Thursday, March 19, 2020

Ye firme and stable earth

‘Being thus arived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees & blessed ye God of heaven, who had brought them over ye vast & furious ocean, and delivered them from all ye periles & miseries therof, againe to set their feete on ye firme and stable earth, their proper elemente.’ This from the famous journal kept by William Bradford, he who sailed on the Mayflower with other pilgrims to North America, and became the first governor of the new Plymouth Colony. He was baptised 430 years ago today; and this year marks the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower.

William Bradford, born in Austerfield, Yorkshire, to a wealthy farmer, was baptised on 19 March 1590. Both his parents had died by the time he was seven, and he was sent to live with his uncles. Unable to work on their farm because of sickness, he read a lot, and became very familiar with the bible. As a teenager, he came under the influence of reformist religious preachers, such as Richard Clyfton and William Brester. When King James I came to the throne in 1603 and attempted to suppress criticism of the Church of England, the reformists continued to meet in secret. Some of them, however, were arrested in 1607, while others determined to leave England - unlawfully. 

In Amsterdam, then in Leiden, Bradford was taken in by the Brewster household, but in 1611, when he turned 21, he was able to take up his inheritance. He bought a house, set up as a weaver, and earned himself some standing in the community. He married Dorothy May, and in 1617 they had their first child. Although, the emigrants from England had been free to worship how they pleased, they were worried about their children being over-assimilated into Dutch culture. They began planning to travel to North America to set up a new colony, and for three years negotiated with financial backers and with the English authorities seeking permission to settle in the northern parts of the Colony of Virginia. Some 100 passengers set sail from Plymouth on the Mayflower in September 1620 (later this year will mark the voyage’s 400th anniversary - see here for the many events being planned). After various difficulties, they finally anchored first at Cape Cod harbour - the so-called Mayflower Compact (the first governing document of what would become the Plymouth Colony) was signed that same day - and then at (new) Plymouth. Bradford’s wife, though, had fallen overboard and died before reaching reaching Plymouth.

After a gruelling winter, during which many of the settlers died, including the already chosen governor, Bradford was unanimously elected to be governor. He served nearly 30 years (with a few breaks) from the early 1620s to 1656. As early as 1621, the settlers held (what would later be seen as) a first thanksgiving, a secular harvest feast shared with native Americans. He married the widow Alice Southworth in 1623, and they had three children. Bradford is credited for his handling of judicial matters (land disputes), for establishing institutions, and for his religious tolerance. He died in 1657. Further information is available from Wikipedia,, Evangelical Times,,

Bradford’s journals - if you can call them that - are considered by historians as the preeminent work of 17th century America, and as the most authoritative account of the Pilgrims and the early years of the colony they founded. Bradford contributed to an early 
(1622) published history of the pilgrims: A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England. Although primarily by Edward Winslow, Bradford seems to have written most of the first section. This can be read at Internet Archive.

However, it is thanks to Of Plymouth Plantation (sometimes titled William Bradford’s Journal) that Bradford is best remembered. The journal was written between 1630 and 1651 and describes the story of the pilgrims from their time on the European mainland, through the 1620 Mayflower voyage and the setting up of the colony until the year 1647. The manuscript has a long and rather involved history. Bradford himself made no attempt to publish it, but it was passed down to his grandson and over the years borrowed by historians - see the History of Massachusetts Blog for more details. Then, the manuscript went missing until it was discovered in the Bishop of London’s Library in London in 1855. It was published a year later, and one consequence of this was a sudden interest in the Thanksgiving holiday idea. Another, was that there were calls for the manuscript to be returned to New England, which it was eventually.

Bradford’s journal has since been published under many different titles, and is widely available on internet sites (see Googlebooks, The Plymouth Colony Archive Project, Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg). The original manuscript is held by the State Library of Massachusetts in the State House in Boston. It has 270 pages, is vellum-bound, and measures​ 292 × 197 mm. Most of Brafrord’s text reads as a narrative or history, rather than a journal written day-by-day, and there are no dated entries as would normally be found in a journal. Here is one extract dating from the time of the Mayflower’s arrival in North America.

‘Being thus arived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees & blessed ye God of heaven, who had brought them over ye vast & furious ocean, and delivered them from all ye periles & miseries therof, againe to set their feete on ye firme and stable earth, their proper elemente. And no marvell if they were thus joyefull, seeing wise Seneca was so affected with sailing a few miles on ye coast of his owne Italy; as he affirmed, that he had rather remaine twentie years on his way by land, then pass by sea to any place in a short time; so tedious & dreadfull was ye same unto him.

But hear I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amased at this poore peoples presente condition; and so I thinke will the reader too, when he well considers ye same. Being thus passed ye vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembred by yt which wente before), they had now no freinds to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure. It is recorded in scripture as a mercie to ye apostle & his shipwraked company, yt the barbarians shewed them no smale kindnes in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they mette with them (as after will appeare) were readier to fill their sids full of arrows then otherwise. And for ye season it was winter, and they that know ye winters of yt cuntrie know them to be sharp & violent, & subjecte to cruell & feirce stormes, deangerous to travill to known places, much more to serch an unknown coast. Besids, what could they see but a hidious & desolate wildernes, full of wild beasts & willd men? and what multituds ther might be of them they knew not. Nether could they, as it were, goe up to ye tope of Pisgah, to vew from this willdernes a more goodly cuntrie to feed their hops; for which way soever they turnd their eys (save upward to ye heavens) they could have litle solace or content in respecte of any outward objects. For sum̅er being done, all things stand upon them with a wetherbeaten face; and ye whole countrie, full of woods & thickets, represented a wild & savage heiw. If they looked behind them, ther was ye mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a maine barr & goulfe to seperate them from all ye civill parts of ye world. If it be said they had a ship to sucour them, it is trew; but what heard they daly from ye mr. & company? but yt with speede they should looke out a place with their shallop, wher they would be at some near distance; for ye season was shuch as he would not stirr from thence till a safe harbor was discovered by them wher they would be, and he might goe without danger; and that victells consumed apace, but he must & would keepe sufficient for them selves & their returne. Yea, it was muttered by some, that if they gott not a place in time, they would turne them & their goods ashore & leave them. Let it also be considred what weake hopes of supply & succoure they left behinde them, yt might bear up their minds in this sade condition and trialls they were under; and they could not but be very smale. It is true, indeed, ye affections & love of their brethren at Leyden was cordiall & entire towards them, but they had litle power to help them, or them selves; and how ye case stode betweene them & ye marchants at their coming away, hath allready been declared. What could now sustaine them but the spirite of God & his grace? May not & ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: Our faithers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this willdernes;[AI] but they cried unto ye Lord, and he heard their voyce, and looked on their adversitie, &c. Let them therfore praise ye Lord, because he is good, & his mercies endure for ever. Yea, let them which have been redeemed of ye Lord, shew how he hath delivered them from ye hand of ye oppressour. When they wandered in ye deserte willdernes out of ye way, and found no citie to dwell in, both hungrie, & thirstie, their sowle was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before ye Lord his loving kindnes, and his wonderfull works before ye sons of men.’

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