What man, if he be to goe a long and unknowne journey, will not hire a guide to conduct him? Or to undertake a voyage by water, to the East-Indies, Guiana or the Newfoundland, but desireth the most skillful pilot to goe with him? And shall not wee seeke unto God, and desire his direction from earth to heaven? From this old Aegypt to the new Ierusalem? If we doe not, we may well wander out of our way; and split the ship of our soules upon the rocke of condemnation.
—JOHN BARLOW, PURITAN TOWN PREACHER OF PLYMOUTH, DEVON, IN A FUNERAL SERMON OF 16181
Nine days and nights had passed since the last full moon. The men of the morning watch rang four bells to mark six o’clock, and turned the ship’s hourglass on its head in almost complete darkness. Due west, a third of the way up the vault of the sky, the Mayflower’s helmsman would have seen a flickering orange point. It would be Arcturus, one of the brightest fixed stars with which an expert seaman could measure latitude. Below Arcturus and to its right in the northwestern quadrant of the heavens gleamed the bulkier lamp of Venus.
Then, as dawn approached, a long, blurred horizontal shadow must have emerged from the gloom beneath the star and the planet. By seven, twenty minutes after sunrise, the shadow would have hardened into a thick gray line. From the swaying deck, Jones and his crew would have made out a ridge of land, wooded with oak and cedar.2
In cold but clear weather and at perhaps only ten miles, there would be no mistaking its identity. Robert Coppin, the second mate, had been there before. Eighteen years earlier another Englishman had described the headland’s low sandy hills, its trees, and its shoals of cod, mackerel, and bream, and given the cape the name it has carried ever since. To seamen of Coppin’s generation, Cape Cod’s long sickle-shaped outline made a familiar landmark in the charts they could study before setting sail. It was, said an optimistic writer describing the voyage of 1602, a land “faire and pleasant, resembling France, temperate and well-agreeing with our constitution.”3 For ships coasting for six hundred miles from Maine to Jamestown, the anchorage behind the Cape’s northern tip had offered a safe haven for at least half a decade.
Landfall came as a relief after more than nine weeks at sea, but by itself it gave Jones no cause for satisfaction, and for William Bradford and his fellow Pilgrims the sight of Cape Cod brought with it new anxieties. Because of their false starts and foul weather—for many days, the winds were “so feirce, and ye seas so high, as they could not beare a knote of saile,” Bradford later remembered—they were two months behind schedule. It seems that the Mayflower had found her way up the long slot of deep water that today forms the main shipping lane to Boston. Slanting northwestward on a naval chart, it passes between the dangers of the Nantucket shoals inshore and those of Georges Bank far out at sea. Even so, Jones had lost his way.
They were nearly 250 miles from the destination he had hoped to find, somewhere between Rockaway Beach and Staten Island, with Manhattan beckoning behind them. And, within the belly of his ship, Jones carried a complicated human cargo, and one that might cause trouble.
Between the timbers of the Mayflower lay a wet, narrow space smelling of vinegar, vomit, stale meat, and overripe cheese. In daylight the lower deck resembled a long dim corridor. Partially blocked at intervals by nautical clutter, at night it was entirely dark. From deck to deck the headroom was no more than about five feet, or only four in places where the beams reached from side to side. A crouching man found his way impeded by a capstan for hoisting the Mayflower’s anchors, three masts, the bulkiest nearly two feet thick, and the dismantled hull of a shallop, or small boat. The rest of the crowded space was filled with human beings and their belongings.4
After so long at sea, the indignities of the voyage threatened to reduce them to a demoralized rabble. “A boisterous sea and stormy weather will make a man not bred on it so queasy sick,” wrote a maritime author of the day, Sir William Monson, “that it bereaves him of legs, stomach and courage so much as to fight with his meate.”5 And yet everything we know about the Mayflower’s passage suggests that they strove to keep up appearances and to maintain decorum.
