Of Plymouth Plantation
Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford is the essential book to read about the Pilgrims. It tells the story of the beginning and early years of the Plymouth colony in the words of the man who was its governor for most of that time. William Bradford was elected governor of the colony in May 1621 after the death of the first governor, and was re-elected thirty times. The colonists of New Plymouth were blessed to be governed under his capable leadership, and all future generations have been blessed because Governor Bradford was a faithful historian and an eloquent writer. Of Plymouth Plantation is one of the great classics of American history. Every history of the Pilgrims has relied heavily upon it.
As Congregationalists we call ourselves Pilgrims because of William Bradford. Writing about their departure for America from Leiden in Holland, their previous home, Bradford comments, “So they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, [alluding to Hebrews 11:13] and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to heaven, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”
This passage illustrates the spiritual outlook which pervades the book. William Bradford speaks to us as biblical Congregationalists as our brother in faith. Many modern works on the Pilgrims are written by historians who do not share or sympathize with Bradford’s outlook. By reading Of Plymouth Plantation we have the opportunity to hear from one of the Mayflower Pilgrims directly, rather than viewing them through the lens of modern secularism.
Of Plymouth Plantation is not easy reading. It comes to us from the era of the King James Bible, and the language is of that period. Bradford includes the entire text of numerous letters, which are valuable from a historical perspective, but slow down the narrative. The letters dealing with the complicated agreements with their business partners can be difficult to follow.
Modern editions of the book have tried to improve its readability. The current standard edition is that of Samuel Eliot Morison. Morison has modernized the spelling and punctuation while leaving the language intact. He has also placed many of the letters in appendices for the sake of readability. (Unfortunately several valuable letters of Pastor John Robinson get relegated to an appendix.) A paraphrase of the book in modern English was produced by Harold Paget. This is available as an e-book or paperback from several publishers. For the sake of readability and comprehension it might be best to approach Bradford in this form.
In honor of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower a new scholarly edition of Bradford’s history is in the works, sponsored by the New England Historical Genealogical Society and the Colonial Society of New England. There will be a digital, newly annotated, fully searchable transcription of the text available online as well as a print version. These are planned to be available in September of this year.