The central theme of Governor William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation is Christianity—in particular, the English Separatist interpretation of Christianity that, in recent times, is usually referred to as Puritanism (although Bradford considers this term insulting.) Following the rise of a distinctly English (i.e., Anglican) church during the reign of Henry VIII, England began to move away from Catholic ritual and organization, toward a more overtly Protestant set of values, emphasizing simplicity, humility, and hard work. There were some who believed that England hadn’t gone far enough in reforming its church practices—i.e., that its religion should be even simpler and sparer. Some of these “reformers” (as Bradford calls them) splintered off and formed their own congregations, first in Northern England, then in Holland, and finally in North America. Over the course of the book, Bradford implicitly shows that the reformers’ faith was vital in bringing them together as one group, inspiring them to migrate to new places, and compelling them to make material sacrifices and work hard for the good of their colony.
The Christian reformers’ unique interpretation of Christianity, stressing simplicity and the absence of elaborate church hierarchies, inspired them to come together and, later, to leave England. The reform movement originated in Northern England, largely because of the preaching of a small handful of reverends, such as John Smith and Richard Clifton. Smith and Clifton’s sermons stressed that their congregants were united by a common set of beliefs, and that—just as importantly—they were fundamentally different from other Christians in England, who supported more elaborate rituals and intricate systems of bishops, cardinals, and other prelates. Religion didn’t just give the North English reformers a common identity—it galvanized them into taking action. The reformers believed whole-heartedly that their interpretation of Christianity was the right one, and, furthermore, that their highest priority in life was to practice Christianity to the best of their abilities. In order to practice their interpretation of religion (and, by the same token, escape religious persecution because of this interpretation), Smith and Clifton successfully organized a massive migration from England to Holland where, supposedly, there was more religious freedom. Later on, reform figures such as William Brewster were able to convince their followers to migrate once more to America. In the 1600s, voyaging to America must have been a terrifying idea: there was almost no European civilization there, and it was well known that many people died of starvation and disease, either when they reached America or during the voyage. The fact that so many English reformers agreed to migrate to America illustrates the strength of their faith—they valued their beliefs so highly that they were willing to risk their lives to find a place to worship freely.
But it’s not just that Christianity inspired the Pilgrims to journey to America—as numerous historians have argued, the specific tenets of Puritanism also helped the Pilgrims to form a successful colony in New England, to a degree that, arguably, other religion sects would not have achieved. As the sociologist Max Weber argued in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the Pilgrims’ religion emphasis on hard work, frugality, and—crucially—individual responsibility—positioned them for success in the New World. Because of their beliefs, the Pilgrims were willing to sacrifice material comforts and even glorify the lack of these comforts. The Pilgrims were especially willing to work hard instead of relying on other people, as their faith taught them that God would hold them individually accountable for their actions. Indeed, William Bradford notes that the Plymouth Plantation began to thrive after he divided up the farmland into smaller plots, encouraging each family to provide for itself and do its fair share of the work. By encouraging people to work hard and be responsible for their own property, the Puritan ethos not only contributed to the success of the Plymouth Plantation; it laid much of the groundwork for the rise of American capitalism (another ideology rooted in hard work and individual responsibility). It’s obvious on almost every page of Of Plymouth Plantation that religion exerted a profound influence on the lives of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation. Religion didn’t just encourage them to join together and travel to America—their faith helped them to thrive where many other colonies had failed.
Christianity Quotes in Of Plymouth Plantation
I must begin at the very root and rise of it; and this I shall endeavor to do in a plain style and with singular regard to the truth, at least as near as my slender judgment can attain to it.
But still more lamentable, and of all sorrows most heavy to be borne, was that many of the children, influenced by these conditions, and the great licentiousness of the young people of the country and the many temptations of the city were led by evil example into dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks and leaving their parents.
My object is that their children may see with what difficulties their fathers had to wrestle in accomplishing the first beginning; and how God ultimately brought them through, notwithstanding all their weakness and infirmities; also that some use may be made of them later, by others, in similar important projects.