Even on the ocean, the English ranked each other in categories, carefully arranged in grades of wealth and social status. Twenty-four households traveled on the Mayflower. At least fifteen, with between them forty-nine members, were headed by an adult male who had lived in Leiden. The remaining nine households came from England; some apparently had Puritan leanings, of a less radical form, and it seems that some were purely economic migrants. We cannot be precise, because the passenger list does not refer to their religion, or their lack of it; it simply proceeds in order of deference. At the top were John and Katherine Carver, people of substance traveling with five servants, including John Howland, and an adopted child. At the bottom of the list sat ten single men without families, land, or skilled occupations. Sadly, because Carver failed to survive more than a few months in the New World, we know little about him, beyond the fact that he was “godly & well approved,” as Bradford put it, and their first choice as the colony’s governor. In the England of the period, a man of property naturally expected to serve as a local official.6
It seems that the discipline he enforced extended to hygiene. Next to scurvy, amoebic dysentery ranked as the worst marine affliction, the so-called bloody flux that had killed Sir Francis Drake. And yet in the Mayflower’s case, only one crew member and one passenger failed to complete the journey, the latter being William Butten, a boy of fifteen who died a few days before they sighted land. Perhaps, as some have argued, wine residues in the ship’s planks helped prevent infection, since wine lees are mildly antiseptic. But this cannot have had more than a very marginal effect, if any at all. More likely, they held disease at bay by keeping their quarters clean, and always going up on deck to empty their bowels and bladders.
Whether or not they were hygienic, their presence created difficulties for Jones, since human beings occupied precious space. To fill out their earnings, seamen were given part of the hold for “furthing,” a stock of trading goods they carried on their own account for dealing freelance at either end of the voyage. On the Mayflower, the colonists and their stores would have limited the room available for goods of such a kind. Since seamen resented emigrants, animosity between them might provoke a mutiny: shipboard squabbles were commonplace at the time, mainly arising from low wages or from the failure to pay them at all. In 1605 an angry English crew had refused to take a cargo of colonists to Guyana. Instead, they mutinied and marooned them on the island of St. Lucia, leaving them to starve or to be slaughtered by the Caribs.7
Evidence of the unpleasant atmosphere on board the Mayflower survives in Bradford’s text. He speaks of the ship’s boatswain, who was “a prowde yonge man, and would often curse, & scofe at ye passengers.” This comment takes on its full meaning when we bear in mind that the boatswain was the most senior member of the crew. Responsible for sails and rigging, he conveyed the master’s orders to the sailors and took charge of the loading of the ship’s cargo. Under his direction, passengers came on board and stowed their possessions. During the voyage they fell beneath his control. Since he had to be able to read and write—he had to keep a “bosun’s book” listing the ship’s freight—his scoffing might be well-informed: from printed satires, or anti-Puritan jokes from the playhouse, he would know how best to needle a Separatist.8
For all these reasons, Jones would be eager to disembark his passengers swiftly. So he decided to make straight for the Hudson. Within a few hours they came to a place where the glaciers that formed Nantucket Island and the Cape left on the seabed a shifting labyrinth of sandbanks and shoals.
A man with Jones’s knowledge of England’s coastal hazards would not try to find his way through them without a pilot. So, when they sighted the breakers, they swiftly turned back from a point somewhere close to Pollock Rip, where the modern chart shows as little as eight feet of water. Back they went northward by night for fifty miles, passing the buff-colored ridge called the Highlands, close to the outer end of the Cape. At last the following day they rounded Race Point and entered the wide, shallow stillness of Provincetown Harbor, dotted then and now with a multitude of gulls, “the greatest store of fowl that ever we saw.”9
Behind the calm waters of the anchorage, William Bradford saw only savagery and terror. For him, it was a wild country already chilled by the first onset of winter, “hedious & desolate,” full of wild beasts and wild men. Four times on a single page of his manuscript he wrote the word “wilderness” to describe Cape Cod. In front of them lay a desert, another word from his vocabulary: no inns, no habitations, but only woods and thickets.
