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History of Plymouth Plantation

by William Bradford

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In William Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation, what are two examples of biblical allusions?

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In Chapter three of Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford makes a biblical allusion when he compares the Puritans leaving the Netherlands to the Israelites leaving Egypt. The Puritans are like:

Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt.

This is a reference to the Israelites being led by God out of slavery in Egypt in the biblical book of Exodus. Bradford is making the point that the Puritans were not driven out of the Netherlands, as their critics claimed, but left because God led them to go, just as the Israelites were not "driven" out by the Egyptians but left because they were obedient to God. However, beyond the narrow context of the allusion, Bradford is positioning the Puritans as in a special relationship with God and as specially protected by God—just like the Israelites. Over and over again in the history, Bradford will imply that the Puritans were miraculously saved from destruction because they were faithful to God.

One example of God's special providence to the Puritans comes through an allusion to the Biblical book of Numbers in chapter 2 of Book II of Bradford's work. On a mission to find food, a party of Puritans:

like the men from Eshcol, carried with them of the fruits of the land and showed their brethren ...

In this instance, the men have obtained corn from the Indians, another sign of God's grace. Bradford likens this to Israelites going to the Valley of Eschol and coming home with grapes for the people. This corn makes the Puritan people "glad" and gives them encouragement because they know God is providing for them.

Throughout his book, Bradford frames the Puritan experience through a Biblical lens as a continuation of God's leading the faithful Israelites to the Promised Land. Now the Israelites are the Puritans and the Promised Land is North America: this asserts a very strong right to ownership of a land that is palpably already occupied by native peoples.

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William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation is the account of the English Puritan's exile from England, their life in what is now Holland, the voyage to America, and their first two decades in America from 1621 to 1647.  Although many writers in the 17th and early 18th centuries used parts of Bradford's manuscript in their own works, the first book wasn't published until 1841.

Your question points to a central element in the way Puritan's perceived the world--in simple terms, God is present in every aspect of life, no matter how seemingly insignificant.  As Bradford recounts the history of the Puritan experience, God infuses his text just as God infuses the Puritan life (note, the Puritan God is an Old Testament God): every incident or event affecting the Puritans is either the result of God's intervention or, in some cases, Satan's.  In fact, in the opening chapter, Bradford comments on the Puritan's experience in England:

. . . what wars and oppositions . . . Satan hath raised, maintained and continued against the Saints, from time to time, in one sort or another. (I:3)

When we consider divine intervention, we need to remember that Satan, God's adversary, is as present in the Puritan belief system as God is and far more dangerous.  Bradford's use of "Saints," which he uses throughout the narrative, refers to the Puritans as a new kind of biblical "Chosen People."

A wonderful example of Bradford's belief in God's intervention comes in Chapter IX, during the voyage to America, when he describes a young sailor--"a proud and very profane young man"--who constantly abuses the Puritans, especially those who were ill or seasick, and this young man rejoices in the possibility that he will be able to throw their dead bodies overboard.  God, however, has other plans for this man:

But it pleased God before they came half seas over, to smite this young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first that was thrown overboard. (IX:58)

Bradford tells us that the man's fellows "noted it to be the just  hand of God upon him," a detail that reinforces not only the intervention of God but also that the man's death has created a "teaching example" of God's power to the non-Puritan group.  More important, perhaps, this incident proves that the Puritans are under God's special protection.

God's intervention comes into play--this time in a positive sense-later in the voyage when a young sailor is swept into the sea during a storm.  In the Puritan belief system, God is omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent (everywhere at once), and, in this instance, God saves a man:

. . . but it pleased God that he [the sailor] caught hold of the top-sail halyards . . . (though he was several fathoms under water) till he was hauled up by the same rope. . . . and his life saved. . . .  (IX:124)

In addition to linking God and events, Bradford alludes to the Bible in order to help his readers understand events that may seem abstract.  When the Puritans finally reach the shores of America, they are troubled by the lonely wilderness that confronts them, as well as what that wilderness might be hiding (read, Indians, whom the Puritans viewed as savages).  Bradford notes that

Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah, to view from this wilderness a more goodly country to feed their hopes. . . . (IX:125)

Bradford's allusion is to Deuteronomy 34:1-4; NIV 2011 in which Moses, at the end of guiding the tribes of Israel in the desert for 40 years, is allowed by God to ascend Mount Pisgah (actually, Mount Nebo) in order to see the Promised Land.  The allusion works to subtly remind the reader that the Puritan experience in America began with what seemed to be insurmountable difficulties and, at the same time, remind them that America is their Promised Land.

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