I am a Christian … so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains … some samples or glimpses of final victory.
— J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter to Amy Ronald, December 15, 1956
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A long defeat. Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation, one of the most celebrated of all true Pilgrims, would have understood this way of looking at human history. He was intimately acquainted with disappointment and failure. He never knew his father. His mother died when he was seven. While still an adolescent he was forced to flee the land of his birth. He lost his young wife to the waves of the North Atlantic. Half of his companions on the Mayflower perished during their first few months in the New World. After enduring all these toils and sorrows, he watched his most deeply cherished dream – the dream of Christian brothers and sisters living together “in a most strict and sacred bond and covenant of the Lord” – wither and fade before his very eyes. But he bore it all with “answerable courage” and unyielding confidence in the faithfulness of God; so that in the end his “defeats” were transformed into something more than mere “glimpses of final victory.” In a very real sense they became “stepping stones unto others” for the performing of a great and enduring work.
Born in the spring of 1590 and baptized on the 19th of March, Will Bradford was raised by two uncles, Robert and Thomas, in the agricultural community of Austerfield, Yorkshire. A long childhood illness proved to be the first of many instances of Divine Providence in his life: unable to work in the fields or play in the town square, Will became an avid reader. Of all the books he read, it was the Bible that most profoundly impacted his thinking.
By the age of twelve the scripturally savvy young Bradford was actively questioning the policies and practices of the state-sanctioned Anglican Church. In pursuit of the ancient purity of the New Testament ekklesia, he joined a small Separatist gathering that met in the home of Elder William Brewster, the Puritan postmaster of Scrooby. When the Scrooby congregation, under the persecution of King James I, made the difficult decision to flee to Holland, eighteen-year-old Will Bradford was among them.
In Holland, the Separatists discovered that religious liberty had a down side: doctrinal disputes, fostered by Amsterdam’s open-minded atmosphere, were destroying Christian unity among the various groups of English Protestants residing there. The Scrooby refugees escaped to Leyden, where they lived in comparative peace for the next eleven years. But rumors of war and concerns about the “liberalizing” effects of Dutch culture eventually compelled them to embark for America, where they hoped to live out their vision of Christian community undisturbed.
The decision to leave Leyden was fraught with pain and stress. Among other things, Bradford and his wife, Dorothy, were forced to concede that their little son John was too young to make the trip. The process of arranging the logistical details was far from simple. But after three years of delays, disappointments, and strained negotiations with potential financiers, the first group of Leyden emigrants finally sailed on the Mayflower on September 6, 1620, under the sponsorship of Thomas Weston, a profit-minded London entrepreneur. Thanks to Weston, the Separatists’ Christian ideals were compromised from the very beginning: at his direction, they were joined by a contingent of fifty “Strangers,” selected by the company for the commercial advantages they could bring to the new colony.
It could have been a recipe for disaster. But during course of the Mayflower’s tempest-tossed 66-day crossing, William Bradford emerged as a leader capable of addressing both groups’ needs and concerns. When the ship landed at Cape Cod, he played a key role in quelling the spirit of division that already threatened the colony’s survival. Together, he and Brewster drew up a “contract” by which Saints and Strangers agreed to “combine themselves together into a civil body politic” with the goal of promoting the glory of God and advancing the Christian faith. The Mayflower Compact, as “the first foundation of their government” in the New World, made every member of the community equally responsible for the welfare of the entire group. As a result, dangerous dissension was averted and Plymouth colony was granted a hopeful beginning.
Their agreement held good throughout the hardships of the first bleak winter. The few settlers who remained healthy during the days of starvation and disease that followed attended tirelessly to the needs of their sick companions. Bradford, whose wife had drowned within six weeks of the Mayflower’s landing, was himself among the ailing. By the end of March, half the company had perished. When John Carver, Plymouth’s first governor, succumbed to the lingering effects of his illness the following spring, the colonists elected Bradford to be his successor. It was a post he would hold for the greater part of the next three decades.
Through the years that followed, Governor Bradford bore the heavy responsibility of managing a relentless barrage of discouraging setbacks and disheartening circumstances, including Weston’s broken promises; fire, famine, and drought; disciplinary problems with “untoward persons;” threats from the hostile Pequots and Narragansetts; trade disputes with the Dutch and French; and, later, border conflicts with the Puritan settlers in Massachusetts Bay. In addition, he and his fellow Pilgrims had to contend with a long list of unsuitable “pastors” – men like the Reverend John Lyford, an English preacher who upon his first arrival in Plymouth appeared to be “made all of love,” but who was eventually implicated in a plot to undermine the Separatists’ plans for a unified and holy Christian commonwealth.
But none of these adversities and obstacles left Bradford as thoroughly cast down in spirit as the unexpected enemy he had to face during the final phase of his career: success. Within two decades of the sufferings of that first harsh winter, Plymouth Plantation was thriving and its inhabitants were growing rich. And the richer they grew, the less they valued the “sacred bond” that had brought them to the New World and preserved them through so many trials. “As their stocks increased,” wrote Bradford, “there was no longer any holding them together … Those that had lived so long together in Christian and comfortable fellowship must now part and suffer many divisions … This I fear will be the ruin of New England, at least of the churches of God there … ”[i] In many respects, his words proved tragically prophetic. In a short time, as he tells us, “wickedness” of the most unspeakable sort was breaking forth among the people: theft, murder, adultery, sodomy, and even bestiality.
From a certain perspective, the story of Plymouth Plantation is the story of America in a nutshell. It brings to mind the stern words of Puritan divine John Owen, penned in England some thirty years after these ironic events: “Prosperity hath slain the foolish and wounded the wise.”[ii]
But in another sense, it’s vital to remember that the tale doesn’t end here. For these disheartening developments, both past and present, are part of a bigger picture – episodes in an ongoing narrative that is still being written. Bradford, says biographer Gary Schmidt, did not realize that he had left the world “a great account not only of the planting of a colony, but of God’s loving and providential care of a people who had tried to carry out a vision that they had found in the Scriptures. Bradford thought he had failed in this vision; he did not understand how much he had succeeded.”[iii] His vision is still worth pursuing today.
William Bradford spent his final years in quiet retirement, writing poetry, reading Greek and Latin, and learning Hebrew. He died May 8, 1657, “lamented by all the colonies of New England as a common Blessing and Father to them all.”[iv]
[i] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 (New York: Modern Library College Editions, 1981), 281-283.
[ii] John Owen, “Of Temptation,” in The Works of John Owen, vol. VI, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 112.
[iii] Gary D. Schmidt, William Bradford: Plymouth’s Faithful Pilgrim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 1999), 182.
[iv] Rev. Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, 1702.