He likened the Pilgrims to the apostle Paul, stranded by a storm on the island of Malta, but their predicaments seemed to be very different. Paul met inhabitants who warmed him by their fire, while the Pilgrims could expect only arrows from the native people. Behind them was the ocean, vast and furious, dividing them from what Bradford calls “ye civill parts of the world.” Even so, he writes, they fell on their knees and gave thanks to God.
So Bradford remembered the occasion, when he described it in the early 1630s. His first narrative of the Pilgrim arrival had told another story. It can be found in Mourt’s Relation, the journal he co-authored with his fellow Pilgrim Edward Winslow, published in London in 1622. Intended for public consumption, to attract new investment and new settlers, it called the Outer Cape a “goodly land,” and it heaped praise upon the haven. Provincetown Harbor would safely hold a thousand ships, they said. It promised rich whale fishing, cod in season, and beyond the beach freshwater and timber for cooking fires.10
Which version was correct? Was the Cape a goodly land or a wilderness? Neither account was objective fact of a simple kind, but in the space between the two narratives we find William Bradford himself. He lived a double or a treble life, as man of God, entrepreneur, and founder of a new commonwealth. In his account of the voyage, it was the Calvinist who held the upper hand, and because of that we can reenter his imagination and experience the arrival as he would have done.
Somewhere out on the ocean, amid the blast of a gale, John Howland slipped off the wet timbers of the Mayflower. He may have been no more than twenty-one, a “lustie younge man,” says Bradford. Howland came up on deck and fell off, but before he hit the waves, he caught a rope that was trailing in the sea. It kept him afloat long enough for somebody to fish him out of the surging water with a boat hook within the short span of minutes before the cold froze his muscles and fatally weakened his grip.
Howland went on to spend five decades in America, acting as manager of the beaver trading post at Cushnoc. Lusty young John became, in Bradford’s words, a “profitable member” of the community, not least when, much later, in a gunfight on the Kennebec Howland and his men killed an English fur-trading competitor. Howland lived on until 1673, surviving William Bradford by more than fifteen years. He and his wife, Elizabeth, founded a lineage with perhaps more descendants than any other Mayflower couple.
He ended his days on his farm close to the cove at Rocky Nook, still the quietest and prettiest place in what was once the Plymouth Colony, looking out across mudflats, wading birds, and salt marsh toward the modern town of Duxbury. When he died, Howland left his widow, ten children, and eighty-eight grandchildren, and an ample herd of cows, sheep, and goats, but he also left something else. He owned an item that, like a key, unlocks the meaning of the journey as he and Bradford understood it.
We need the key because Bradford tells the story in such an unusual way. He describes the voyage and the arrival at Cape Cod in the ninth chapter of the first book of his history of New Plymouth, but in a manner that, if we are honest, most readers will find odd, or even evasive. The more often we read it, the stranger it becomes, like a message in code in search of decipherment.11
Chapter 9 contains fewer than eighteen hundred words, and barely seven hundred concern the passage across the open sea. Another three hundred describe the landfall, the dangers of Pollock Rip, and the double back around Race Point. The remaining paragraphs consist of a long, eloquent contemplation of the wilderness, as Bradford first saw it. But in telling the story of the voyage, the Pilgrim left out almost every fact that most readers, then and now, would consider relevant or essential.
The name, design, and dimensions of the ship and the number of crew members: none of these appear in Bradford’s history, and he says very little about Jones. We have to fill in the details from other sources, using a few clues scattered here or in Mourt’s Relation. Chapter 9 leaves out the birth at sea of Oceanus Hopkins, son of a Pilgrim couple. It makes only the briefest mention of the death of William Butten. Bradford never talks about food, drink, armaments, pirates, the last view of land, or meetings with other craft, such as the Newfoundland ships, some of which they must have seen. He says nothing whatever about the route.
