William Bradford

Stephen Ashton 2 Comments

"Our fathers were Englishmen who came over the great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice, and looked on their adversity. ... Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good, and His mercies endure forever. Yea, let them that have been redeemed of the Lord, show how He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered forth into the desert-wilderness, out of the way, and found no city to dwell in, both hungry and thirsty, their soul was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before the Lord His loving kindness, and His wonderful works before the sons of men!"   -William Bradford

Orphaned at the age of seven, William Bradford was brought up by his grandfather and uncles. A childhood illness left him too ill to work on the family farm, so Bradford threw himself into reading and studying, especially the scriptures. Passionate about his faith, at the age of thirteen William Bradford became a member of a local Puritan separatist church, All Saints Church,  in Babworth, England. The congregation at that church included future Pilgrim leaders William Brewster and John Robinson. At the age of eighteen, Bradford was imprisoned for his faith for thirty days along with Brewster and Robinson after attempting to flee to Holland to escape religious persecution.

The following year these courageous men succeeded in escaping the country. They relocated to Amsterdam, then later to Leiden where Bradford lived with the Brewster family until he married Dorothy May in 1613.

Due to government control of religion, concerns that their children were being ruined “by evil example into extravagance and dangerous courses,” and a lack of opportunity in Holland, in 1620 Bradford helped to organize an expedition of 100 Pilgrims to the “New World.”

The Mayflower Compact

After two months of weathering choppy seas, the Pilgrims landed unexpectedly at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Arrival brought a new world of challenge and adversity. Winter was coming, food was scarce, water sources were unknown, disease threatened, and early encounters with natives proved hostile. Adding to these challenges was a burgeoning disagreement among the Mayflower passengers about purpose and conviction. While still aboard the ship, mutiny threatened.

At the age of 30, William Bradford worked with William Brewster to frame the “Agreement Between the Settlers of New Plymouth,” which later became known as The Mayflower Compact. This revolutionary document signed on November 11, 1620, forged a fragile cooperation between the Separatists and other passengers who did not hold to the same religious convictions. Together they agreed to set up a self-governing society ruled by majority agreement and cemented by the purpose to "glorify God, advance the Christian faith, and honor their King and Country." By signing, they covenanted and combined themselves “together into a Civil Body Politic, for [their] better ordering and preservation.” The following year, Bradford was unanimously chosen as governor of the New World settlement and was re-elected 30 times, serving all but five years until 1656.

A New World

Arriving at the onset of winter, the Pilgrims set out to secure land where they could settle. Bradford’s account of their arrival in the new world, and Lord’s provision of safe land, water, and food in a dangerous new world rivals anything written in the best adventure novels. His writes:

Having thus passed the vast ocean, and that sea of troubles before while they were making their preparations, they now had no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain and refresh their weather-beaten bodies, nor houses — much less towns — to repair to. As for the season, it was winter, … sharp and severe, and subject to fierce storms, when it is dangerous to travel to known places, — much more to search an unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men; and what multitude there might be of them they knew not!

“Which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to the Heavens!) they could gain little solace from any outward objects. Summer being done, all things turned upon them a weather-beaten face; and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, presented a wild and savage view. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now a gulf separating them from all civilized parts of the world. What, then, could now sustain them but the spirit of God, and His grace?

After some hours’ sailing, it began to snow and rain, and about the middle of the afternoon the wind increased, and the sea became very rough. They broke their rudder, and it was as much as two men could do to steer her with a couple of oars. But the pilot bade them be of good cheer, and said he saw the harbour; but the storm increasing and night drawing on, they carried all the sail they could to get in while they could see. Then their mast broke in three pieces, and the sail fell overboard in a very heavy sea, so that they were in danger of being wrecked; but by God’s mercy they recovered themselves, and having the tide with them, struck in towards the harbour. But when they came to, the pilot found he had mistaken the place, and said the Lord be merciful to them, for he had never seen the place before; and he and the mate were about to run her ashore, in a cove full of breakers, before the wind. But one of the seamen, who steered, bade the rowers, if they were men, about with her, or they would all be cast away; which they did with speed. So he bid them be of good cheer and row lustily for there was a fair sound before them, and he did not doubt but they would find a place where they could come to safely.

