Beyond the Turkey: Pilgrim William Bradford, and Lessons for an Economic Recession

“I have been young, and now am old;
yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.
He is ever merciful, and lendeth; and his seed is blessed.
Depart from evil, and do good; and dwell forevermore” (Psalm 37:25-27).

Ever merciful.  Such beautiful words!  Hidden here are economic recessions, personal disappointments, trials to faith, and the gloating gait of the wicked, strutting with his ill-gotten gain.  Despite it all–even famine itself–the righteous are ever merciful and giving.  What a statement of faith!

In many ways, Pilgrim William Bradford epitomizes this psalm, and in particular these two words, ever merciful.  Far beyond the turkey and the Indians, this Pilgrim governor should be remembered for his principled generosity in the midst of severe economic deprivation.

William Bradford was born around 1590 to fairly well-to-do yeoman farmers in northern England.  His family had feather beds, flocks of lambs, and spoons that were silver, not wood; but money is no shield against death.  First his father, then his mother died, leaving seven-year-old William sickly and in the care of his two uncles.  Forced to lay low, William took to reading and writing–something children did not often do then, nor were there schools in general.  He especially took to reading the Bible.  At age twelve, William was quite versed in the Bible; as a teen, he started attending church where the word was being taught.  Rather than capitulate to the pressures of his family, who urged him to remain in the local parish, William walked sixteen miles each Sunday to hear a Puritan preacher.

How about us? Are we principled enough in our Christian faith to veto faithless preaching with our feet (as Mark Dever would say)?  Why do we stay and starve in a church that does not preach the word, when we could drive (not walk!) sixteen miles to hear the word faithfully expounded elsewhere?  If a teen can stand up to the opinions of family, certainly we can as well, by God’s same grace.  This teen’s example challenged me, and rightly so, for I have not always stood my ground for the truth.

Halfway to church, at Scrooby Manor, Bradford met his spiritual father William Brewster, who was thirty-seven at the time.  The two formed a friendship that lasted all the way to the New World and the next.  It was Brewster who encouraged Bradford in his faith, and tried to put Puritan preachers in the local pulpits.  When this failed, due to the Crown’s intervention, the two walked twelve miles to hear John Smyth preach; then, when that proved too dangerous, the church there split and half started meeting in Brewster’s home.

These were the early days of the Separatist church.  They had separated from the Church of England, believing that the monarch had no right being head of the church, and that a congregation was formed by believers covenanting together under the lordship of Christ.  To us today, these views may seem normal; in that day, they were treasonous, leading to exile from England, and then execution, if one returned to England.  Once Separatists started being jailed, Bradford, Brewster, and the other members of the Scrooby church concluded they should flee to Holland, where liberty of conscience was granted.  This they did, after being betrayed by one sea captain and abandoned by another.

In Holland, the group finally settled in Leyden on the Rhine River–a beautiful city with about thirty islands and 145 bridges.  Here they faced a new test.  In England, their faith had faced the threat of persecution; in Holland, accommodation.  Of all the Separatist groups that fled England, this Leyden group was the only one that did not ultimately assimilate into the Dutch culture.  Bradford certainly felt the pressure to conform.  Having sold the family property in England, he spoke fluent Dutch and was a member of the local weaver’s guild.  But what about the children?  Instead of keeping the Sabbath holy for worship–which began at eight with an hour of standing prayer, and continued most of the day with two sermons and lunch–the children were tempted by their Dutch contemporaries to view the Sabbath as a holiday!  Besides, persecution reached even here, as Brewster was being hunted for a pamphlet he wrote against King James’ treatment of Scottish Christians.  Perhaps the Spanish would soon retake Holland and impose the Inquisition.  Therefore, Bradford was in hearty agreement to settle in the New World, selling his property (again) to invest in the Speedwell, a ship for fishing in New England.

Here again, Bradford put faith above finances.  While some may criticize Bradford for his utopian dreams and wonder why he did not seek to evangelize the Dutch, being salt and light where he resided–and certainly there is warrant for such questions, considering especially how many eventually died–it is also worthwhile to note that had Bradford acted differently, he would not be salt and light to us today.  Could it be that we Christians are too accommodating in our faith, thinking that we should compromise known points of obedience in order to maintain our influence in the present culture?  Perhaps it would be better to sacrifice our present influence for lasting influence among our posterity.  Yes, there may be risks, but we must all die sometime.

At any rate, he made his choice and here is where the story becomes more familiar.  First, due to the debacle of the Speedwell, which was unfit for the open sea, one hundred and two passengers joined thirty crew members aboard the Mayflower.  Half the passengers were Pilgrims, journeying to a new land (not America, but heaven); half were so-called “Strangers,” having been recruited by the sponsoring Merchant Adventurers for their skills.  After sixty-six days at sea, averaging two miles per hour, with one passenger having been lost to death and another one gained due to birth–little Oceanus Hopkins–the ship finally reached land, which Bradford described as “their proper elemente.”  Here, on November 11, 1620, the Pilgrims and Strangers signed the Mayflower Compact, to form “a civill body politick” of self-government, choosing their own governor and making their own laws, under God and under the king.