These gaps were unusual, even by the standards of his age. Travel books were popular, and navigation fascinated laypeople who had never set foot on a ship. When John Winthrop kept his journal of his voyage in 1630, he listed all the facts and figures that Bradford omits, and far more besides. Winthrop recorded sixteen calculations of the ship’s latitude made, clouds permitting, with sightings of the noonday sun as the vessel, the Arbella, tacked westward from the Lizard along the forty-third parallel. He drew sketches of the coast of Maine and a rough map of the shore leading to the ship’s destination at Salem. Winthrop even mentions the venison pies they ate when they arrived.
Bradford gives us none of this. From what must have been many incidents, during the sixty-six days between the English Channel and the Cape, he selected only very few, of which Howland’s narrow escape was one. Before describing it, Bradford tells us about another lusty youth, Howland’s ungodly double, a “proud … & profane” seaman who jeered and cursed the seasick passengers, saying that he expected to dump half of them over the side before journey’s end. It pleased God to smite the young man with disease, and he was tossed overboard himself.
William Bradford’s most famous anecdote concerns a flaw in the ship. When the Mayflower left Plymouth, the wind was “prosperus,” says Bradford, for what he calls “a season”—again, he does not say how long it was—until the ship encountered headwinds. Shaken and leaking, the ship struggled on against gales so fierce that the crew had to strike her sails and lie hull down among the steep waves, or risk losing her masts. During one of these episodes, as the Mayflower lay without a sheet of canvas to catch the wind, Howland came up on deck and was nearly lost. The flaw appeared amidships, when one of the beams that supported the main deck bent and began to crack.
Causing alarm and agitated discussion, the incident could not have happened at a worse moment. They were almost exactly halfway across. It would be hard to weigh the hazards of a return in winter past the Lizard against the risk of finding no means to make repairs in America. But, confident in his vessel, Jones eventually convinced passengers and crew that her timbers were sound underwater. As for the sagging beam, they heaved it back to the horizontal with an iron screw—these can still be seen today, in the few working windmills preserved in eastern England, used like a wheel jack to lift sacks of flour—end then the Mayflower’s carpenter wedged a post beneath it, supported by the lower deck.
And yet again Bradford leaves a hole in his narrative. The beam must have been more than twenty feet long and a foot in diameter. It would have been as heavy as six grown men. A joiner who knows English oak will tell you that such a beam will split only under extreme force from above. William Bradford never tells us how this could have happened, while the other beams remained unscathed. Perhaps the timber was rotten, which might explain why the splitting wood aroused so much anxiety. But Bradford never says that this was so, leaving rot merely as a possibility lingering in the margin. Even his account of Howland’s narrow escape contains a perplexing feature. Bradford calls the rope that saved him a halyard, used to raise a topsail. Only a very shoddy boatswain would let a halyard dangle into the water, instead of making it fast to a cleat: Bradford offers no explanation.
But then why should he? William Bradford did not claim to be a seafarer. Unlike three other Pilgrims—Winslow, Miles Standish, and Isaac Allerton—he never made business trips back across the Atlantic. He did not write a sailor’s yarn, dense with salty detail. For Bradford, the voyage possessed deeper meanings that mattered far more than blocks, tackle, and belaying pins. We can find the key to them in a book possessed by John Howland, listed in the inventory of his estate.
THE PILGRIMS AND THE RABBIS
The Pilgrims respected few men more than a destitute scholar called Henry Ainsworth, the author of the book in question. Like them, he was an exiled Separatist. It was said that Ainsworth lived in Amsterdam on ten pence per week, little more than a day’s pay for an English field laborer. But Ainsworth was a brilliant writer, with a prose style so lucid that it can still be read with ease. Bradford called him “a man of a Thousand,” modest, sociable, and friendly, “pregnant in the Scriptures as if the booke of God had been written in his hart.”12 The proof of this could be found in Ainsworth’s masterpiece, Annotations upon the Five Books of Moses, the book that belonged to Howland, and the commentary on the Psalms that Ainsworth wrote to go with it.
