In colonial times there were many interesting characters that came from Europe and settled in the New World. They brought with them hopes and dreams of a better future – into a country that many of them compared to the biblical Promised Land. There were strong-willed men who defied rulers and natural elements to leave their comfort zone and cross the Atlantic, not really knowing what awaits them there. But among the first wave of European settlers the name William Bradford stood out because he wore many hats. It can be argued that William Bradford is one of the most important Englishman to settle in America during colonial times because he was a Separatist, Puritan, Hebraists, and Governor rolled into one.
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In today’s world it is easy for men to compromise what they believe in. Everything can be justified and the most important thing of all is comfort and money. Men and women alike will let go of their beliefs the moment that they feel pressure. If a powerful organization or even the government will make life miserable for them they would do what is expected and that is to secure a compromise. But William Bradford was different. He was a member of the Separatist movement that rocked England in the 17th century. Bradford would not compromise. And he will pay dearly for it. In the course of his life he would have to travel out of Europe – leaving his child behind – and in the midst of a long journey across the Atlantic he would lose his wife.
William Bradford was born in 1590 in Austerfield, England (MayflowerHistory.com, p. 1). He was orphaned at an early age and so he was raised by relatives. When he was teenager he became acquainted with the ministry of Richard Clyfton and John Smith, the leaders of the Separatist movement. In 1607 the Church of England could no longer tolerate the spirit of dissent that the church leaders believed emanated from the Separatist movement and so they applied pressure to destroy it. At the age of 18, Bradford joined a group of Separatists that decided to flee England and establish a new home in Amsterdam then to Holland. It did not take long before they were forced to leave the place of refuge to go a place where the King and the official Church of England could no longer bother them.
They began the arduous and dangerous trip to the New World. Many years later, Bradford and the other passengers aboard the Mayflower will be known as the Puritans. This is because they wanted to follow God without pressure from the government or any social institution and at the same time lead a pure and holy life. Just like the reformers who came before them they believed that there is only one source of religious authority and it is the Bible. As a result they separated from the Anglican Church because they thought that it has compromised with the world (American Studies, p. 1). It was inevitable that they should be driven out of the country and after a brief stay in Amsterdam and Holland, Bradford and his fellow Puritans were forced to risk their lives to establish a new settlement in the New World.
They call it New England and the new name was descriptive of everything that they stood for. It would be a new nation established not by human hands but by God. It was an ideal place for them because in New England they can continue to live as Englishmen. They are still under the authority of Great Britain but they are too far away to be persecuted by the religious officials (American Studies, p. 1). It was not going to be an easy task for all of them. They had to adjust to a new environment and they had to create a new social order in the midst of the American wilderness. They also had to share the land with others who did not have the same Puritan beliefs. It was at their darkest moments that William Bradford stepped in to lead a ragtag group of believers and created a society that will greatly influence the shaping of the United States of America.
In order to lead a small group of believers that will have to build a colony that would demonstrate the lifestyle of true believers William Bradford had to have a theological system that could sustain him and guide him in leading those who are under his influence. Historians were able to determine that Bradford did not only believe in the Holy Bible as the sole source of religious authority but he also had a particular interest in the Old Testament as it clearly shows how the people of Israel established a new nation right after they were freed from slavery. The parallelism between the struggle of the Hebrews and the Puritans can easily be understood and without a doubt the example of the Israelites inspired Bradford and the members of the Plymouth Colony.
The Christians who came out of the Reformation decided to trace back their spiritual roots and discovered that they did not originated from the Roman Catholic Church but form Judaism (Wilson, p. 127). Jesus Christ came to this world to transform Judaism and the result was Christianity. It is a new form of religion that was the byproduct of Jesus’ teachings and ministry but men like Bradford came to the realization that the foundation of Christianity was Judaism as practiced by the Hebrews of the Old Testament. It is this attraction to Hebrews and the Old Testament that earned them the name of Hebraists – these are Puritans who are deeply rooted in the Hebraic tradition (Wilson, p. 127). Bradford and fellow Hebraists began to influence the colonies and then afterwards the rest of America.
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Bradford was not only interested in studying the Old Testament and the children of Israel – their Exodus out of Egypt and subsequent crossing of the Red Sea mirrored the Puritans escape from the persecution and their voyage through the Atlantic Ocean – he was also a serious student of the Hebrew language, which he called the sacred tongue (Goldman, p. 9). Bradford and other fellow Hebraists began to extol the benefits of studying the Hebrew language and as a result Harvard University – an institution for higher learning established a mere 16 years after the Mayflower docked at Plymouth – made the study of the Hebrew language an important component of their education system (Goldman, p. 9). This is one of the reasons why Bradford can be considered as one of the important historical figures of American history.
Before coming to the New World, Bradford learned how to become an organizer and a religious leader. But when they landed on Plymouth there is one more role that he had to learn and master. He must become a political leader, a governor in a newly established colony. He was a governor unlike any other because even if he was extremely busy in managing a fledgling community he found time to study the Bible and demonstrate his longing to serve God with all humility and purity (Goldman, p. 7). It will not come as a surprise that he would want those who are under his influence to follow his example.
These ideas and assertions about the Puritans and specifically with the Plymouth Colony can be made because Bradford did not only study, worship, and became the leader of men, he also set time to write down his experiences and that of his fellow believers. He wrote the first narrative history in America and it was aptly entitled, Of Plymouth Colony. It was a good thing also that aside from his book he was also able to write letters and poem which is also a great source of information about the Puritans and colonial times.
There were many people who were brave enough to travel from England to the New World. But there is one man that stood out because he was able to exercise four different roles. William Bradford was first a Separatist who wanted to become a Puritan when it comes to his belief system. He was also a man who found the study of the Old Testament and the Hebrew language as a source of guidance for a fledgling colony. So aside from becoming a Separatist and a Puritan he also became a Hebraist. All these three roles prepared for his fourth and final one – to become the governor of the Plymouth Colony. His passion to serve God and to proclaim the good news that the sole religious authority comes from Scripture changed him forever but it did not end in himself; through his sacrifice and hard work he was able to influence not only the members of the Plymouth Colony but others who were born in a community established by Puritans under his leadership.
American Studies. Pilgrims and Puritans: Background. 2009. Web.
Goldman, Shalom. God’s Sacred Tongue: Hebrew and the American Imagination. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
MayflowerHistory.com. William Bradford. 2009. Web.
Wilson, Marvin. Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1989.