1620 Of Plymouth Plantation

5 November 2010

Well, here's a history lesson book review to get everyone ready for Thanksgiving, anyway.

I read the first half of Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford (the second governor of Plymouth) covering the years 1608 - 1624.  William Bradford started with his (somewhat over-zealous, and therefore rather amusing) sentiments on religion.  (My favorite part would be his railings against the "papal anti-Christ.")  The rest of his history is not near so passionate in tone as the first few pages, but it was extremely interesting all the same.

Bradford's history was quoted in the kids' history text, Story of the World Vol. 3 by Susan Wise Bauer, which is where I first heard of it.

The group of people that we call 'the Pilgrims' were a group of Puritans from England.  Back in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was the Christian Church.  If you were Christian, you were Catholic; they were one and the same.  Then came the Reformation, led by Martin Luther and others, and the Christians began to splinter.  There were the Catholics and the Protestants, and they were literally at war with each other all over Europe for hundreds of years.  In England, the Protestant church was called the Church of England.  Henry VIII named himself head of this church.  As you probably know, he wanted a divorce but the pope would not allow it.  So when the Protestants came along, changing the rules and doing away with the pope's authority and many other practices, Henry VIII was very happy to jump on the bandwagon.  As head of the church and head of the country, he could then dispose of his wife any way he saw fit.  And he did.  Several times.

Henry VIII's eldest daughter, Mary I, (or 'Bloody Mary' as she was called because of all the Protestants she had executed) had been raised Catholic and was loyal to her convictions.  Her younger half-sister, Elizabeth I (Shakespeare's queen) was Protestant, and hunted down the Catholics, but not to the same extent that Mary hunted the Protestants.  People were fined and only sometimes executed for not going to their Catholic meetings.  (There's evidence that Shakespeare's family were secretly Catholic...but that's another story.)  The children's nurshery rhyme 'Goosey Goosey Gander' comes from this time period.

Goosey Goosey Gander

Wither shall I wander?

Upstairs, downstairs, or in my lady's chamber.

There I met an old man who wouldn't say his prayers.

I took him by the left leg,

and threw him down the stairs.

The Catholics in hiding would often have a priest secretly come to visit them to give them their sacraments and rites, and they often had a hidden chamber in the lady of the house's room (because the army usually did not search the lady's room too thoroughly for modesty reasons).  The priest would hide in the hidden chamber in case of a surprise search.  The 'old man' in the poem is a Catholic priest, and the prayers he would not say are the Protestant prayers.

At this time, and for a very long time before and after, countries had an official religion that everyone had to belong to.  It was part of the national identity.  It was like all the members of the country speaking the same language and following the same laws.  It also allowed the king to retain more control in a period of time when political boundaries printed on a map meant next to nothing if your neighbors wanted to conquer you.  Also, many of the kings thought that they were divinely appointed by God to be the king, and took the religion of their country as a very serious trust.  They looked on it as their personal responsibility to 'save' their people by making sure they were part of the right church.  Personal and heart-felt conversion was not a well-known idea.

But back to the Puritans.  They were a break-off of the Protestant church.  They thought the Church of England was 'too Catholic'.  They didn't want anything even half-way resembling any practice or feature of the Catholic church.  James I (son of Mary, Queen of Scots) was the king of England by now, and he, again, felt he was divinely appointed by God.  This religious dissenting was causing uproar in his country and he couldn't have that.  Dissension against the official church was dissension against the king.  And dissension against the king was dissension against God.  The Puritans suffered much persecution.  At one point they tried to leave the country and sail to Holland.  The people had sold their houses and packed their belongings and made their way to the shore to meet the ship.  The ship sent a small boat out to shore to start carrying people aboard.  Many of the men went aboard first (I assume to check out the ship and sailors a bit before sending their wives and children aboard).  When they were about ready to send the boat back for the women and children, the English army on horseback came up the road.  The ship's captain decided this wasn't the place to be and set sail.  The men on board cried out in devastation, but what could they do but watch their wives and children being set upon by the army and arrested?  Eventually, however, the families were all brought back together, "with no small rejoicing", Bradford says.

The Pilgrims did eventually make it to Holland, where they lived for twelve years.  Holland was much more tolerant, but tolerance goes both ways.  Religious zealousness was just as acceptable as drunken brawling.  This wasn't exactly a good fit for the Pilgrims either, and at length they decided to sail to America.  Explorers and merchants had been sailing to America for over a hundred years by now, but only one permanent English settlement existed at the time.  (Jamestown was established in 1607.)  Going to America to live and raise your family was far from a common idea.

The trials they faced when they arrived were great.  Over half of them died, but honestly, I couldn't help thinking that it was a miracle that any of them survived.  They starved most of the time.  A few years after arriving, Bradford recounts when some of their relations and friends were finally able to come and join them, and they were greatly saddened by the state in which they found their loved ones.  Most of the Native Americans nearby were nice and helpful, though sometimes they fared only slightly better and could not afford to trade any of their food for fear of going hungry themselves.  The Pilgrims were very grateful for the help they got at the hand of the Native Americans, and they did their best to reciprocate that.

I read some of the passages of Bradford's book out-loud to my children; some persecution in England, an attack from the Indians, and the meeting of Squanto, and they really enjoyed these excerpts and requested more.  I think these will be fun passages to read on Thanksgiving.  There is a documentary called 'Desperate Crossing' (that I've only seen the first half of) that is based on William Bradford's history, but it goes into more detail about the people you will meet in the book, so it's a helpful addition if you decide to read it.