to the English throne in 1603, he was almost immediately drawn into the continuing debate over religious reform. A group of Puritan ministers, supposedly 1,000 in number, presented him with the Millenary Petition, which called for an end to various practices considered holdovers from Catholicism. In response, James met with both Anglican bishops and Puritan leaders at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604. There he affirmed the need for a new English edition of the Bible (today called the King James Version). However, he flatly denied most of the Puritans' other requests, both large and small. In particular, he staunchly refused to reform the church hierarchy in any way that would take authority away from bishops and give it to local leaders, such as pastors and elders. Disappointed in their king, some Puritans became Separatists, seeking to become as independent as possible from the mainstream Anglican Church. It is to this group—sometimes tolerated, often oppressed—that Bradford and his fellow Pilgrims belonged.

Origins of Plymouth Colony

Of Plymouth Plantation takes the form of annals: year-by-year records of events, with dates given in place of chapter numbers or titles. The broader historical arc of New Plymouth's history can be difficult to pick out against the annual details of the colony's trade, agriculture, and finances. The basic story is well known: in the autumn of 1620 a group of 102 passengers sailed aboard the Mayflower from Plymouth, England, to Cape Cod in present-day Massachusetts. Their arrival in November of that year marked the establishment of the second permanent English settlement in the New World—and the first in New England. The Separatists, with William Bradford and William Brewster (1566/1567–1644) among their leaders, were a minority among these passengers and are known as the Pilgrims or the Saints. The rest were the so-called—by the Pilgrims—"Strangers" who came to North America seeking profit and personal freedom. A crew of about 30 sailors manned the ship.

The colonists, Saints and Strangers alike, had planned to settle in the northern reaches of Virginia—a territory that then included modern-day New Jersey and New York. The site they favored, which was on the Hudson River in present-day New York, would keep them far enough from the established colony at Jamestown, so they could retain their independence. Yet when they reached the shores of North America in November, the Mayflower crew was short on supplies, and the approaching winter made navigation difficult. They briefly struck out from Cape Cod in hopes of arriving farther south along the coast but were driven back by poor weather. They eventually resigned themselves to landing—and settling—in present-day Massachusetts, much farther north than intended. With food running low and tempers running high, the colonists realized they would need to set down fundamental laws and a form of government. They did so in the Mayflower Compact, an agreement signed by 41 of the adult male passengers while the Mayflower was still at anchor. The ship and its crew remained until the spring, forced by sickness to spend the winter on the North American coast.

The story of the New Plymouth Colony plays an outsize role in American history for multiple reasons. One is the democratic ideal expressed in the Mayflower Compact, which describes a system of majority rule and elected leadership. Another is the Pilgrims' status as religious refugees, which resonated with later popular depictions of America as a land of freedom and opportunity. New Plymouth lasted for about 70 years before its absorption into the neighboring Massachusetts Bay Colony, but its place in the lore of the early United States remains secure. Of Plymouth Plantation is valuable as a firsthand account of the colony's establishment and growth in the face of tremendous difficulties.

Bradford's Manuscript

Bradford's original handwritten chronicles had an interesting afterlife. Some time after Bradford's death, they were brought to Boston, where they were eventually stored at the Old South Meeting House (built 1729). The building was originally constructed as a Puritan place of worship, but it later became a notable site of revolutionary activity: in December 1773, thousands of disgruntled colonists gathered there to plan and execute the Boston Tea Party. Because of its symbolic status, Old South was targeted by British troops during their occupation of Boston in 1775. They ransacked the meetinghouse and transformed it into a place for practicing horsemanship, which included a bar for spectators. By the time Old South was returned to its congregation, the Bradford manuscript had been transported to England. To this day, no one is certain exactly how or when Of Plymouth Plantation was brought over the Atlantic.

For roughly the next 70 years, the manuscript lay in obscurity, its whereabouts known only to a few. In 1844 Anglican bishop Samuel Wilberforce quoted from the work in his History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America. This citation brought Bradford's manuscript to the attention of historians on both sides of the Atlantic. After the original was discovered in the Fulham Palace library in London, Americans made numerous requests for its return to the United States. For decades these pleas were ignored, but in 1897, a group of New England historians won the ear of Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury. Acting on the authority of an ecclesiastical court in London, he ordered that Of Plymouth Plantation be returned. The document was placed in the care of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and entrusted to the State Library for safekeeping. Since then, multiple print versions of the text have been produced, with the first major edition appearing in 1912. The version used in this guide, like several other editions designed for classroom use, is a modern English rendering by Harold Paget.

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