"Though it was very dark and rained hard, they ultimately got under the lee of a small island, and remained there safely all night; but they did not know it was an island till morning. They were divided in their mind; some wished to stay in the boat, for fear there would be more Indians; others were so weak and cold they could not endure it, but got ashore and with much ado made a fire — everything being wet, — and then the rest were glad enough to join them; for after midnight the wind shifted to the north-west and it froze hard. But though this had been a night of much hardship and danger, God gave them a morning of comfort and refreshment, as He usually doth to His children; for the next day was a fair sun-shining day, and they found they were on an island secure from the Indians, where they could dry their stuff, fix their arms, and rest themselves and give God thanks for His mercies in their manifold deliverances.

"This being the last day of the week they prepared to keep the Sabbath there. On Monday they sounded the harbour and found it fit for shipping; and marching inland they found several cornfields and little running brooks, — a place, as they supposed, fit for a settlement, at least it was the best they could find, and considering the season of the year and their present necessity they were thankful for it. So they returned with this news to the rest of their people aboard the ship, which cheered them greatly.

"On the 15th day of December they weighed anchor to go to the place they had discovered, and came within two leagues of it, but had to bear up again. On the 16th day the wind came fair, and they arrived safe in the harbour. Afterwards they took a better view of the place, and resolved where to pitch their dwellings; and on the 25th day they began to erect the first house for common use, to receive them and their goods.”

The new colonists settled in for a harsh winter. They spent their first few months in the New World aboard the ship. More than half died, including Bradford's wife Dorothy - victims of poor nutrition, dangerous conditions, inadequate housing, and disease.

The First Thanksgiving

Yet, in his providence, God continued to care for and guide this band of courageous, faithful, pioneers. "Shortly after moving to land in March 1621, the Pilgrims met an English-speaking Patuxet Indian named Tisquantum ('Squanto') who served as a guide and translator for the Englishmen and the local Pokanoket tribe. The Native Americans helped the colonists adapt to the New World, teaching them what to farm, how to hunt local animals, and providing the colonists with needed supplies when their stores were low. In the fall, to celebrate their successful harvest, the Pilgrims hosted the Native Americans for a feast of lobsters, clams, vegetables, and, famously, a 'great store of wild Turkies.'" Writing in Mourt’s Relation, his firsthand account of the colony at Plymouth Rock, Edward Winslow describes the festivities:

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

William Bradford’s death and legacy

"William Bradford was generally sick throughout the winter of 1656/57, and predicted to his family and friends on 8 May 1657 that he would die. He passed away the next day at the age of 68.

"At the time of his death he is believed to have owned a library of more than 100 books.

His own book, 'Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation, 1606-1646', remains the most authoritative account of the Pilgrims and the early years in Plymouth Colony."

“In wilderness he did me guide,  
And in strange lands for me provide.  
In fears and wants, through weal and woe,  
A pilgrim, past I to and fro.”

-William Bradford 

William Bradford's life exemplifies determination. A pioneering leader of character and conviction, Bradford made a brave stand for faith - crossing seas, exploring the new world, cultivating a coalition, building a community, establishing a government, and leading by faith to light a candle that would be seen around the world. Matthew 5:16 says, "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven." In his waining years Bradford wrote, “Just as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many." 


Through the ministry of Trail Life USA, men are lighting a candle for the next generation. The flame is growing as a generation of Biblically-bold, courageous young men identified by their character, conviction, honor, and faith rise up who are prepared not only to stand against this rising tide of culture, but turn the tide itself.

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Read William Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation" and discover more about the growth of Thanksgiving in America.

About the Author
Stephen Ashton

Stephen Ashton

Stephen Ashton is the National Director of Marketing for Trail Life USA and serves as an adjunct professor at Clarks Summit University and Anchor Christian University. Prior to his work at Trail Life, he spent 15 years working with at-risk youth in residential therapeutic wilderness programs and served as the Vice-President of the Wilderness Road Therapeutic Camping Association. An author and a speaker, he has written for journals and published a book chronicling the foundations of therapeutic camping. He frequently speaks on the topics of fatherhood, biblical masculinity, outdoor education, and wilderness therapy. Stephen lives in South Carolina with his wife and 4 sons.

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