WILLIAM BRADFORD

Puritan of Plymouth

William Bradford, born in 1590, was the only son of a yeoman family (middle class farmers) in Austerfield, England, but his parents died while he was still quite young. A sickly boy, he learned to read and loved learning. At age sixteen, he heard a controversial preacher teach the "Puritan Principles" of personal holiness and separation of church and state. Defying his uncles, who forbade him to associate with these "Separatists," William began attending a Puritan congregation at Scrooby, where he met Elder William Brewster, who became the father and mentor William had never had.

King James I made life difficult for these "reformers." When Brewster and others were arrested and fined for being "disobedient in religion," the Scrooby congregation moved to Leyden, Holland, which promised political and religious freedom. In Leyden, Bradford took advantage of the university library to complete his self-education. At twenty-three, already a respected member of the congregation, he married sixteen-year-old Dorothy May; two years later they had a son, John.

But the Puritans were first and foremost Englishmen, and readily left Holland when the opportunity came to establish an English colony in the New World. Sponsored by the Merchant Adventurers—a group of profit-hungry businessmen—the Puritans sailed for their "Promised Land" in September 1620 in an overcrowded ship called the Mayflower. Within sight of land, the colonists drew up an agreement to govern themselves, known as The Mayflower Compact. The seeds for democracy were thus planted before they ever set foot on dry ground.

While Bradford and the other men were exploring the shore for a place to build their colony, Dorothy Bradford apparently drowned. More than half the colonists died that first winter of "the terrible sickness." The following spring Bradford was elected governor of New Plymouth and continued to be re-elected for a span of thirty years. Three years after his wife’s death, Bradford married Alice Carpenter Southworth, taking in a bevy of homeless boys, as well as his own children.

William Bradford had a reputation for dealing fairly with both colonists and Indians and lived in peace with their closest neighbor, Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoag tribe, for fifty years. Twice while Bradford was governor, however, Plymouth attacked Indians they perceived as a threat, events that troubled the Separatists who had hopes of "Christianizing" the Indians. Unfortunately, the history of New England reveals that colonists killed many more Indians than they converted.

In 1630, Bradford began writing his important history, Of Plymouth Plantation (originally spelled, "Plimoth"). Long after his death in 1657, he represented the vision of the Puritans who came to this country seeking freedom of religion. But his hope for an ongoing community united in the worship of God was never fully realized. Still, the seeds of democracy were planted by these earnest Pilgrims, who laid the groundwork for free people making their own laws by common consent.

1998 Dave and Neta Jackson, Hero Tales, Vol. III