Special Report

The Answerable Courage of William Bradford

Founding father of Pilgrims set example for Americans standing up for religious freedom.

By 11.24.09

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He was twelve when he began to have his doubts about the Church of England.

But unlike most of his neighbors, William Bradford of Austerfield, England, was not one to sit quietly by, saying and doing nothing.

In Nathaniel Philbrick's 2006 book Mayflower, a portrait of breathtaking courage emerges of Bradford and his fellow believers, the 102 souls Americans know today as the Pilgrims. The English refugees from Royal tyranny who have long since been marbleized in the annual tableau of Thanksgiving did not have an easy time of it, and it is, in 2009, perhaps useful to take a moment and reflect.

Just what is it they accomplished that enables their literal and figurative descendants to spend a day chowing down on turkey and pumpkin pies after hours of parades and football games? How hard was this to do? What happened as they did this? In particular, for those Americans caught up in the howling winds of recession, the old true tale is perhaps a bit of perspective.

Over the entrance to young Bradford's church in Austerfield, Philbrick tells us, was a stone carving of an open-mouthed snake. This lent a perhaps unplanned emphasis to the notion of English Puritans that the Church of England "had been poisoned 'by that old serpent Satan.'" In any event, the youthful William made the decision to seek out a congregation of like-minded believers who believed that worshipping God was something to be done as God and the Bible, not the King of England, instructed.

This placed Bradford squarely on the inevitable path of breaking the law. In the century before Bradford arrived, English Separatists had been both jailed and executed for daring to believe other than their monarch. The coronation of King James in 1603 had begun to turn up the pressure even more. James was not a Puritan fan. He viewed them, says Philbrick, as troublemakers -- which, if you were sitting on a throne whose occupant was not just head of state but head of church, was surely not an unreasonable perspective. Requesting the presence of the nation's religious leaders at the royal estate of Hampton Court for what is known as the Hampton Court Conference, an angry James declared of the dissenters: "I shall harry them out of the land." Which is precisely what he devoted his reign to doing.

This meant that the Separatists who formed a congregation in the small town of Scrooby, not far distant from the Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood lore, were gathering together in violation of the law. In 1607, the Bishop of York learned of this, promptly doing his duty to his King and his God. Members of the congregation were arrested and packed off to prison. Others were chilled to know their houses were being watched. Not surprisingly, they decided to leave England and take their beliefs with them.

Slight problem.

King James may have threatened to "harry" them out of England, but in point of fact, one needed the King's permission to leave the country legally. Leaving the country, in those days defined as heading across the English Channel to Europe. Surprise, surprise -- the King was not about to give them that permission. In other words, they were to remain in England and worship as instructed -- or face prison. Or death.

To which the Separatists responded by making a series of covert plans to secretly leave without the King's permission. They would, they decided, take off in the dead of night -- and escape to the Continent.

This was not easy. As Philbrick notes wryly, the attempt to flee "did not go well." The first ship captain they hired turned them in to the King's constabulary, in a town in Lincolnshire called "Boston." The leaders served their time -- and then the decision was made to try again. The second captain was Dutch -- and more to the point he was trustworthy. Arriving at the appointed hour, boarding the ship on the southern bank of the Humber River -- they saw trouble appear in the form of the local militia. Since the women and children were to board last, the distinctly unfeminist men doing all the literal heavy lifting of lading the ship while the women and children waited on the embankment -- when the militia showed up unexpectedly the captain abruptly lifted anchor and took off. They got away -- with a shipful of agonized male Separatists watching their weeping wives and children recede in the distance. The captain decided the best way to evade capture was to sail to Amsterdam. They made it. And yes, plans were immediately laid to do it all again -- and the women and children, in another middle of the night scenario -- this time minus the militia -- finally made their way to Holland to join their husbands and fathers.

Once together in Holland, the reality of real religious freedom appeared. There were, it was now apparent, dissidents within the dissidents. Focused on resisting the King, once free of that restraint, not unlike the tale of today's barking dog that catches the truck, the question presented itself: how exactly did these people wish to worship God? This minister and that minister had this or that idea, ideas that did not go down well with their congregations. One pastor refused to do infant baptisms, another, caught up in what Philbrick describes as "messy scandals," airily sought to dismiss his critics by insisting that he as the minister, along with the church elders, could simply dictate policy to the congregation. In short, chaos.

