Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Reformed Irenicism

William Bradford: On a Grateful Orientation

In his History of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford gives an account of the provision of his people in their first winter in New England (1621). At this time, they were well supplied with a great variety of food in all seasons.

They begane now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strenght, and had all things in good plenty; for as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, and bass, and other fish, of which they tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All the sommer ther was no wante. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter aproached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, etc. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean coree to yt proportion.1 Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports.

Things were not always so pleasant for them, however–and yet even in bleak times that followed Bradford noted God’s preservation and declared his praise, as He taught his people to rely on Him for all provision of their daily bread. Thus, of the year 1623 he writes:

But to returne. After this course setled, and by that their corne was planted, all ther victails were spente, and they were only to rest on Gods providence; at night not many times knowing wher to have a bitt of any thing the next day. And so, as one well observed, had need to pray that God would give them their dayly brade, above all people in the world. Yet they bore these wants with great patience and allacritie of spirite, and that for so long a time as for the most parte of 2. years; which makes me remember what Peter Martire writs2 (in magnifying the Spaniards) in his 5. Decade, pag. 208. They (saith he) led a miserable life for 5. days togeather, with the parched graine of maize only, and that not to saturitie; and then concluds, that shuch pains, shuch labours, and shuch hunger, he thought none living which is not a Spaniard could have endured. But alass! these, when they had maize (that is, Indean corne) they thought it as good as a feast, and wanted not only for 5. days togeather, but some time 2. or 3. months togeather, and neither had bread nor any kind of corne. Indeed, in an other place, in his 2. Decade, page 94. he mentions how others of them were worse put to it, wher they were faine to eate doggs, toads, and dead men, and so dyed almost all. From these extremities they [the] Lord in his goodnes kept these his people, and in their great wants preserved both their lives and healthes; let his name have the praise. Yet let me hear make use of his conclusion, which in some sorte may be applied to this people: That with their miseries they opened a way to these new-lands; and after these stormes, with what ease other men come to inhabite in them, in respecte o f the calamities these men suffered; so as they seeme to goe to a bride feaste wher all things are provided for them.3

Bradford could find, even in straitened circumstances, cause for thanksgiving and praise to God, for he knew that God in his providence always keeps watch on his children–through thick and through thin, in times of plenty and of want. In his assurance of this truth, he echoes a Pauline theme from his Letter to the Philippians:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)

May we all by God’s grace learn to trust in God’s provision, to pray from the heart “Give us this day our daily bread,” and, mortifying the desires of the flesh, to be content with what God is pleased to give to us.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

  1. Text emended in accordance with this excerpt.
  2. No, not that one. This one.
  3. Text slightly corrected.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.