Jamestown and Plymouth

5 11 2005

While the settlers of Jamestown and Plymouth had the same national background and experienced similar trials in the new world they sharply differed in other ways. This paper will examine the similarities as well as the differences.

John Smith, William Bradford and John Winthrop were all Englishmen. In his account Smith makes rather matter of fact references to others of his party as being ‘English.’ He also defends his description of the negative events of the plantation by a favorable (nationalistic?) comparison of the English to the Spanish. Essentially he says, “If you think we did poorly, look at how much worse the Spanish fared under similar circumstances.”

While Bradford does see the darkness of “popery” in England, he calls the nation as a whole “honourable.”  In another section he hopes that in the future children would refer to their pilgrim fathers as “English men” who looked to God for deliverance. Winthrop also acknowledged the persecution in England but in his use of the term ‘New England’ it would seem he is also identifying with the English nation.

Another similarity in the accounts is found in their Christian references. While Bradford and Winthrop are much more explicit in their Biblical appeals, Smith also refers to God as a source of deliverance and favorably notes the good example of their preacher Master Hunt. Smith claimed to believe in a God who is good and who is able to deliver him from various adverse circumstances.

There is also a resemblance in the accounts of Smith and Bradford regarding their treatment at the hands of the ‘savages.’ In both cases they describe the willingness of their foes to attack and kill them. They are not dealing with civilized opponents but dark and mysterious barbarians.

While Smith’s text doesn’t specifically mention the commercial nature of their venture, it is in part evidenced in the mention of trying to discover the head of a river, presumably to find the fabled ‘Northwest Passage.’ Smith is a man embarking on an adventure to help possess a fair country. It seems he is compelled to defend not only his own actions and reputation but that of the venture as a whole and in that respect it is not unlike a modern business report attempting to explain why things did not go as planned.

Bradford and Winthrop have a more spiritual goal. They both use language which is full of Scripture, either direct quotes from the Bible or in the use of Scriptural principles and allusions. They have entered a covenant not just with one another but with God.  They did not leave England in pursuit of gold or silver but to escape persecution and to preserve the purity of the gospel.

Typologically they saw themselves as Israel wandering in the wilderness looking for the Promised Land. While they had a duty to follow and obey God, and failure would bring shame upon their head, success would be reason to praise God for His goodness and mercy as well as evidence of God’s covenantal blessing.

Winthrop sees in the new world an opportunity to improve lives in order to better serve God. The group has entered into covenant with one another and with God to do this work. They would be an example, a ‘city on a hill’, and a testimony to England of God’s work of grace.

Bradford desires the recovery of the primitive church. He wants to be identified with those who sought to restore the worship and discipline and government of the church “according to the simplicity of the Gospell.” He saw in the persecutions a work of Satan to prevent this recovery from happening and in the exodus he saw the shaking off of the yoke of bondage as evidence of God’s assistance and grace.

We also see a difference in how the individuals functioned corporately. While Winthrop’s sermon could be seen as merely theoretical exhortations on how to act in the new world in light of obvious differences among men in wealth and power, Bradford’s account shows how a failure to acknowledge these differences can cause grief and dissension.

In Bradford’s account we see that an attempt at a forced commonality did not work. Everyone felt slighted in a community where their charity was prescribed rather than being voluntary. But the decision to assign everyone their own parcel was a success. Women and even children worked voluntarily for their own betterment. In this outcome Bradford saw the wisdom of God.

Captain Smith on the other hand comes across (in his own account!) as envious and covetous of other’s goods, not that the others come across as generous. The president of the council in particular is singled out by Smith as being self centered. Smith lamely attempts to explain these and other problems as unexpected ‘difficulties’ in a ‘good endeavor.’  However unlike the settlement at Plymouth this was not a venture by grace but is rather a sin riddled testimony to the depravity of man.

In spite of the similarities of these men, their differences were obvious. Bradford and Winthrop were men who seemed to be seeking “the kingdom of God and His righteousness” of Matthew 6 whereas Smith seems to be only after “all these things.” While we might not agree with all of the theological nuances of the Pilgrims we would do better to emulate them over the ‘strange means’ of John Smith.

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