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The life and legacy of William Bradford (1590-1657)

March 2017 | by Ben Wilkerson

Puritanism has never been a popular ideology for most modern Westerners. Mention the word ‘Puritan’ or ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ to any American and the image comes to mind of a dour, black-garbed, Bible-thumping man. At best, someone might recall it was the Puritans that first made a substantial settlement in New England. 

J. I. Packer describes this negative connotation best in his book Quest for godliness: ‘“Puritan” as a name was, in fact, mud from the start. Coined in the early 1560s, it was always a satirical smear word, implying peevishness, censoriousness, conceit and a measure of hypocrisy, over and above its basic implication of religiously motivated discontent with what was seen as Elizabeth’s Laodicean and compromising Church of England’.

However, as both history and Packer beautifully tell us, the Puritans were anything but the aforementioned stereotype. In fact, Americans owe much to the Puritans, for it was their values of individualism, work, education, and democracy that still influence and define Americans to this day.

Pilgrim Fathers

Puritans first arrived in the American Colonies on 21 November 1620 near what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. Their journey to the New World was long and hard, having faced persecution in England, exile in the Netherlands, and the hard rigours of life on the sea.

Among those who survived the long wintry passage was a man by the name of William Bradford. Although he was not a principal leader of the Pilgrims at the time, he would have a tremendous impact in the new colony and American history through his writings and governorship.

William Bradford was baptised circa March 1590, born to William and Alice Bradford, relatively wealthy landowners near Austerfield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. By the time William was seven, both his parents had died and he was left to the care of relatives.

The defining moment of his life occurred when he stumbled in on a church service in the village of Scrooby, at about the age of 12. He was shocked by the lack of Anglican rituals and the intensity of the fellowship that they shared. He continued to attend throughout his youth and had become a member of the church by the time he was 17.

At that time, his fellow congregants, known as Separatists, desired to reform the Church of England by completely withdrawing from it. This was a dangerous idea; Separatist leaders were often arrested and imprisoned for such sedition. But Bradford was committed to this reformation and was even fined for his beliefs.

As King James I desired to have the entire congregation imprisoned, Bradford and his Separatist brethren escaped to Amsterdam. He remained in the Netherlands for 12 years, marrying Dorothy May and working as a fustian weaver.

Even though they were relatively safe from the long arm of King James, the Separatists from Scrooby were not altogether welcome in the Netherlands and found life hard and conditions poor. It was at the end of this 12-year period that Bradford and some of the other leaders began planning to embark on a journey to the New World.

Indeed, Bradford was central to this decision and process of planning. If it was not for his financial and logistical input, the Pilgrims would never have come to America. Dorothy Kelso in her biographical account of Bradford writes: ‘Bradford, now 30 years old and married with a young son, was in the thick of the planning.

‘Government permissions, financing, ship hire and provisioning, and a potentially dangerous first stop in England had to be worked out. There were heartaches as well; not everybody could go. The majority of the congregation remained in Holland and with them remained their dearly loved Pastor Robinson’ (Beyond the Pilgrim story, ‘William Bradford’).

Fledgling colony

Originally there were two ships, the Mayflower and Speedwell, but after putting out to sea, the Speedwell was found to not be structurally sound for the long Atlantic voyage. They sailed from Plymouth, England, on 16 September 1620 with 102 souls on board, and after 65 days of sailing sighted the Massachusetts coast.

Their first year in their new ‘Plymouth Colony’ was fraught with disease and death (half the original party died). During that time, William Bradford became the governor of the fledgling colony and helped unite them through their hardships.

By autumn 1621, they had gained new colonists and had a successful harvest. With a joyful celebration the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving. Bradford continued to serve (off and on) as governor of the colony for 34 years, until his death in 1657.

His journal Of Plymouth plantation describes their struggles and triumphs as a colony and is a wonderful source of information about the Pilgrim Fathers. It is a wonderful piece of historic literature. However, his greatest legacy was penned just upon arriving at the New World.

Before landing, the men of the Mayflower wrote and signed a contract called the Mayflower Compact. Brief but concise, The compact stated:

‘In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are under-written, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.

‘Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honour of our King and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

‘In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the eleventh of November [New Style, November 21], in the year of the reign of our sovereign lord, King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620.’

American democracy

This historic document marks one of the fundamental beginnings of American ideals and politics. Ning Kang in his article on Puritan values states: ‘The early Puritanism played a key role in the establishment of American democratic regime. In fact, the Mayflower Compact of 1620 led to the birth of early American democracy.

‘The compact was signed on 11 November 1620 on board the Mayflower. It attempted to establish a temporary government, until a more official one could be drawn up in England that would give them the right to self-govern themselves in New England. Afterwards the “popular sovereignty” concept began spreading among other colonies’ (Puritanism and its impact upon American values, p.150).

Although the idea of popular sovereignty became more widely embraced in the politics of the 1850s, this doctrine was embedded in the minds of the Puritans as they came to the New World.

Being largely congregational in their church polity, their style of church governance was designed for the affairs of a church to be governed locally by its own congregation and elders (as opposed to Anglican polity, which is hierarchical).

This style of polity was also manifested in the way they governed secular matters. They erected a meetinghouse within their first months of being in the colony, from which they worshipped and met to govern the colony.

Social contract

Town Hall meetings continue to this day all over the United States. This philosophy of governance came out of the social contract school of thought, which was espoused by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and also drew from the writings of the Reformers.

Bradford was one of the principal signers of this compact and helped draft it. It was signed by the men from the Mayflower, but, strangely, the original copy cannot be found.

In God’s providence, Bradford copied this compact and included it in his journal Of Plymouth plantation, where it is the only extant copy.

This document influenced similar covenants among New England colonies. By the time of the American Revolution, colonists had an inherent belief in the idea of popular sovereignty.

This was so fixed in their minds that one of them would write this well known statement: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consents of the governed’ (The Declaration of Independence).

Those words echoed the Puritans and gave birth to a new nation. Therefore, Americans have a great reason to thank the Puritans, especially William Bradford.

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA.

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