Of Plymouth Plantation | Study Guide

William Bradford

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Of Plymouth Plantation | Main Ideas


A Sacred Mission to the New World

From the start, Bradford and other Pilgrims saw their migration to New Plymouth as the fulfillment of a sacred calling. They believed they would be able to spread the Gospel, establish a haven of religious freedom for others of their persuasion, and convert Native Americans to Christianity. Of Plymouth Plantation expresses that belief in both its style and contents. The chronicle is punctuated by exhortations to readers, encouraging them to see God's hand in everything that happened in the new colony. In Book 1, Chapter 9, for instance, Bradford stops to marvel at the huge odds the Pilgrims faced:

What, then, could now sustain them but the spirit of God, and His grace? Ought not the children of their fathers rightly to say: Our fathers were Englishmen who came over the great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice, and looked on their adversity.

Of Plymouth Plantation is also replete with quotations from Scripture, which Bradford uses to underscore further the seemingly miraculous aspects of the colony's survival, growth, and eventual prosperity. Bradford also uses Bible quotations to assert the piety and orthodoxy of the Separatist church. As he and the other Separatists well knew, the established church back in England saw any deviations from the religious mainstream as suspect at best, heretical at worst. Thus, in his own report Bradford makes a continuous effort to show that the New Plymouth settlers behaved in line with Biblical precedents. Their modes of worship might not have matched those of the Anglican Church back home, but they were—at least in Bradford's interpretation—consistent with Scripture.

Despite Bradford's attentiveness to defending Separatist beliefs and practices, his religious vision for Plymouth Colony frequently put him at odds with others outside his church. At times he argued with the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose own brand of Puritanism was stricter and more demanding of conformity. The New Plymouth leaders also found themselves in trouble when they visited England and had to defend the colony against various accusations. Their enemies within the Anglican Church produced letters and personal testimony claiming, in sometimes blatantly slanderous ways, that New Plymouth was a chaotic and irreligious place. Bradford, Edward Winslow, and others had to answer these charges in order to protect the colony from being seized by pro-Anglican, anti-Puritan officials.

In practice, the spread of Christianity in New England was really the spread of Christian colonists. No wholesale conversion of Native Americans took place under Bradford's watch—and certainly nothing to compare with Spanish efforts to spread Catholicism in Latin America during the same period. Rather, New England became a predominantly Christian region because populations who already professed Christianity flourished, while populations that practiced indigenous religions were sharply reduced by disease and war.

An Ideological Middle Ground

In terms of religious and personal freedom, New Plymouth Colony was neither the most tolerant nor the most repressive of the early New England colonies. Like their neighbors at Massachusetts Bay, ties of religious identity brought many New Plymouth settlers together. The core of New Plymouth society consisted of Separatists like Bradford who had been part of the same congregation back in Leyden. Massachusetts Bay, likewise, was populated and governed largely by non-Separatist Puritans who styled themselves as the "Holy Commonwealth of Massachusetts." At New Plymouth, however, Strangers—private settlers who were not members of the Separatist church—were given substantial political rights and personal freedom. For example, Myles Standish, leader of the colony's militia, never joined the Separatist congregation. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Massachusetts was Rhode Island, founded in 1638 as a haven for religious dissenters. There, freedom of religion was a bedrock principle, attracting Quakers, Baptists, and others who would never have been welcomed at Massachusetts Bay.

The administration of law and justice at New Plymouth likewise followed a middle course. In principle, neither New Plymouth nor Massachusetts Bay recognized a consistent distinction between church and state, but in practice, the New Plymouth legal system was slow to punish people for purely religious offenses. At Massachusetts Bay, however, perceived crimes against God were prosecuted just as vigorously as crimes with human victims. Failing to keep the Sabbath was a crime in Massachusetts, as were swearing oaths, disrespecting one's parents, and other "thou shalt nots" from the Ten Commandments. To question the colonial government's authority in these matters was to court banishment, as Roger Williams did when he lived there during the 1630s. At New Plymouth, too, Williams had been a controversial figure, but his opinions were not seen as seditious (defying authority), let alone criminal. Bradford, in fact, praises Williams as "a godly and zealous man," despite their religious and political disagreements.

In later years, Massachusetts Bay would become infamous for two strings of religiously motivated executions. From 1659–61 the "Boston Martyrs," or "Quaker Martyrs"—four members of what is now called the Society of Friends—were hanged for refusing to recant their religious beliefs. Several others were whipped or mutilated to discourage them from preaching or were banished from the colony altogether. The entire affair became so infamous back in England that King Charles II passed an emergency statute preventing the colony from executing any more Quakers. Three decades later, at Salem (another Massachusetts settlement), an even more lurid, or horrific, episode played out: the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, in which 19 colonists were executed for their alleged dealings with the devil. Contrast that with New Plymouth, where five colonists were executed during the period covered in Of Plymouth Plantation, four of them for murder. Religious dissenters may have been unpopular at Plymouth, but they never faced the gallows for their beliefs.

Mutual Defense Unites the Colonies for the First Time

The last decade or so of Bradford's chronicles witnesses several attempts to bring the colonies together for mutual defense against hostile forces. The French raided English trading posts, the Dutch tried to block development, and alliances with Native American groups proved more tenuous than once hoped. Though these factors might have been expected to draw the English colonies together sooner, the first lasting "supra-colonial organization" was formed only in 1643. This was the United Colonies of New England, also known as the New England Confederation. Its aims included the formation of a coordinated militia and a legal means of resolving intercolonial disputes. The Confederation had its first military success in the 1645 conflict between the Narragansetts and the Mohegans, in which a show of force was sufficient to prevent further hostilities. This was followed by a decades-long lull in large-scale armed conflicts, during which time the Confederation had little influence on colonial politics. The United Colonies banded together once more in the Great Narragansett War (1675–76), fielding a large and well-coordinated militia.

Because its decisions were not binding, the New England Confederation had limited practical successes outside of warfare. The populous and politically prominent Massachusetts Bay Colony tended to take the lead in intercolonial negotiations, with other colonies often forced to comply to its wishes. Nonetheless, the New England Confederation is historically significant as the first formal attempt to unite a group of English colonies into a larger political entity. In this light, the Confederation has sometimes been described as an ancestor of the Continental Congress and thus of the United States.

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