The Annotations traveled to New England with the Pilgrims. This we know because, in 1622, William Brewster gave it to a friendly visitor from Virginia who wanted to study it on the boat home. Bradford owned another copy, and reading Ainsworth left a deep mark on him. By way of Ainsworth, William Bradford fell under the influence of Judaism, its rabbis of the Middle Ages, and their manner of interpreting the Bible and the vagaries of human life. It was because of this that Bradford wrote about the Mayflower as he did.
Born at the end of the 1560s, Henry Ainsworth came like Bradford and John Robinson from a family of yeoman farmers. Like Robinson, he rode up on a rising tide of erudition at Cambridge University. In 1586, a donor endowed a lectureship in Hebrew at the college where Ainsworth was a student. He belonged to a generation that took to the language with enthusiasm. Preachers trained at Cambridge liked to baffle their congregations with phrases from the Old Testament original. Even Mr. Jones, sitting in his pew at Rotherhithe, may have endured something of the kind. His parish minister enjoyed expounding the book of Job in Hebrew at enormous length.
Hebrew possessed a special appeal for Puritans. They wished to swim back up the stream of learning, and to absorb the wisdom of the Bible from as close to the source as possible, free from what they saw as Roman Catholic duplicity or errors in translation. But they did not expect the meaning of the text to be simple, and they did not simply dismiss the scholars who preceded them. Some of them did exactly the reverse. They read with sympathy the rabbis of the Roman Empire, Egypt, and medieval Spain, authors whose books were preserved by the Jews of Germany or Venice.
By 1600, England’s finest scholar of Hebrew was a man called Hugh Broughton. Pedantic and abrasive, he insulted the archbishop of Canterbury, fell out with the authorities, and made his own home in Amsterdam, where his circle of contacts included Ainsworth. Eager to meet German rabbis, Broughton traveled to Frankfurt, debated Scripture in the synagogue, and made a list of twenty-two essential books by Jewish authors. Besides grammars and dictionaries, it included classical texts of Judaism such as the Midrash and the Babylonian Talmud, vast rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, the five books of Moses, and on the laws and rituals of the Jewish faith.13 Henry Ainsworth found within them a subtle method for deepening the meaning of the Bible, and for giving resonance to daily life as well.
Inspired by the work of the rabbis, Ainsworth made new translations of the Psalms and the Torah, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. He wrapped around them a commentary, verse by verse and word by word, trying to distill every drop of meaning conveyed by their authors. He pointed out that when Jewish scholars turned the Bible into Greek, a single Hebrew term often required several Greek words in its place. This was a sign of what he called “the copiousnesse of matter” contained in the original.
For the rabbis, everything in the Bible had a connection to everything else. They compared the task of looking for the Word of God to the hard labor of dropping a bucket into a very deep well and then lifting it back by arduous effort.14 Ainsworth developed a similar technique, calling it “the exquisite scanning of words and phrases.” He drew upon many rabbis, but Ainsworth named one thinker as by far the most exquisite of all. This was the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who lived in the twelfth century. During the Jacobean era, Maimonides came to enjoy the highest prestige among English scholars, and Ainsworth was no exception. He called Maimonides “the wisest of the Hebrew Rabbins,” and in his Annotations he quotes him many times.15
Up to a point, the technique of Maimonides was familiar. Henry Ainsworth was certainly not the first Englishman to adopt it, at least in its simpler forms. For many centuries orthodox, mainstream writers had looked for depth and double meaning in the Old Testament. For a Christian, each of its stories could be read as a forecast, an anticipation or a prophecy of the ultimate truth of the Gospel. Jonah in the belly of the whale foreshadowed, for example, the descent of Christ into hell between the afternoon of Good Friday and the Sunday morning of resurrection. To this way of thinking, when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they enacted in advance the passage of a Christian soul to salvation. In the wilderness, God gave the Israelites manna to eat. It symbolized the bread of life, the body of Christ, or the Eucharist granted to the faithful at the Last Supper.