With this, a leader in the group, one John Robinson, who like his flock had been forced into exile due to his Kingly problems, took a majority of the worshipers from Amsterdam to the Dutch city of Leiden. There they settled. And it was there that William Bradford, who had taken what he could of his small inheritance with him from England, "emerged as one of the leading members of the congregation."

Bradford was a corduroy worker, and in 1613 became a new husband with his marriage to his beloved Dorothy May. In 1617 they had a son, John. Life in Holland was not easy, and Bradford's business life suffered, resulting in a loss of a good bit of his inheritance. His response? His losses were "a correction bestowed by God…for certain decays of internal piety." A Puritan, was Bradford, to the core.

Slowly the English Separatists got their act together, with Bradford and Robinson leading the way. So focused were these Separatists on their religious lives, however, that they had difficulty with the outside world of Leiden. Mostly farmers, they were in a city now, and the primary occupation of Leiden was commerce, which is to say there was nothing seasonal about intense work. It was, as we might say today, 24/7, an aspect of life that was something of a culture shock.

There was another problem. The English Pilgrims began to realize that their children were being raised in a Dutch culture -- and they disapproved. Yet going back to live in England was now out of the question. Bit by bit, the obvious answer -- at once as inviting as it was terrifying -- was to leave the Old World altogether for the New World. The opportunities were there. The French, Dutch, and Spanish were already well vested in New World ventures of one kind or another. The problem: the British government lacked the money to do a serious colonization project. So it had fallen to what we would call today's "venture capitalists" to step forward -- and they did. Not, it should be said, to automatic success. There were two groups of British noblemen, in London and Plymouth, who were taking the lead. The Plymouth group had already struck out with a failed attempt to set up a colony in Maine (as we know it today). King James let the Londoners go ahead with the Virginia Company in 1606, but Jamestown, as it was called, was not exactly a rip-roaring financial success.

Now what?

William Bradford stepped forward.

In 1619, Bradford sold his house in Leiden to raise money for a colonizing expedition to America. If successful, it would solve his congregation's problems. Now having their worship focused, they would be left in peace, safely distant from those still present Kingly threats of arrest. They would in fact be out of the King's royal hair at a considerable distance -- in a place where they would raise the British flag on behalf of the King, staking a claim in the New World. Since the King had much to gain from a foothold colony in America, he would be all too willing to let them go. Not to be forgotten here were the children. They would be raised, so went the theory, as little English ladies and gentlemen, out from the tainted influence of the Dutch.

Easy, right?

No.

Another group of Separatists, possessed of the same thought, had just tried the same thing. The news arrived that 180 Separatists had set sail from elsewhere in Holland. Reaching America, 130 of them were dead. The voyage across the Atlantic, wrote one Separatist, had these poor souls "packed together like herrings. They had amongst them the flux, and also want of fresh water, so as it is here rather wondered at that so many are alive, than so many dead." The news was disturbing, to say the least. How could this trip possibly be accomplished if certain death -- and an agonizingly gruesome death at that -- loomed over the entire voyage?

They would face, wrote Bradford, "miseries of the land" that could "consume and utterly…ruinate them." They would "be liable to famine, and nakednes, and the wante, in a maner, of all things. The chang of aire, diate, and drinking of water, would infecte their bodies with sore sickneses, and greevous diseases" Should they do this?

The answer was to be found in their faith in God, so they believed. They chose to persist, with Bradford believing as well that "all great and honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages."

Another backer appeared. But alas Thomas Weston, representative of a group of London merchants, was seen as taking advantage of his potential voyagers. There was an argument. A furious one. Still, they went ahead. Others would be added to the group --"strangers" as opposed to those risking the trip for religious reasons. Personality conflicts arose with these "strangers." Then there was the matter of that essential for sailing the ocean -- or for that matter anywhere. No ship had been obtained, and it was now June of 1620. The project was in motion -- and no ship!

Finally, two ships were located, one a square-rigger. A bit long in the sailing tooth, it was still serviceable. Its name: the Mayflower. And it would accompany a second ship -- the Speedwell.

And almost immediately after it set sail, the Speedwell had a problem. It was sabotaged by its ship's master, who had fitted the Speedwell with a new mast that was -- deliberately -- too large for the ship. Once out on the open ocean, the ship began taking on water. So the two ships sailed back to England, to Plymouth. Once there, the Mayflower took on the Speedwell's passengers -- crowding as many as would fit onto its decks. Thus crammed, with the exception of William and Dorothy Bradford's three-year old son John whom they left behind in case they did not survive, on September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set sail for America from Plymouth.

