William Bradford


"He was indeed a person of a well-tempered spirit, or else it had been scarce possible for him to have kept the affairs of Plymouth in so good a temper for thirty-seven years together… The leader of a people in a wilderness had need be a Moses, and if a Moses had not led the people of Plymouth colony, when this worthy person was their governor, the people had never with so much unanimity and importunity still called him to lead them." ~ Cotton Mather


William Bradford was born in the obscure village of Austerfield and baptized on March 19, 1589/90. After his father’s death in 1591, (William was just a year old) he lived with his grandfather till he too died in 1595. His mother died when he was seven. He was then sent to live with his Uncle Robert in Scrooby, a small village in Nottinghamshire five miles from Austerfield and about 150 miles from London. He was taught husbandry and although he had little opportunity to receive a formal education, he taught himself Dutch, French. Latin, Greek and Hebrew; (the latter two in order to read the bible in its original form). He eventually inherited property in Bentley from his grandfather’s estate and other property from his father’s estate. He shares in his writings about being sickly and was thankful for it, because he believed it kept him from the vanities of youth and made him fitter for what he would afterwards undergo. When he was twelve he began reading the scriptures and they made a great impression on him. It was at this time that he became acquainted with Mr. Richard Clifton’s ministry, a small group of non-conformists, which was about a dozen miles from where he lived and he walked there every Sunday to attend the church services. He joined the congregation and became close friends with William Brewster. (often the meetings were held at Scrooby Manor, where Brewster lived.). As Bradford began to see how the Church had become perverted, he set himself by reading, by discourse, by prayer to learn whether it was not his duty to withdraw from the communion of the parish-assemblies and engage with some society of the faithful that should keep close unto the written word of God, as the rule of their worship. The wrath of his uncles, nor the ridicule of his neighbors turned upon him, could divert him from seeking to obey the scriptures. His answer to all who tried to dissuade him was:


"Were I like to endanger my life, or consume my estate by any ungodly courses, your counsels to me were very seasonable; but you know that I have been diligent and provident in my calling, and not only desirous to augment what I have, but also enjoy it in your company; to part from which will be as great a cross as can befall me. Nevertheless, to keep a good conscience, and walk in such a way as God has prescribed in his Word, is a thing which I must prefer before you all, and above life itself. Wherefore, since ‘tis for a good cause that I am like to suffer the disaster which you lay before me, you have no cause to be either angry with me, or sorry for me; yea, I am not only willing to part with everything that is dear to me in this world for this cause, but I am also thankful that God has given me an heart to do, and will accept me so to suffer for him."


The group resolved, with joint consent to remove themselves to Holland, however they weren’t allowed to go in peace. "The strong arm of the law barred every harbor and vessel against them." At the age of eighteen, Bradford, along with others was captured and imprisoned. Because of his youth, he was soon set free. They eventually ended up in Leiden, South Holland, described as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Here he learned frustian (frieze) weaving and began the manufacture of corduroy. He returned to England briefly to sell his inheritance at Bentley in 1611. He married Dorothy May on Dec. 10, 1613 and they had a son, John.


The times were hard in Leiden and Bradford wrote:


"…they fell to such trades and employments as they best could; valuing peace and their spiritual comfort above any other riches whatsoever. And at length they came to raise a competent and comfortable living, but with hard and continual labor.


Being thus settled (after many difficulties) they continued many years in a comfortable condition, enjoying much sweet and delightful society and spiritual comfort together in the ways of God, under the able ministry of Mr. John Robinson, and Mr. William Brewster, who was an assistant unto him in the place of an elder, unto which he was now called and chosen by the church."


Bradford wrote of the reputation the people of this congregation had with the Dutch, because they weren’t driven out of Holland when they set sail for America:


"…that it was their own free choice and motion, I will therefore mention a particular or to show the contrary, and the good acceptation they had in the place where they lived…..but if they were known to be of that congregation, the Dutch (either bakers or others) would trust them in any reasonable matter when they wanted money. Because they found by experience how careful they were to keep their word, and saw them so painful and diligent in their callings; yea they would strive to get their customs and to employ them above others, in their work, for their honesty and diligence."


In 1620, Bradford now 30 years old, sold his house in Leiden, and he and his wife Dorothy joined the group who set sail for America on the Mayflower. They left their son, who was four, with the group who remained in Holland, most likely because of the hardships of the voyage. Tragically, when they first arrived in America, Dorothy fell from the deck of the Mayflower and drowned.


Bradford was involved in the planning of the voyage to America. Government permissions, financing, ship hire and provisions had to be resolved. It is written that he shouldered many administrative responsibilities; record keeping, correspondence with financial backers and negotiation for a patent to give legal permission for a settlement and an indeterminate amount of details. When they arrived in America, he was one of those who helped draft the Mayflower Compact. After the death of Plymouth Colony’s first governor, John Carver in 1621, William Bradford was elected governor. He held that position, except for five, one year terms, for the remaining 36 years of his life. It is written that fourteen of those terms he served without pay. By 1623 the ships Anne and Little James arrived and Bradford wrote:


"…they brought some very useful persons…some were the wives and children of such as were here already. And some were so bad, as they were fain to be at charge to send them home again next year…"


Among the new arrivals was Alice Carpenter Southworth, a young widow with two small sons. She became Bradford’s second wife. His second marriage appears to have been happy. His last will and testament describes Alice as "my dear and loving wife". She provided a home for Bradford’s son who had been left behind in Leiden, and she and William had three children of their own, two sons and a daughter.


Bradford carefully preserved many notes and documents, which he later included in his journal that we know as, Of Plymouth Plantation. His writings give account of the years before they departed for America, their reasons for leaving their homes, their voyage and the early years of Plymouth Colony. The journal is the history of the first 30 years of Plymouth Colony and is considered the single most complete authority for the story of the Pilgrims and the early years of the Colony they founded. He was not only author and eyewitness to those early years; he was a leader in the community. The survival of the community was in large part due to his patience, wisdom and courage; yet he doesn’t speak of himself in a predominant role, though it was he who provided so much of the leadership through all their hardships.


Cotton Mather wrote of him:


"….let this one piece of self-denial be told for a memorial of him, wheresoever this History shall be considered: The Patent of the colony was taken in his name, running in these terms: To William Bradford, his heirs, associates, and assigns. But when the number of the freemen was much increased, and many new townships erected, the General Court there desired of Mr. Bradford, that he would make surrender of the same into their hands, which he willingly and presently assented unto, and confirmed it according to their desire by his hand and seal, reserving no more for himself than was his proportion, with others, by agreement. But as he found the providence of Heaven many ways recompensing his many acts of self-denial, so he gave this testimony to the faithfulness of the divine promises: "That he had forsaken friends, houses and lands for the sake of the gospel, and the Lord gave them him again." Here he prospered in his estate; and besides a worthy son which he had by a former wife, he had also two sons and a daughter by another, whom he married in his land."


One cannot read the journal written by Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation and accounts others wrote of him, and not see that God was with this man and he made him for those hours. The words Bradford had as a young man for those who tried to turn him from what he believed was God’s plan for his life, seemed to be prophetic:


"…yea I am not only willing to part with everything that is dear to me in this world for this cause, but I am also thankful that God has given me an heart to do, and will accept me so to suffer for him."

Sources: PilgrimHall.org., Life of William Bradford from Cotton Mathers Magnalia Christi Americana

Written by Kathryn Currier

posted July 9, 2009



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