Ainsworth certainly thought in this way, in terms of typology, a way of reading Old Testament events as types or parallels of some later, Christian revelation. But his “exquisite scanning” went much further, into a territory far more subtle. Typology was often rigid, preprogrammed, like a spreadsheet on a laptop, mechanically making each biblical passage carry fixed meanings sanctioned by tradition. Ainsworth took from Maimonides something far more agile and nuanced. Like the authors of the Midrash, he looked not for two or three meanings but for scores of them, in a free-floating, poetic, almost playful way of reading the Scriptures. As Ainsworth said: “The Hebrew Doctors have a saying, that the Law hath seventie faces … and all of them truth.” When Bradford read the Bible, or meditated on his life, he looked for seventy meanings too.16
SEVENTY MEANINGS OF THE MAYFLOWER
Nearly forty years after landing on Cape Cod, William Bradford began to teach himself Hebrew. “I have had a longing desire,” he said, “to see with my owne eyes, something of that most ancient language, and holy tongue … and what names were given to things, from the Creation.” To help him, he had a Hebrew grammar, bequeathed by William Brewster, and the same early American library contained a Hebrew dictionary.
Paper was scarce. For that reason, Bradford copied out his exercises on blank pages at the front of the manuscript of his history of the plantation. He covered the white space with nearly nine hundred Hebrew words, starting with eight names for God. Among his vocabulary, he carefully spelled out the Hebrew consonants of the word midbar. In the book of Exodus, it describes the wilderness of Sinai, crossed by the Israelites on their way to Canaan.17
Although Bradford came late to the Hebrew alphabet, he had known the word midbar for most of his adult life. Midbar appears in more than ninety verses in the Torah, and Ainsworth referred to it often, spelling it out in English in his Annotations. In Genesis, Hagar wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba, with her son Ishmael trailing behind her. In another wilderness, on the slopes of Mount Horeb, the prophet Moses found the angel of Jehovah in a burning bush. In the wilderness the Israelites turned their backs on God, and in the wilderness Christ endured temptation. From these stories, Ainsworth extracted a host of meanings, and they lay near Bradford’s elbow as he wrote.
Midbar, said Ainsworth, meant a place where men go wild and go astray, a land without order, a dwelling fit only for beasts, a place where God puts his people to the test of affliction. It might also refer to “the wilderness of peoples” in the book of Ezekiel, meaning the many nations of the world, with dispersed among them the wandering Jews. The wilderness was a place of hunger and thirst, bodily starvation but also a famine of the spirit. Midbar symbolized the human soul lost in sin, but the word could carry opposing connotations at the same time. It referred to danger, destitution, and loss but also to salvation.
Midbar meant the wasteland across which men and women traveled to Egypt to enter servitude, but it also offered their escape toward the promised land. In the wilderness, the Israelites starved and then fed on the manna provided by God. The book of Numbers described their itinerary to Canaan, but in Hebrew its name was Bemidbar. According to Ainsworth, in the book of Bemidbar the journeys of the tribes of Israel were “the figure of our spirituall warfare; whereunto we are mustered and armed to fight the good fight of faith.”
When Bradford used the word “wilderness” four times on one page, he did so with these meanings crowding in on his own imagination. When he mentions the thickets of Cape Cod, he has in mind not only the physical reality, the dense stands of pitch pine and the undergrowth of scrub oaks at Provincetown, but also the religious meaning that they might conceal. From Ainsworth’s notes, he knew that the name Sinai came from the Hebrew seneh, or “bramble.” In the vegetation of the Cape, the Pilgrim saw the brambles of Horeb and the burning bush. Ainsworth said that the brambles symbolized the Church, confined and persecuted in Pharaoh’s Egypt. They meant the same perhaps to William Bradford. Tangled scrub made the Outer Cape a fearful wilderness, but also a place of epiphany. Here a Pilgrim found an echo of his reasons for leaving England, another wasteland of a metaphorical kind.
