Author’s Note: All quotes are from the Modern Library College Edition published in 1981 and originally published in 1856 under the title, History of Plymouth Plantation. My title comes from a poem by Richard Michelson that is the title of his book published in 2015 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
As a résumé of American qualities, there is no book quite as unselfconsciously fulfilling as one of the very earliest—William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, the ur-account of the doings of that legendary band of plain people known as “the Pilgrims.” The story Bradford narrated was, by necessity, curious—the almost unbelievable pressure of external matters, beginning with sheer survival, that contrasted with the internal matters that drove them to such desolate shores, those demands of conscience that seemingly left the Separatists (as they were known) with no choice but to find some elsewhere, beyond England and Holland, where they might worship as they wished to. Happily and unhappily, a continent beckoned.
The facts as presented by Bradford and others are well-known but the experience, the long, fraught voyage and then the moment in November of seeing land and realizing what exigencies faced them, even as they had no idea what they had to do because they had no idea where in any real sense they were, all that feels beyond human reckoning, as if right away the Pilgrims placed themselves in God’s vast, keen perspective, as if another Bible were beginning. Like Israelites, they prayed. They gave thanks but they also needed water, food and shelter. For many during that first winter, the journey meant death in a very unfamiliar place—a “wilderness” peopled by “savages.”
The people on that ship knew what they were leaving behind. The modest comforts of organized society, their refugee life in Holland, however, meant little to a group that craved not just their own church polity but their own world, a true separation, the “pure” in Puritan. Having left their homeland, they already were exiles. Yet no one would label them wanderers on the face of the earth. Movable ideologues would be closer to the mark, people guided by unassailable purposes, people for whom the drama of conscience, their relationship to God, was the prime reality. One is tempted to write “the only reality,” but, as Bradford’s book attests, there were many realities, ranging from finding fresh water to the demands of the nascent venture capitalism that outfitted the ship and created colonies via “patents.” Again, it would seem only God could summon an adequate perspective for all that assailed the Pilgrims, which, in their days of fasting and humiliation as they sought divine guidance, would have made sense to them. They knew they were weak, purblind creatures.
One loses track in reading Bradford how many times he referred to “Providence” and used the phrase “It pleased the Lord.” The Lord’s hand is right there—no distance intervenes—but, as it gives and takes away, the hand is inscrutable. The occasions for invocation varied: foiling an archbishop in England, bringing much-needed rain, blessing the countryside so that cattle prices were high, wasting the Indians “with such a mortality that of a thousand, above nine and a half hundred of them died,” though “by the marvelous goodness and providence of God not one of the English was so much as sick or in the least measure tainted with this disease” and, not ironically because there was no irony in Bradford’s world, giving success to a sachem, Uncas, in a war with another tribe. God played no favorites, however. In 1633 the Separatists were devastated by “an infectious fever of which many fell sick and upwards of twenty persons died, men and women, besides children” but “towards winter it pleased the Lord the sickness ceased.” It also pleased the Lord in that year “to enable them . . . to send home a great quantity of beaver besides paying all their charges and debts at home.”
Faith is an all-purpose instrument. To criticize Bradford as a smarmy casuist would be very wide of the mark. The spirit world, as represented by God’s will, was all too tangible: people died very suddenly. Yet it was thrilling, too, being in a world alive with God’s interventionist spirit, almost like one of those Greek gods looking down at the human fray and occasionally thwarting or aiding some otherwise hapless mortal. Those gods had belonged to the pagans and were swept away by the one God before Whom Bradford stood in proper awe. There is no answer to omnipotence. One might as well evoke what pleased God because a mere predestined person had no choice in the matter. The motto, which Bradford cites, was clear: man proposes, God disposes. The Pilgrims did plenty of proposing as they created their new world but they did plenty of praying, too, beseeching the Lord for guidance. Plymouth was a place of “straitness and barrenness,” a very narrow perch. They needed help, often desperately.
The desperation of the early Pilgrim years comes through powerfully in Bradford’s pages. When a successive group arrived, they were appalled at the shape the original settlers were in: dressed in tatters, thin and woe-begone. Providence did provide, however, in the form of Squanto, the English-speaking Native who befriended the Pilgrims and taught them sundry skills, and in the form of the incredible bounty of the land and sea (though the Pilgrims were no great shakes at fishing). The basis of the trade that kept them afloat were the beavers that they trapped and trapped until—lo and behold—there were fewer beavers. Religiously (no other word will do) Bradford recorded the numbers of pounds of beaver and otter pelts sent to England. Those pelts were money yet the love of money, as Bradford ruefully opined, was the root of all evil.
