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History of Plymouth Plantation

by William Bradford

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At what points in his History of Plymouth Plantation does Bradford give inner, spiritual significance to outward events (chapters 9 and 11)?

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From the Puritan perspective, God is behind everything that happens. However, his “hand” is especially evident at moments in which the unexpected or remarkable occurs. Bradford often goes into seemingly unnecessary detail in order to simultaneously reinforce the Puritans' belief in God's providence and attempt to prove that God has sanctified their mission.

In chapter 9, which chronicles the Puritans' voyage across the sea, there are numerous instances where Bradford reinforces his own spiritual beliefs through his observations and experiences. For instance, the able-bodied, "very profane young man" who slanders the sick on board and tells them that he can't wait to throw them overboard comes down with "a grievous disease" and is the first to die and be thrown overboard. In the Puritan framework, this man reaped what he sowed: discord and illness, both spiritual and physical. For Bradford, this would be evidence of God's divine justice. Later, during a storm, the young John Howland is thrown overboard and survives; Bradford says "it pleased God" that he grabbed on to a rope at the last moment. Later, Howland becomes "a profitable member both in church and commonwealth." By connecting these two events, Bradford reinforces God's divine providence for the faithful and indicates that those for whom God provides are saved for a holy purpose.

In chapter 11, Bradford describes a hard winter and bout of illness that kills about half the company. When the Pilgrims show mercy to the other sailors, who "desert one another in this calamity" to die, the sailors almost have a conversion moment: "I now see, show your love like Christians indeed one to another, but we let one another lie and die like dogs." Bradford's description of this gratitude seems minor but again confirms for Bradford that the Puritans have the moral and spiritual high ground compared to the heathen sailors—and especially the Indians, whom they encounter later. Later that spring, the sickness lets up, also attributed to God's providence.

Bradford's description of Native Americans in chapter 11 strongly contrasts with other descriptions of the supposedly violent heathens that clashed with the Puritans elsewhere in Plymouth Plantation. He describes Squanto, an Indian who helps the Puritans during the fall and winter to prevent them from starving, as an agent of the Lord:

Squanto continued with them, and was their interpreter, and was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation. He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died.

For Bradford, it seems miraculous that someone belonging to an enemy group could become a literal godsend. This unexpected help saves the Puritans from losing even more of their numbers to famine, and Bradford likely interprets this as proof of divine support for their colonizing mission, as well as evidence of God's goodness toward his people.

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Bradford's providential view of history is clear throughout his history of the colony. Being a man of deep religious faith, he sees God's hand in the events that occur. For instance, Bradford tells the story of "a proud and very profane young man" on the voyage, one of the sailors on board the Mayflower. This "haughty" sailor chose to curse and torment the Puritans while they suffered terribly from sea sickness, vowing to throw their bodies overboard when they died and then to enjoy their belongings. Instead, the young man falls ill and dies, and his body is the first to be cast overboard. Bradford wrote this represented "the just hand of God upon him." Bradford believed that God himself made the man ill to punish him.

When a main beam of the Mayflower was damaged, the Puritans sailed on: "So they committed themselves to the will of God and resolved to proceed." When John Howland was lost over the side, "it pleased God that he caught hold of the topsail halyards," was saved, and lived a long life as a "profitable member both in church and commonwealth."

Another example of Bradford's providential view is the story of Samoset and Squanto, Indians who appeared out of the wilderness, spoke English, and befriended the Pilgrims. Squanto remained with the Pilgrims for the rest of his life, acting as their guide and interpreter, teaching them how to plant corn and find fish. Bradford considered Squanto "a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation."

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