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Puritan Ideology in Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation”

When one looks into the ideological beliefs and religiosity of Puritan writing, an immense amount of these are found in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. The book is what has been hailed as “a mercantile epic” whose “fundamental pattern . . .is that of the American success story” (Wenska 152). However, there is this proverbial “God is on our side” ideology to the work; something that seems to ring true in American culture today. Bradford and the other Puritans feel that the new land of Plymouth is a divine right; it is the Promised Land given to them as a new covenant with God.

Bradford was raised to be a farmer but increasingly became interested in religion, and eventually met “Reverend Richard Clyfton, nonconformist rector at Babworth, Nottinghamshire, ten miles distant, and Clyfton’s preaching led the young man to join the dissenters”. Bradford’s journal shows the ideologies of his group and the religious fundamentalism that drives these people to engage in the New World the way they do.

To really get a grasp on this idea, looking at Bradford’s journal shows how the Puritans thought about what Early America was—a promised land. Of course, there are many sermons and texts that can be used to further study this Puritan typology; but the scope of this essay is too brief to go into them. Bradford’s book is a wealth of information.

The trials and tribulations of the Pilgrims coming to the New World are very much akin to those Moses faced in the desert. Especially Bradford’s account of finally pulling into safe shore.

However, the “God is on our side” ideology runs rampant through the text. So much so that it seems sadistically comical in Of Plymouth Plantation. After the Pilgrims voyage, there is a series of strange events that now most people may construe as illogical and cruel. The Pilgrims end up stealing corn from the Native Americans and Bradford immediately thanks the Lord for providing it for them: “[T]hey digging up, found in them divers fair Indian baskets filled with corn, and some in ears, fair and good, of divers colors, which seemed to them a very goodly sight” (Bradford 65). Then, like a Moses, Bradford espouses that: “[L]ike the men from Eshcol, carried with them the fruits of the land and showed their brethren; of which, and their return, they were marvelously glad and their hearts encouraged” (Bradford 67).

The reference to Eshcol, as Bradford notes, is from Numbers 23-6. Numbers is the fourth book in the Bible and deals with God’s covenant for the Israelites to gain access into the Promised Land. These verses function rhetorically as a way for the Pilgrims to justify stealing—which is even stranger due to the fact that not stealing is a direct commandment from the Judeo-Christian god.

Furthermore, this religiosity is conflated by the fact that—by “God’s Providence”—the colonists had guns and the Indians did not (69). As he points out a page later: “Thus it pleased God to vanquish their enemies and give them deliverance; and by His special providence so to dispose that not any one of them were either hurt or hit […] Afterwards they gave God solemn thanks and praise for their deliverance” (70). This, therefore, conflates and intensifies the ideological belief that the Indians are inferior from the beginning. What is so “sadistically comical” about these encounters is this is not even the Pilgrims’ land.

The Puritanical viewpoint can be seen as the sine qua non of conservative religion that even one sees today at times; that there must be some God given right that America is a Promised Land to Americans. One can see how Manifest Destiny, the current heated battle of immigration, and the fact that presidents still profess to being religious has integrated through this culture. The Puritan ideology that Bradford uses—that the colonists are chosen—is still part of American discourse today and has been throughout this nation’s history.

Works Cited

American National Biography Online.” American National Biography Online. Web. 23 July 2013.

Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. Print.

Wenska, Walter P. “Bradford’s Two Histories: Pattern and Paradigm in ‘Of Plymouth Plantation.'” Early American Literature 13.2 (1978): 151-64. Print.

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