It pleased God, before they came half seas over, to smite the young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first to be thrown overboard. Thus his curses fell upon his own head, which astonished all his mates for they saw it was the just hand of God upon him.
Thus it pleased God to vanquish their enemies, and give them deliverance; and by His special providence so to dispose that not one of them was hit, though the arrows came close to them, on every side, and some of their coats which were hung up in the barricade were shot through and through. Afterwards they gave God solemn thanks and praise for their deliverance, and gathered up a bundle of the arrows, and later sent them to England by the captain of the ship. They called the place "The First Encounter."
So he went with the rest, and left them; but on returning from work at noon he found them at play in the street, some pitching the bar, some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their games, and told them that it was against his conscience that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of the day a matter of devotion, let them remain in their houses; but there should be no gaming and reveling in the streets.
This was the end of those who at one time boasted of their strength—all able, healthy men—and what they would do in comparison with the people here, who had many women and children and weak ones among them and who had said, on their first arrival, when they saw the want here, that they would take a very different course and not to fall into any such condition as these simple people had come to. But a man’s way is not in his own hands.
The failure of this experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men, proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times, that the taking away of private property and the possession of it in community by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For in this instance, community of property (so far as it went) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort.
While we ourselves are ready to take every opportunity to further so hopeful an enterprise, it must rest with you to put it on its feet again. And whatever else may be said, let your honesty and conscience remain approved, and lose no jot of your innocence amidst your crosses and afflictions; and surely if you behave yourselves wisely and go on fairly, you will need no other weapon to wound your adversaries; for when your righteousness is revealed as the light, they, who have causelessly sought your overthrow, shall cover their faces with shame.
Hitherto Mr. Allerton had done them good and faithful service: would that he had so continued.
How many Dutch and English have lately been killed by Indians, thus furnished; and no remedy is provided—nay, the evil has increased. The blood of their brothers has been sold for profit; and in what danger all these colonies are is too well-known.
Thus out of small beginnings greater things have grown by His hand, Who made all things out of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light enkindled here has shone to many…
I shall leave the matter, and desire the Lord to show him his errors and return him to the way of truth, and give him a settled judgment and constancy therein; for I hope he belongs to the Lord and that He will show him mercy.
Notice was given a month beforehand, viz.: to Massachusetts, Salem, Piscataqua, and others, requesting them to produce any evidence they could in the case. The place of meeting was Boston. But when the day came, there only appeared some of the magistrates and ministers of Massachusetts and of New Plymouth. As none had come from Piscataqua or other places, Mr. Winthrop and the others said they could do no more than they had done, and the blame must rest with them.
Some of the more ignorant colonists objected that an Englishman should be put to death for an Indian. So at last the murderers were brought home from the Island, and after being tried, and the evidence produced, they all in the end freely confessed to all the Indian had accused them of and that they had done it in the manner described. So they were condemned by the jury, and executed. Some of the Narragansett Indians and the murdered man's friends, were present when it was done, which gave them and all the country satisfaction. But it was a matter of much sadness to them here, as it was the second execution since they came,—both being for willful murder.
Now, blessed be God, times are so much changed here that I hope to see many of you return to your native country again, and have such freedom and liberty as the word of God prescribes.
I cannot but take occasion here to wonder at the marvelous providence of God, that, notwithstanding the many changes these people went through, and the many enemies they had, and the difficulties they met with, so many of them should live to very old age. It was not only their reverend elder—for one swallow makes no summer, as they say—but many more of them, some dying about and before this time, and some still living, who reached sixty or sixty-five years of age, others seventy and over, and some nearly eighty as he was. It must needs be accounted for by more than natural reasons…
The said United Colonies, for themselves and their posterity jointly and severally, hereby enter into a firm and perpetual league of friendship and amity for offence and defense, mutual advice and succor, upon all just occasions, both for preserving and propagating the truth of the Gospel, and for their own mutual safety and welfare.