The “savages” (also known as “barbarians”) had stories and legends about beavers, about how the beaver got its tail and how the beaver once raced with the turtle. Such tales showed the beaver as part of a world in which human beings lived with other creatures, sharing the earth, not standing above as stewards but participating in a whole that was life on Earth. As tribal people, the Natives could be bloody and vengeful, (as the European nations could be bloody and vengeful), but they recognized that each creature was a spirit gift. For the settlers’ part, they trapped the beavers as a means of making some much needed currency. No one was paying them for their religious sentiments.
Bradford’s chronicle is as much devoted to the toils of accounting, of “unjust debts”, bonds and double-dealing, as it is about religion. The Adventurers (as they were called) back in England were speculating on making profits from the New World. The Pilgrims were their partners—sometimes formally and sometimes merely by trust, a trust that was, alas, often mislaid. Time and again, the Pilgrims were fleeced. As Bradford noted of Isaac Allerton, a fellow Pilgrim and something of an operator, “having brought them into the briars, he leaves them to get out as they can.” (There is much proverbial sagacity in Bradford of the sadder and wiser sort.) Many “tedious” pages were devoted to Allerton’s doings and misdoings—and he was only one of many. In the American beginning was the hustle, the con, the cooking of the books: “Concerning Mr. Allerton’s accounts. They were so large and intricate as they could not well understand them, much less examine and correct them without a great deal of time and help and his own presence, which was now hard to get amongst them.”
The Pilgrims persevered. Having made a decision of unyielding proportions, what else could they do? They had the foundation of the Lord and their church to sustain them, although in one of the numerous mischances that accompanied their early years, the ministers who came to them were variously unsatisfactory (one was “half-crazed”) or left of their own accord. The most telling ministerial kerfuffle centered around Charles Chauncy, “a reverend, godly and very learned man” who held that baptism must be total immersion and that “sprinkling was unlawful.” A number of ministers were consulted about this protocol, but Chauncy would not budge. He left the Pilgrims to minister to another congregation where he once again fared poorly but eventually found his niche—President of Harvard College. His case illustrated that what might seem fine points of theology and practice were not fine. Wrongdoing lurked at every Christian step; the Pilgrims were quick to condemn what they considered more radical sects such as the Familists and Anabaptists. Yet in the eyes of the archbishops back in England the Pilgrims, as Separatists from the Church of England, were one more batch of troublemakers whose just reward was prison.
Disputations that centered on the Bible were not uncommon, hence the need for the “learned.” The religion of the Pilgrims was far removed from the testifying emotionalism that came to be associated through camp meetings and revivals with Protestantism in the United States. The Pilgrim conscience was scrupulous, not because some hierarchical authority issued an order but because the Lord demanded it of the individual. A soul was at stake and the individual was responsible for that soul. To be “godly” was to fully heed that responsibility, to answer each question life posed with a religious gist, to make sure that morals coincided with the purity of spiritual intentions. The godly were not holy fools but fools for rectitude, the most sober and deliberate of men and women who had no time for Christmas revels or theaters where plays were enacted. The godly were touched by a direct, divine assurance. They knew what they were about and were not looking for miracles or mystical raptures. When they designated themselves as “Saints,” they spoke to their precious determination not to a process of canonization.
Not everyone on The Mayflower and subsequent ships was godly. There were the Saints (the Separatists) and the Strangers (a slighting yet evocative category), those who left because they wanted a better life, who craved adventure, who were running away from someone or some situation, or who came as a servant or maid. There never was a pure community; there never could be. Instead there was what Bradford termed (quoting from Exodus) “a mixed multitude.” “Many untoward servants” came, “many wicked persons and profane people” and “many unworthy persons who, being come over, crept into one place or other.” Bradford was not bitter but he was appalled. He aimed high; others aimed low or not at all.
The list of wrongdoings was daunting: adultery, fornication between the unmarried (“getting a maid with child”), murder, drunkenness, sodomy and buggery (“things horrible to name”), child rape and bestiality. (Of the last he wrote “Horrible it is to mention but the truth of the history requires it.”) To use Bradford’s all-purpose Biblical word, much “uncleanness” made itself known. Honest man that he was, he asked himself “Why?” Several reasons presented themselves. Firstly, the Devil had it in for the churches that “endeavor to preserve holiness and purity amongst them” and sought to discredit them. Secondly, “wickedness” was “more stopped by strict law” in the Plymouth Colony; when it broke it out, it broke out with “more violence” like a “dammed up” stream. Thirdly, not many people lived there, so when something bad happened it made the news: “made public by due search, inquisition and due punishment, for the churches look narrowly to their members.”
