The next task for the reformers is to decide which part of America to sail for. Some propose sailing to Guyana (present-day Venezuela), while others support Virginia. Guyana is said to be fertile and warm, while Virginia has the advantage of already having an English population. Some argue that Guyana will foster disease. Others point out that settling in Virginia, where there are other English settlers, defeats the point of sailing to a new land. In the end, the reformers decide that they will live as a separate colony under the government of Virginia, and that they will try to persuade King James I to allow them to worship in their own way.
In the early 17th century, King James I was in the business of leasing charters (i.e., legal claims to American territory) with the understanding that settlers would journey to America and send back great wealth. However, James had to be sure that these settlers would honor him and respect his authority—so the English reformers were in an awkward position if they wanted to go to Virginia, since they were fleeing the crown’s persecution in the first place.
Two members of the congregation sail to England to negotiate a voyage to America. The Virginia Company is eager for volunteers to sail to America, and in return, it uses some of its connections, including Sir Robert Nanton, to convince the king to allow the reformers to practice their faith. James I consents to allow the reformers to worship in America in their own way, but he refuses to publicly agree to honor their religion. This awkward compromise is the best the Virginia Company can offer the reformers.
Instead of lobbying King James directly, the congregants work through the Virginia Company, a joint-stock venture for which James dispenses the land rights (since, by English law, James technically owned all of England’s land in America). Privately, James doesn’t seem to care how the reformers worship God, but he’s concerned that if he publicly recognizes the reformers’ religion, it’ll create a dangerous precedent.
The English reformers are unsure how to proceed. Some think that King James’ limited support is enough; others fear that his successors might back out of his promise. In the end, the reformers agree that the British crown won’t infringe upon their faith. By 1617, John Robinson and William Brewster receive word that the Virginia Company has arranged an agreement for their congregation. In their negotiations with the Virginia Company, Robinson and Brewster stress their congregants’ diligence and unity.
The reformers take a gamble and decide to cooperate with James, hoping that he won’t back out of his promise to allow them to worship peacefully. Brewster and Robinson essentially go in for a job interview with the Virginia Company, explaining why their congregants would be the best people for the “job” of traveling to America and forming a new plantation.
Bradford provides letters that give an overview of the process by which the reformers negotiated a contract with the Virginia Company. In December 1617, Robinson and Brewster write to Sir John Worstenholme, another important ally of the Virginia Company, to defend their religion from common criticisms. In response to the criticism that their congregants aren’t loyal to the crown, Robinson and Brewster insist that they will take an Oath of Allegiance recognizing the king’s authority over the pope. In response to the criticism that the reformers are unlike other Christians, Robinson and Brewster argue that they are similar to the French Reformed Churches (i.e., the French Protestants).
Bradford likes to include letters in his account of Plymouth’s history, and here he includes the first of many correspondences between the reformers and their English business contacts. Brewster and Robinson continue to stress their congregants’ virtues, implicitly arguing that they’re highly qualified to travel to America and run a plantation in King James’s name. At the time, James demanded that his subjects take an Oath of Allegiance, swearing to defend the king’s honor and recognize his authority.
There are many delays in the negotiation process. One important point of contention is who will lead the Virginia colony when it arrives in America. The company’s preferred candidate, Sir Thomas Smith, is reluctant to be governor. However, he doesn’t approve of the company’s new proposed governor, Sir Edwin Sandys. There’s also a controversy over how many people will be able to travel to America, and when. In 1619, a reformer named Blackwell splits from the congregation and begins supporting the English prelates. He then sails for America along with a small group of followers. Blackwell, according to rumor, makes a huge mistake by packing too many people into the ship, with the result that many die of disease or else starve to death.
Here Bradford describes the first of many complications and delays in the reformers’ relationship with the Virginia businessmen revolving around who the colony’s new leader will be. Notice, also, that Bradford describes the crushing failure of a supposedly immoral, hypocritical man named Blackwell, who sacrifices his religious convictions for the sake of traveling to America. Bradford has a habit of including stories of this kind, which stress that God rewards the virtuous and punishes hypocrites like Blackwell.
In spite of many complications and controversies, the Virginia Company succeeds in obtaining a contract for the Leyden congregants. The Company even obtains a land patent (i.e., legal right to land) for the reformers. However, the patent isn’t taken out in the name of the reformers, but rather in the name of single person, John Pierce, who eventually decides not to go to America at all. Thus the patent is a symbol, Bradford says, of “the uncertain things of this world.”
One of the main purposes of working through an established stock venture like the Virginia Company is that the Company can use its influence to lobby King James for a patent—a legal claim to land, taken out in James’s own name. However, this patent doesn’t prove at all useful to the reformers, reminding Bradford (who then reminds the reader) that even “the best laid plans” of mortals can fail.