New Books about the Pilgrims

Alwyn York, CCCC Historian

The pandemic forced the cancellation or postponement of many events that had been planned for 2020 to mark the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower. However, the publication of books whose release had been planned to coincide with the anniversary was not disrupted.

A notable release was the 400th anniversary edition of William Bradford’s Of Plimouth Plantation, published jointly by the New England Historical Genealogy Society and the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. This edition is based on a new transcription of the original manuscript, the first in over a century. Extensive annotations incorporate recent information and interpretations. There are introductions by leading scholars which provide background information on the Pilgrims, William Bradford and the history of the manuscript. An introductory essay by Paula Peters, a journalist and educator who is a member of the Wampanoag tribe, gives a Native perspective on the Pilgrims. This new edition is an essential resource for deeper understanding of the Plymouth Colony. It can be purchased at americanancestors.org. Thanks to the wonders of the digital age, anyone can view Bradford’s actual manuscript for themselves. A recent high-resolution color scan of the manuscript is available to view or download at the State Library of Massachusetts website.

They Knew They Were Pilgrims by John G. Turner is a new book that centers on the Pilgrims’ understanding of the concept of liberty. Their understanding of liberty differs from ours today, and it brought them into conflict with other groups who were their contemporaries. For us freedom of religion means toleration for all sorts of spiritual beliefs and practices. For them it meant the ability of worship God purely in the way he directed without mixing in any merely human traditions. They viewed the Bible’s instruction as being plain to any right thinking godly person, so there was no need for religious toleration. This eventually brought them into conflict with Baptists and Quakers, which Turner’s book details.

Turner’s history covers the whole span of the Plymouth colony from its founding to its eventual absorption into Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691. Because of its scope, the book includes topics in the colony’s history that are not very well known. Much of this, frankly, is less inspiring than the story of their heroic early days. We learn of the growing hunger for land which produced increasing tension with their Native neighbors, leading to the tragedy of King Philip’s War. We also learn that these colonists who came seeking freedom for themselves ended up enslaving others, particularly Native prisoners of war. William Bradford in his later years lamented the decay of spiritual fervor in the colony from what they had in the beginning. The evidence of this becomes apparent in the later history of Plymouth colony as described in this book.

While preparing this article I became aware of a very significant book about the Pilgrims just published in September. One Small Candle by Francis Bremer is a history of the Pilgrims with a special emphasis on their religious lives and ideas. It aims to demonstrate how Plymouth colony influenced the development of Congregationalism in New England. I plan a separate article on this book in the next issue.

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