The adverb rings through the centuries. The Pilgrims did not have any use for Shakespeare, merrymaking, sexual passion or paintings in churches, to name four domains, though sexual passion reared its unruly head while the various Strangers among the Pilgrims, most famously Thomas Morton, went in for quite a bit of merrymaking. What fascinates about the Pilgrim point of view is how far they were willing to go (another continent) to make themselves and their religion safe from others, not just to avoid persecution but to create a world unto itself, not a Utopia but a workaday world of workaday people intent on preserving “holiness and purity.” Plymouth was a social experiment of a religious nature.
Like many a group, the Pilgrims sought a moral ruler with absolute measurements. Yet they were faced with the freedom Protestantism encouraged: give me a Bible and I will create a church. I exaggerate but only slightly. The Pilgrims, after all, stemmed in part from the preaching of one Robert Browne who denied the right of civil authority to interfere with a church. The Protestant attitude, the openness to all comers (a “cow keeper” could be an elder), made the assumption of “holiness and purity” all the more challenging. How could spirit infuse morals and what spirit was at work? The Devil had his spirit; sheer enthusiasm was to be distrusted.
Terrible perplexities were never far away; inevitably, the hopes for a sort of perfectionism faded. What was left was the notion of religious ideals. This, too, rings through the centuries. What became the United States was unequivocally a Christian nation whose belief in God wound up being proclaimed on its money. What apter avowal could there be? I suspect the Pilgrims, intent as they were on creating a New Testament, primitive church, would have been appalled. A godly merchant would seem to be a contradiction in terms, but the drift of the American experience—the better part of a continent there to plunder—was to allow the merchant to have his share of church-attending holiness, to say nothing of helping to pay the minister’s salary. The fervor that led the Pilgrims to the wilderness resulted in an unsettling degree of abstraction: meaningful religion apologizing to pointless wealth. The Christian nation came to exist in a permanently contradictory haze, cocksure and anxious as the next financial venture, prone to panics and depressions yet resolute in its religiosity.
Bradford’s book proceeds year by year but a great “meanwhile” hovers over the pages, as in what did the people, the “savages,” who had been there for centuries, mean to the Pilgrims? Or closer to the mark, were those “savages” people? Some of the Strangers had no problem with the “savages,” going so far as to practice “uncleanness” with the women. The Pilgrims, however, were Separatists in a true sense. They were not at ease with the physical environment around them, as the “good strong pale” they constructed to defend themselves against “Indian treachery” testified. They had defined themselves according to a particular Christian light and carried that definition with them day and night. The Indians were not just an impediment but an uncanny presence from a world about which they knew nothing. The Pilgrims learned practical matters from Squanto and other Indians, but the notion that “savages” could teach the Pilgrims anything substantial about human purposes was preposterous.
This was not to say that the Pilgrims didn’t attempt to be fair-handed in their dealings with the Indians. They went so far as to execute one of theirs who murdered an Indian, although “some of the rude and ignorant sort murmured that any English should be put to death for the Indians.” Their relations, however, were always equivocal. They were—to put it bluntly—buying time. Behind the Pilgrims stood that “mixed multitude” eager for land and wealth. The Indians were doomed, though Bradford would never have used such a minatory word. As a historian, he recorded the trading that sprang up, the various hostilities, the enmities among the tribes and the doings of several sachems. That the fate of the Indians was something like tragic would never have entered his head. They were “savages,” who when stricken with the small pox died “like rotten sheep.” God was not on their side. Somehow, the “savages” lived without the enormous certainty of a messiah who abolished death and offered eternal life.
Ideally a positive relationship with God expands a person’s horizons: the Lord enters and the space that is created within a person is light-filled and enormous. Man intimates God’s stature and gains from the awareness. Often, however, the opposite occurs: God’s stature reduces man to the hopelessly human, a welter of anxiety and overreaching certainty. One remark of Bradford’s can stand for many; of some financial dealings he wrote: “yet the Lord prospered their trading, that they made yearly large returns.” Thus providence is God stooping to every human situation; salvation is spiritual capital; heaven a trump card in mortality’s back pocket. The fullness of the earth is reduced to the messianic story of a final victory. As to the interim called “life,” faith comes forward, so do good works, so does upright conduct, but they all represent a diminution, God become human-sized. The humiliation the Pilgrims practiced, abasing themselves before the Lord and acknowledging their utter dependence, only served to confirm them in their heavenly tunnel vision. The world before them was usable, but the spiritual sustenance that the “savages” took was irrelevant. There was one path through the woods and only one path.