They weren't gone long before seasickness set in. Agonizing, gut-wrenching, and debilitating. One John Howland, in search of fresh air, stumbled onto the deck, was pitched toward the rail -- and went overboard into the Atlantic. In his twenties, Howland had physical strength, and managed to grab onto a rope and hold on to it -- in spite of being pushed some ten feet underwater. Crew members managed to snag him with a hook and haul young Howland back aboard.

The ship was soon caught up in something its Captain had never heard of and did not understand -- what we now know as the Gulf Stream, the warm river of water that flows from the Caribbean along the North American Coast, and, as Philbrick notes, out across the Atlantic and on up past the British Isles. The effect of this, along with furious gale winds, was to push the Mayflower off course, sending it far north of where it was supposed to be. Sometimes the ship was so naked to the elements that the terrified passengers could only huddle and pray as the sails were furled and the Captain was forced to have the ship "lie ahull" -- simply surrendering the Mayflower to the whim of the raging sea. In 1957, the voyage of the Mayflower was re-created in a replica called the Mayflower II. To the horror of the modern crew, with all the mid-20th century knowledge of seamanship available to them, exactly the same thing happened, a storm overtaking the replica ship that was so violent the captain was pitched from his bunk, terrified he was about to lose his ship.

On one particularly frightening occasion in the original voyage, a huge wave smashed against the side of the ship and strained "a structural timber until it had cracked like a chicken bone." The Captain considered turning the ship around, hoping they could get back to England. Bradford and his friends refused. Taking out a screw jack they had brought along to be used lifting heavy lumber and such in the building of houses, they managed to fix it to the shattered beam, holding it in place. They also made it plain. There would be no turning back, a sentiment for which the Captain came to admire them.

All of this meant that the intended destination, the mouth of the Hudson River, was not only never in sight -- the now violently ill and terrified passengers weren't even close to the place they intended to settle. Disease had begun to settle in among them now -- both the passengers and the crew -- and a decision was made to simply race for the nearest bit of land findable.

On November 9, 1620, sixty-five days at sea, exhausted, cold and sick, passengers stood on deck at dawn to see the most welcome sight they could imagine -- land. Specifically, the arm of land was named on one map as Cape James, after their King. It had another name, though, and perhaps in a sign of already blossoming American independence from the idea of reverence for kings, the other name stuck. The new arrivals went with the idea of referring to the Cape with the name not of a king -- but a fish. The fish that swam the local waters in such great numbers. Cape Cod, it would be. Looking out at the sand amid the dunes, said William Bradford, made his band of Pilgrims "not a little joyful."

Now what? The Cape where large schools of codfish were pooling was not the Hudson River. They had no patent from the King for this desolate part of the New World. But the Captain knew his passengers were in poor health. They needed to get ashore. In The History of Plymouth Plantation, what would become the first book written in America, Bradford recorded the realization of what they knew before they sailed. There were indeed no "friends to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure.…And for the season, it was winter, and…the winters are sharp and violent…subjecte to cruell and feirce stormes..."

They sailed around the Cape, finding finally a good harbor. It was time. They clambered down into a small boat and made for shore. They had, finally, arrived. They had the freedom they had so fiercely sought out.

"In the next four months, half of them would be dead," we learn. And yet, said Bradford, who would lose his beloved wife Dorothy when she fell over the side of the anchored Mayflower and drowned, "what could now sustain them but the spirit of God and His Grace?"

William Bradford went on to be elected thirty times the Governor of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, the second signer of the Mayflower Compact. His son John would eventually rejoin the father, and another ship would arrive bearing the widow Alice Southworth, who would become his second wife. They would have three children of their own. (Not as many as John Howland, the young man who fell overboard mid-voyage and was rescued from the churning sea. Howland and wife Elizabeth would go on to have ten children and 88 grandchildren.) He was a leader looked to by his friends and neighbors as a beacon in the search for religious freedom and for liberty itself.

William Bradford's courage, and that of the 102 souls who gave birth with such terrible effort to the country and the freedoms we celebrate this week, is surely worth taking a moment to remember. It is also perhaps a moment to remember the inscription on Bradford's grave, the English translation from the Latin as follows:

"What our forefathers with so much difficulty secured, do not basely relinquish."

Amen to the answerable courage of William Bradford.

And Happy Thanksgiving.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.