A month or so ago, I watched the American Experience episode on the Pilgrims. The episode was surprisingly well done, thoughtful, and fair. The episode spurred my appetite, so I purchased the Modern Library College Edition of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647. I am increasingly fascinated with the Pilgrims and the Puritans. Though I have read much about the Pilgrims and the Puritans, I have not read nearly enough of the original sources.
Of Plymouth Plantation is rightly praised as good literature. You must get used to words like “sundry” and “victuals,” but one’s efforts are richly rewarded. Additionally, Bradford’s historical context was a spectacular Reformed golden age. Many historical currents came together at the right time to produce the Plymouth Plantation. As a Christian perched on the Reformed branch of the tree that is the universal church, I find myself agreeing with Bradford on many matters of public worship and theology.
Before sailing to the Americas, the separatist congregation moved from England to the Low Countries. The Pilgrims were separatists in every sense. They wanted to keep their congregation completely separate from the state-supported Church of England. The congregation found an acceptable home in Leyden, which happened to be the center of the Arminian/Remonstrant controversy.
Bradford described the controversy: “In these times also were the great troubles raised by the Arminians, who, as they greatly molested the whole state, so this city in particular in which was the chief university; so as there were daily and hot disputes in the schools thereabout.” William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647, (New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 1981), 21.
The Arminian controversy ultimately led to the Synod of Dort, which was held in 1618-19. Bradford, and the rest of the separatist congregation, would have been aware of the proceedings and informed of the debates. It is interesting to think about the lasting continental Reformed influence on the Pilgrims who were well established in Massachusetts by the time of the Westminster Assembly in the 1640s.
Though we are separated by nearly 400 years, much of Reformed theology and practice is the same now as in Bradford’s day: sermon-centered worship, Psalm singing, pastoral prayer, de-emphasis of holy/feast days, sabbath observance, and the like. This sabbath, Bradford could walk into a Reformed Presbyterian worship service with acapella psalmody and join right in. Reformed worship links modern believers with those who came before us. We are more than flies of a summer.
The Pilgrims’ insistence on scriptural practice extended to civil affairs. As evidence of this, William Bradford, being the governor at the time, performed the first wedding ceremony at Plymouth Plantation. The Governor performed the ceremony because the Pilgrims believed that there was no scriptural basis for a religious wedding ceremony conducted by a minister. Civil marriage was necessary for the orderly distribution of property and the like. Therefore, marriage was a right and proper concern of the civil authority.
Bradford, again as governor, also played no games when it came to Christmas. Bradford colorfully recounted this Christmas controversy.
Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth than of weight. On the day, called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used. But the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it [Christmas] matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.
Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation at 107.
In this account, Bradford is endorsing Reformed doctrine and practice. Though there was a formal separation of things civil and spiritual, both authorities existed to aid in the proper worship of God. Dissenters could believe what they want, but they needed to keep it within their own homes. Note Bradford’s revealing use of the word “openly.”
Thus far, my reflections on Bradford have been very sympathetic, but I must give two very important qualifications. First, Bradford was uncomfortably certain in his interpretation of providence. Whether it is the death of a sailor who heaped insults on the faithful or his descriptions of various dealings with the native tribes, Bradford was quick to assign God’s favor to his own community. This strikes modern ears as strange and wrong.
Second, Bradford clearly did not have full respect for the humanity of the native people. As a product of the 17th century, Bradford’s Eurocentric views are not uniquely loathsome. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t be afraid to note that we have made a lot of progress on this front.
With those qualifications, I can say that reading Bradford is quite profitable. I’m left with a feeling of great awe. I can’t imagine leaving my home first for the Netherlands and then for the new world. The Pilgrims sold their worldly possessions to give the community, not just an individual or a family, a chance to live out their religious convictions together. Half of them died, including Bradford’s wife, over the course of that first winter at Plymouth. That’s a staggering sacrifice.
As the years passed and the original Pilgrims passed into eternity, Plymouth was absorbed by surrounding communities. In his later years, William Bradford fondly recalled the close bonds and sincere devotion of those original faithful ones. You can’t help but sympathetically long for the same.