It’s natural for human beings to bring forth explanations for what befalls them and others. “Fate,” “fortune,” “luck,” are blasphemous rivals to “the Lord” but they lack the power of design. They speak from the dark well of chance whereas God is on record. For the Pilgrims to see themselves in the framework of the Old Testament was understandable. God’s hand was discernible. What was especially remarkable was how that hand spoke to the situation of a small band in a very strange land. They were destined and providence testified to that destiny. They were enacting another chapter in God’s story. He was writing them but they were writing Him every time they evoked His presence.
This feeling was and remains, in what became the United States, very strong medicine. What occurred, the Pilgrim story, was an annunciation. I don’t use the term lightly. The full force of Reformation, of literally re-forming the religious experience, required a new scene, one unencumbered by medieval, Catholic burdens. Yet even as the Pilgrims strove, suffered and eventually prospered, another dynamic was playing out, one larger than God. Again blasphemy rears its head, but the economic engine that the land would make possible, the bounty that awaited so many, was unparalleled. For all the hand-wringing in Bradford that went with the genuine travails, the purport of the New England experience was heady—we can have all this—and quietly vicious—one way or another the Indians will be displaced. The terrors of King Philip’s War were in the future. One has the feeling in reading Bradford that the Indians were somehow an accident, that as “savages” they were out of place once the Europeans with their array of intentions showed up. The Indians had merely been living.
“Enterprise” might be the best word to describe the Pilgrim endeavor, for it allows for the commercial aspect and how open-ended the social prospect was. The basis of the enterprise was a Christian way of life and that way of life has remained with what became the nation: a shadow of the economic enterprise yet a dynamic unto itself. Four hundred years later the two political parties represent roughly the godly and the “mixed multitude,” the Republicans who yearn for a capitalist theocracy and the Democrats who speak for those who believe in a wider social contract. Both parties must affirm their godly inclinations because theism comes first, along with the premise, though proven wrong countless times, that such an adherence betokens an upright, moral life. Bradford knew what a hypocrite was and would have had no problem calling out politicians who pretended to be godly or who didn’t, as with a blowhard like Donald Trump. Yet the unwitting equation Bradford launched is breathtaking: to be American is to be inherently virtuous. So in the face of parody, greed and criminality on the part of an American president, the latter-day pure ones constructed a separate reality.
Conscience that goes unchallenged becomes rote exercise and, worse, conceit. The immaterial longing evinced by the Pilgrims for a true church of true believers descended into material success—farms, houses and money. The original vision meant much less to the next generation. They had not gone through the ordeal their parents had. Many were born in the New World and the New World was what they knew. The moralizing habits remained—seeking emblems to articulate experience and consulting the Bible for wisdom and advice—but the animating power became mere covetous assertion—clear more land. The forests must have seemed endless.
Bradford lamented the course of such history. Toward the end of his book, he wrote of the “poor church” that she was “like a widow left only to trust in God. Thus she that had made many rich became herself poor.” In looking back, a high pitch of emotion came naturally: “O sacred bond, whilst inviolably preserved! How sweet and precious were the fruits that flowed from the same! But when this fidelity decayed, then their ruin approached.” Of himself he wrote: “. . . it is now a part of my misery in old age, to find the decay and want thereof (in a great measure) and with grief and sorrow of heart to lament and bewail the same.” Success was no success at all. So, long before the nation appeared in the annals, there was the feeling of a vision gone wrong, of amity and comity disrupted and well-nigh ruined. Though many communal visions followed, there was no getting back to that original solace. In its place there appeared a relentless optimism, behind which stood the twin habilments of possibility—progress and growth—that the world came to call “American.”
Was this “grief” Bradford felt part of “providence?” What of all that he left out, beginning with the death of his wife who fell overboard from the Mayflower as it lay off what came to be called Provincetown? An accident or a suicide? And what of the “savages” the Pilgrims parleyed with, feared, fought in endless skirmishes and who remained utterly foreign.
Bradford expressed a horror of those settler renegades who “went naked amongst them and used their manners.” Such people were—Bradford once more availing himself of his choice moral vocabulary–”scum”. There was God’s story and what did not fit into God’s story must be part of some other story, one not worth telling. Four hundred years later, what became the nation is still wrestling with the telling.
The American emphasis on the individual may seem, when viewed in the light of Bradford’s account, not so much a paean to freedom as a failure of the “mutuality” that was dear to him, an inability of people to stay connected in a meaningful way, a way of being that was much
more lost than it was found as it welcomed restlessness for the sake of restlessness. The opportunity of mutuality that the Indians evinced as fellow human beings or that the earth evinced as a home that was more real than any heaven never presented itself. It still hasn’t. What’s there amid the trumpery of electronic consumerism and prayer breakfasts are numerous ghosts, not the least of which is “a great quantity of beaver,” all the little deaths that went unrecognized by the godly.