In 1650, three years after he had ceased to chronicle the happenings at Plymouth
for posterity, and at the age of sixty years, William Bradford took up the study
of Hebrew. In a copy book he listed over a thousand words and a number of common
Hebrew phrases, with their English translations. Scholars have remarked that many
of the words and phrases concern the duties of fathers to their sons. On one page
he paused to explain why, at an advanced age, he had embarked on a new path of
Though I am growne aged, yet I have a longing desire to see, with my owne eyes,
something of that most ancient language, and holy tongue, in which the law and
Oracles of God were written; and in which God and angels spoke to the Holy
Patriarcks of old time; and what names were given to things at the Creation.
For Bradford, learning Hebrew was an act of filial respect. It was an act of
learned devotion with which a son of the Church wished to honor his spiritual
forefathers, "the Holy Patriarcks of old time." It was also Bradford's way of
returning to the origins of Christianity, thus of purifying his faith by seeking a
more direct, unmediated experience of divinity. Rather than English biblical
scriptures translated from the Latin, themselves translated from the Greek and
Hebrew texts, Bradford wanted the originals in that "holy tongue" used to name
things "at the Creation."
Bradford's adventure into Hebrew symbolizes much about his own character and that
of the Separatist colony he governed. For example, if you have already read the
editors' introduction to Bradford (page 164), you will have remarked that he was
practically an orphan. Raised by grandparents and uncles after his father's death,
Bradford was also self-orphaned when, at the age of sixteen, he renounced his
family for membership in the Separatist congregation at Scrooby, Nottinghamshire,
thus to further renounce England and its King when, in 1609, he joined their
migration to Leyden, Holland, in search of religious freedom. The migration to
America he describes in Of Plymouth Plantation culminates a series of
geographical and spiritual migrations. Here then we have one of those defining
moments in American cultural experience: the son renounces real, biological
patriarchy in order to claim another, self-chosen and ideal patriarchy. It is the
definitive experience detailed over and over in American culture: in Benjamin
Franklin's story of leaving his Boston family at age seventeen for a new life in
Philadelphia; or (from our own century) in F. Scott Fitzgerald's story The Great
Gatsby, of a youth who abandoned his North Dakota father for a new,
In the decades after the 1620 migration Bradford began writing Of Plymouth
Plantation in order to explain the public facts of the colonists' choices. The
autobiographical side of his story never enters in, so fully was Bradford's
personal life subordinated to their greater social and spiritual project.
Notably, though, one of Bradford's main purposes in chronicling that project was
to inspire a sense of filial duty in the sons of the original Pilgrim fathers.
Indeed, at one of the most moving points of his narrative, after asking his readers
to "stand half amazed" (page 176) with him in contemplating the severity of the
conditions greeting them in the New World ("savage barbarians" all about, in a
strange wilderness, and winter approaching), Bradford writes (page 177): "May not
and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say, 'Our fathers were
Englishmen who came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this
wilderness, but they cried unto the Lord, and he heard their voice.'" In a broad
sense, then, just as an aging Bradford took up Hebrew to purify his faith at its
origin, so in the late 1640s, when these pages were written, he admonishes the
first generation of American-born settlers that they too should purify their faith
in the American experiment by drinking at its origin, in Bradford's account.
Of Plymouth Plantation documents the ideals driving that experiment. In John
Robinson's letter to the colonists, in the "Mayflower Compact," in the
communalistic society they first established at Plymouth, we have clear expressions
of those ideals. Yet Bradford's text also records the realities that drove those
ideals down. In his accounts of how the colonists abandoned the communalistic
model, of Thomas Morton's disruptive influences, of outbreaks of sexual depravity,
and of how their eventual prosperity moved the Pilgrims to disperse and finally
divide their congregation and leave the church "like an ancient mother grown old
and foresaken of her children" (page 204): in all such details Bradford poignantly
illustrates the fragility of their high ideals.
- William Bradford Of Plymouth Plantation (pp. 164-204).
- Summarize the main reasons Bradford gives for the Pilgrims' migration to
- Read carefully John Robinson's 1620 letter to the Pilgrims (pages 171-74),
written on the eve of their departure for the New World. On what key points
should we compare and contrast it--and perhaps also "The Mayflower Compact"
(pages 181-82)--with John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity"?
- Book 1, Chapter IX, gives a fine example of how Bradford and his colleagues
viewed the workings of divine providence. There, he tells two anecdotes,
one about a "seaman of a lusty, able body" who mocked the Pilgrims but was
himself punished by disease and death, another about a young man named John
Howland who--in time of danger--asked for providential assistance, seemed
to get it, and then became a faithful member of their congregation (see
pages 174-75). What are one or two further examples of this providence at
work, and how does Bradford use them to instruct his readers?
- The Pilgrims' first encounter with Native Americans is violent. How do they
strike a peaceful accord with these seeming "savages"? What developments
threaten that peace, and why?
- Describing the "Horrible Case of Bestiality" from 1642, what causes for and
explanations of this sinful outbreak does Bradford point out?
- Read carefully Bradford's elegiac farewell to Elder Brewster and his
discussion of the "marvelous" longevity of the Pilgrim Fathers
(pages 199-203). Write a few paragraphs summarizing the ethical and
spiritual ideals spotlighted by these pages.