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History of Plymouth Plantation

by William Bradford

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In History of Plymouth Plantation, locate and analyze two examples of Bradford's use of allusions to the Bible and of references to God's intervention in events. What purpose might these devices serve his account?

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Bradford uses Biblical allusions throughout History of Plymouth Plantation to structure the story of the Plymouth Planation as in line with Biblical events and authority. He alludes to the apostle Paul in asserting his own right to insist on religious conformity in the colony. He later alludes to two Bible verses, from Thessalonians and Peter, to assert that the recently deceased William Brewster's sufferings will be rewarded in heaven.

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In his History of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford objects to the behavior of a Mr. Robinson, who has dealings with the Native Americans that Bradford does not like, such as trading them guns. Bradford alludes to the apostle Paul when he condemns Robinson's religious beliefs as "French" and apart from the true faith. Bradford writes:

The Apostle Paule would have none to follow him in any thing but wherin he follows Christ, much less ought any Christian or church in ye world to doe it.

Bradford, as is typical of early Puritan settlers, was not seeking religious pluralism and toleration in colonizing North America: he was seeking freedom to worship in a different way from the Church of England. He was perfectly willing to impose religious conformity on all the people in his colony, believing his version of Christianity to be the same, true, "primitive" Christianity practiced by Paul. He says that he is enforcing purity just as Paul did and leans into Paul as a respected authority.

Second, Bradford opens his account of the year 1643 by noting the death of William Brewster. He mentions that Brewster survived many of the sufferings involved with establishing the new colony. Bradford then alludes to Thessalonians and Peter, both books of the Bible, writing,

It is a manifest token (saith ye Apostle, 2. Thes: 1. 5, 6, 7.) of ye righeous judgmente of God that you may be counted worthy of ye kingdome of God, for which ye allso suffer; seing it is a righteous thing with God to recompence tribulation to them yt trouble you: and to you who are troubled, rest with us, when ye Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven, with his mighty angels. 1. Pet. 4. 14.

Bradford states in the first reference that because Brewster suffered, as all the early colonists did, this has made him worthy of the kingdom of heaven. Bradford then cites Peter to show how Brewster has been rewarded for his faithfulness after death. He is now able to see the Lord Jesus with his angels. Brewster's story is part of the overarching narrative of suffering and redemption that reveals how Bradford understood the colonizing of the New World by the Puritans.

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As Puritans, the Pilgrims believed that the will of God directs the universe. This belief is demonstrated in Bradford's moral anecdotes which fill the pages of his account, Of Plymouth Plantation.

1. In Book I, Chapter 9, Bradford alludes to the Acts of the Apostles (Chapter 28), in which St. Paul has been taken prisoner and is put on a ship headed to Italy. When Paul and the others are shipwrecked because of damage from a terrible storm at sea and the ship's having struck a massive reef, these Christians are aided by the "barbarous people" of Malta. In contrast to the people of Malta, Bradford remarks, the "savage barbarians" who met with Bradford's crew were "readier to fill [the Pilgrims'] sides full of arrows than otherwise."

While displaying his arguably unchristian attitude toward the Native Americans, Bradford also points to the Pilgrims' need to trust in God: "What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace?" He then alludes to a biblical verse in his remark that the Englishmen came over the ocean and

...were ready to perish in this wilderness, but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity. (Deuteronomy 26:7)

2. In Book II, Chapter 2, Bradford tells of the expedition that returns to Cape Cod with Indian corn, alluding to a passage from the Old Testament:

And so, like the men from Eshcol, carried with them of the fruits of the land and showed their brethren; of which, and their return, they were marvelously glad and their hearts encouraged.(Numbers 13:17-27)

Bradford's allusion to this passage shows his Puritan belief that God is intervening in the Pilgrims' lives.

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In chapter three, Bradford alludes to the "Moyses & ye Isralits when they went out of Egipte [sic]" as a parallel to the Separatists leaving England, and then staying in Leyden (the Netherlands) in their quest to free themselves of the imposition of the English Anglican religion. The Separatists also believed themselves to be God's chosen people and were confident that they would eventually be delivered to a new Zion in the American colonies because He would oversee their safe passage and "free" them.

In chapter four, Bradford recalls that even after a decade in Leyden, the Separatists were not permanently safe from religious persecution, and he draws a biblical parallel in the words: "according to ye devine proverb, y t a wise man seeth ye plague when it cometh, & hideth him selfe, Pro. 22. 3 [sic]." The Dutch had ongoing conflict with Spain, and Bradford and his contemporaries knew that moving on to the American colonies was inevitable. Bradford implies that staying in Europe would mean fending off Catholicism and Anglicans (a "plague" to his people) for the foreseeable future and that God's will is for the Separatists to establish their Zion in the New World.

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William Bradford's A History of Plymouth Plantation is full of biblical allusions. A major purpose in writing the history was to illustrate the important role played by God in the survival and establishment of the Pilgrims' colony at Plymouth. One example of this is very early in the account, when Bradford describes the landing near Cape Cod:

Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof.

The idea that the Pilgrims were the beneficiaries of divine protection, and were instruments of God's will, is central to Bradford's worldview as it is revealed in the book. 

After the first winter, when the Pilgrims died in great numbers, Bradford is still struck by the divine mercy in allowing the settlers to survive at all:

The spring now approaching, it pleased God the mortality began to cease amongst them, and the sick and lame recovered apace, which put as it were new life into them; though they had borne their sad affliction with much patience & contentedness, as I think any people could do. But it was the Lord which upheld them, and had beforehand prepared them; many having long borne the yoke, yea from their youth.

Defeats, setbacks, and adversity were regarded as God's means of chastising the Pilgrims for insufficient piety, or for "wicked" behavior, and successes, survival, and prosperity were understood as God's blessing on the endeavor. The crucial thing for Bradford was that the Pilgrims were engaged in a holy mission, one which God would favor as long as they stayed true to its purpose.

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