November 14, 2016
(Repeat from November 2015)
I’ve started re-reading William Bradford’s foundational Thanksgiving text, History of Plymouth Plantation again after many years. It used to be a yearly ritual for me, but after I started teaching it nearly every semester it lost some of its lustre for me. But now’s another time and another place. Why not go back to this dusty old book that up until recent decades would have been read by every “schoolboy” in public schools.
The thing is, in recent years as I have studied the book formally and as I have taught it to literature majors and to undergraduates, I have come to realize how wrong the traditional readings have been, how most of what we think of regarding the Pilgrims probably is not as clean cut and worthy of Hallmark Cards’ mythologizing.
A few preliminaries: Plymouth Plantation tells the original story of the Pilgrims. As you may recall, the Plymouth Pilgrims established a colony Scrooby in the Netherlands. They fled England due to religious persecution. Strangely, the Pilgrims’ story occurred during a period in English history when the Puritan branches of the English church were coming to power. Shortly after Bradford’s people left England the country would undergo its civil war that was a religious war in many ways.
What differentiated the Pilgrims from similar religious groups back home was that, unlike the Separatists, for example, the Pilgrims were not willing to try to remain within the Church of England and try to reform it from within. The Pilgrims wanted not merely to separate but to sever ties with the Church. It was Bradford who named the group Pilgrims so as to make the distinction.
When the Pilgrims felt they had outworn their welcome in Scooby they decided to sail for the New World and gained a charter for land in English Virginia. Alas, the Mayflower was blown far off course and they landed in Massachusetts instead.
Thus the beginnings. Let’s look at the book of adventure, signs, and wonders starting next Friday. But just one more note. William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation actually was lost to posterity until the middle of the 19th century. The first chapter had been reprinted often enough but it was not until the manuscript was discovered in the library of the bishop of London and finally published in 1857 that the U.S. recovered one of its chief founding documents. In 1897 it was deposited in the State House in Boston.