The Pilgrims believed that everything followed a plan, laid down by God before the beginning of the world, but it was a secret plan. That was the teaching of John Calvin. Veiled from sinful humanity, the plan was obscure, as hard to decode as a blazing star. By way of the Bible, clues might be found to the will of God, but only after prayer, study, and discussion, and with the aid of faith, itself a gift of God issued only to the elect. A Calvinist like Bradford came at experience in an exploratory manner, searching back and forth for scattered truth just as Ainsworth scanned the Bible. And when he came to tell his own story, he would do so in the same style. Even without conscious effort, if Bradford used the language he knew best, the diction of Genesis, Saint Paul, or the Psalms, he would write a resonant narrative, filled with connotation and nuance. His text would gleam with latent hints of the unseen.
A voyage was a parable, each episode an intimation of mystery. For pious men and women, the sea made visible the ways of God to man. Calvin likened the souls of the elect, chosen for salvation, to a sailor who lived through a storm, escaping death. Sinners talked about luck or good fortune, but a true Christian knew that every rescue was foreordained by God, so that a sea story might become another avenue of revelation. In the harbor towns of Devon, the preachers scattered maritime metaphors in their sermons. At Plymouth in 1620, the town preacher was a Puritan, and in his sermons he compared the human soul on earth to a seaman pursued by pirates.18
The sea was a fertile symbol. On the face of the waters, men found redemption and terror alike. Encircling the earth, without end or beginning, unknowably deep, a source of life and wealth, but also an instrument of punishment, the ocean evoked the majesty of God, the unfathomable power of Calvin’s divinity. For his own just purposes, God made the sea the home of monsters and devils, still believed by many to be the cause of hurricanes and storms. Inconstant, uncertain, ebbing and flowing, sometimes placid, but often deadly, the ocean signified the sinful world of men, filled with unseen hazards. In the voyage of life, the soul must steer between the sands of self-love, the gulf of intemperance, and the rock of blasphemy. Sitting on the rock were mermaids, symbols of lust and earthly pleasure.
All of these similes appeared in sermons and in poetry. A ship was more than a wooden hull, topped by masts and rigging, propelled by canvas filled with moving air. She was an image of the true Church, the Church Militant, carrying as ballast the fear of God. Her sails represented faith, her masts were the cross of Christ, and the wind that blew her forward was the Holy Spirit. Her cannon were the Ten Commandments, her helm was conscience, and her compass was the Bible. A tempest symbolized the persecution of the godly, and the leaks in her planks were the wounds in the flanks of the Church caused by heresy and schism.19
Bradford described a real voyage, experienced firsthand, but he carried his own heavy cargo of associations. In almost every sentence, he alludes to the Bible. Was Howland an ordinary young man? Or a junior Moses, saved from the water like the prophet when Pharaoh’s daughter found him floating in the Nile? Were the crew of the Mayflower another grumbling batch of Jacobean sailors? Or, as they debated the cracked beam, did they act out the roles of the sailors who threw Jonah into the sea?
For Bradford, trained by Ainsworth, each episode carried a plethora of meanings. In the splitting beam, he would see more than a damaged lump of wood. For him, it might represent the rot caused in the soul or in the Church, by sin or by strife. England was Egypt, the Atlantic was the Red Sea, and Cape Cod was Sinai. The stormy passage of the Mayflower re-enacted other voyages in the Bible: the ark of Noah, Paul’s journey to Rome, and on the waters of Galilee the twelve disciples, with Christ as master of their fishing boat.
Inside the head of William Bradford, the Pilgrims mimed out these episodes of sacred history. When they reached dry land, they repeated another ancient formula. At Provincetown, the Pilgrims fell on their knees and thanked God, says Bradford. Again, behind his narrative lies a Hebrew model. It came by way of Bradford’s knowledge of a Jewish ritual, the birkat hagomel, a ceremony of thanksgiving.