Having weathered the sea, the New England winter almost did them in.  Both the passengers and the crew lost half their members.  At times, there were only six or seven healthy colonists to tend to the rest.  If it were not for some buried corn, which they stole and later repaid, they may not have survived.  Even so, the grace of God had not abandoned them, for they founded their town of Plymouth on a dwelling site with fields, now strangely deserted.  In the spring, a Wampanoag warrior named Samoset told them that the site had been the home of the Pawtuxet tribe, which had been wiped out by small pox a few years earlier, thereby explaining why the other tribes left the newcomers alone all winter.  In a remarkable providence, the last of the Pawtuxet tribe, Squanto, joined the Pilgrims, speaking English, having been captured by a ship captain before the small pox.  Apart from him, it is said that the Pilgrims would not have survived, for he taught them how to plant corn, with four kernels on top of a fertilizer of three fish.

In recognition of God’s providence and in imitation of the Dutch celebration of their independence from the Spanish, thirty-two-year-old Governor Bradford called for a Thanksgiving celebration to honor God for His bounteous care.  From the Wampanoag tribe, now in treaty with Plymouth, came chief Massasoit and ninety of his men for three days of feasting and games of sport–142 people altogether.  What a feast!  At this point, we today expect the end of the story; but it is what occurred after this point that makes Bradford such a model for us today.

To his chagrin, Bradford later realized that he had overestimated the harvest.  As a result, he cut the rations in half, for the food had to last until the next harvest.  Then, on November 9, 1621, the Fortune arrived, bringing thirty-four newcomers that had to survive through the winter with the others in the seven existing houses and a storehouse.  They brought no supplies themselves, but rather an accusation from the Merchant Adventurers’ manager Thomas Weston that the Pilgrims were lazy, talking too much (implied, about religion).  Instead of a bitter reply, Bradford answered the charges and loaded the Fortune with goods (mostly pelts) to help repay their debt.

Now, with rations quartered, the Pilgrims faced yet another hard winter, this time with Indian trouble, caused in part by Squanto’s haughty attitude.  Then the Sparrow arrived, bringing no supplies, but seven more settlers that Weston expected the Pilgrims to feed before they started a rival colony to the north.  Bradford complied.  Then, in the summer, the Charity and the Swan arrived, bringing sixty men for the rival colony and no supplies.  Again, Bradford complied, even though his own people were near starvation.  The righteous are ever merciful.

By the fall 1622, the newcomers were settled forty miles north in Wessagusset, expecting Plymouth to help them look for food.  Already, for food Bradford had traded precious furs that would have paid off debts.  Instead of balking, Bradford complied and found the Indians amazingly generous, giving beyond their means.  In contrast, the newcomers thought the Indians were hiding food, and threatened to attack them, but Bradford advised them otherwise.  These newcomers finally left on the Swan, hoping to find Weston.

In 1623, as if it could not get worse, two wicked men arrived.  The first, Weston himself, arrived impoverished by a shipwreck, asking for a loan of beaver pelts.  Even though Bradford did not believe him, and even though a loan would risk a mutiny from the townspeople, the governor secretly complied and never received repayment nor supplies.  Weston was truly wicked: “The wicked borroweth, and payeth not again: but the righteous showed mercy, and giveth” (Psalm 37:21).  Then Captain Thomas West arrived, demanding an exorbitant fee as kind of a sea-fishing license, and then offering two barrels of dried peas for another exorbitant amount.  Some pity!  Though I do not know what specifically happened to West, the Scripture says, “He that oppresseth the poor to increase his riches…shall surely come to want” (Proverbs 22:16).  Bradford rightly refused the peas.

The Scriptures also say, “The LORD knoweth the days of the upright: and their inheritance shall be for ever.  They shall not be ashamed in the evil time: and in the days of famine they shall be satisfied” (Psalm 37:19).  The year 1623 sure looked like “days of famine” to Bradford and the others.  The Pilgrims were near starvation, gaining little by hunting and fishing; yet they were now faced with two more difficulties.  West told Bradford of two more ships coming.  How would they feed these newcomers? Moreover, their corn crop, which was larger than normal due to Bradford’s executive decision to allow for private property–their corn crop, their only visible hope, stood blighting in the late May sun.  What would they do?

Let me here interject: What would we do? Many of us stick to our principles as long as the times allow for it.  The Pilgrims were not above bending to supposed necessity, as the stolen corn illustrates, but by-and-large Bradford himself was a stout man of principled faith.  Having resisted family pressure to pursue the word of God as a teen, and having resisted later the allures of Holland for the dream of a biblical community, he held his ground again and again on principle, being ever merciful and not refusing any who approached him with physical need.  What an example of Psalm 37! What he did points to what we should do–pray.

In one great act of faith, Bradford called the entire town out for a Day of Humiliation before God.  They fasted and prayed.  Those now most known for the Day of Thanksgiving spent a Day of Humiliation in prayer to God for rain.  He answered.  For fourteen days, a gentle rain refreshed the earth, and after that harvest, the Pilgrims never again faced starvation.

An economic recession is not famine, but it is enough for us to show our faith.  Are we fair-weather givers, abandoning our principles due to “times of necessity,” or are we men of principled faith, who, like Bradford, are ever merciful and cared for in the end?  It is a question worth pondering, as we sit down with our families this Thanksgiving season.  May the Lord increase our faith and faithfulness!

Source: Gary D. Schmidt, William Bradford: Plymouth’s Faithful Pilgrim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 1999).

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