A FIRST THANKSGIVING
In 1618, the first prayer book for sailors appeared in print in England, written by a parish minister in the City of London. He had recently given a farewell sermon to the crew of the Royal James, bound for the Orient for the East India Company, and his book carried a dedication to its shareholders. Dr. John Wood gave it the subtitle Holy Meditations for Sea-Men. It contained prayers to be read at sea, before a battle, during a storm, or at the funeral of a crewman.
Among the prayers he included one titled “Thankes-Giving to God After Deliverance from a Tempest.” The clergy often read thanksgiving prayers, and under Elizabeth it became customary to draft new ones for every blessed occasion: the end of an epidemic, the Armada’s defeat, or some bloody massacre inflicted on the Irish.20 Wood composed a seagoing version, using as raw material words and phrases from the Psalms to assemble a chorus in praise of the might and mercy of God. One psalm gave him more words than any other. This was Psalm 107, used later in the English rite for a burial at sea. It spoke of seamen engulfed by a storm who pray to God until he brings them to a peaceful harbor.
As a Separatist, wary of official worship, Bradford did not care for prefabricated liturgy read from a book. However, the Pilgrims had all grown up with thanksgiving prayers, and every Christian had a duty to say such things. If the prayers followed the Bible, no one could object. So Bradford did the same. At the end of chapter 9, after his meditation on the American landscape, he also repeats verses from Psalm 107, words that describe the journey of the Israelites across Sinai. “When they wandered in ye deserte wildernes out of ye way, and found no citie to dwell in, both hungrie & thirstie, their sowle was overwhelmed in them,” writes Bradford, quoting the Psalm from the Geneva Bible, the translation used in early New England. “Let them confess before ye Lord his loving kindnes, and his wonderfull works before ye sons of men.”
For the Pilgrims, these words carried a double meaning, arising from a Hebrew source. If Bradford turned to the notes Ainsworth added to Psalm 107, he would find Ainsworth quoting Maimonides. Writing about the Mishnah, the Jewish code of laws, the rabbi said that the words of the Psalm, including the verses quoted by Bradford, gave birth to the Jewish rite of thanksgiving. The Talmud listed four occasions when the birkat hagomel was compulsory: the healing of a sickness, the release of a prisoner, the end of a voyage, and the arrival of travelers at their destination. Ainsworth listed them too, and described the form taken by the Jewish prayer. It was a public confession of the goodness and majesty of God, of exactly the kind that the Pilgrims performed at Provincetown.21
A year later, most likely in October 1621, after their first harvest, the colonists held the festivities commemorated by the modern Thanksgiving. Winslow described them in two sentences. He mentions three days of feasting on game, wildfowl shot by the English, and venison killed by the native warriors who joined the celebrations. This is more or less all he says, but Winslow’s brief paragraph has given birth to a weary torrent of controversy. Did they eat turkey? Did they wear pointed hats? Was the event holy or secular, a wilder version of an English harvest festival? Did they call it a thanksgiving? Or was it something the native people termed a nickommo, a ritual feast or dance held to avert drought or sickness, to celebrate good fortune or bring victory in war?
Most likely, it meant one thing to one person and something else to another, as communal occasions always do. But if we could ask William Bradford to define the first Thanksgiving in America, he would point to something else. He would say that it took place at the instant of arrival, at the moment on Cape Cod when the Pilgrims fell on their knees to say the Jewish prayer. And yet even this act of devotion contained an undercurrent of melancholy, of a kind often found between the lines of Bradford’s text. He likened the Pilgrims on the Cape to Moses, as the prophet gazed out across the plain of Jericho. At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, from a mountaintop Moses saw the promised land. As Bradford knew well, the prophet had crossed Sinai, but he never entered Canaan. Moses died, leaving his bones in an unmarked grave on the edge of the wilderness. An identical fate awaited half the Mayflower’s passengers and crew.
Here we leave the Pilgrims for the time being, on the Outer Cape, approaching the first snowfall. Behind them lay a long process of formation. To find its beginnings, we have to go back two generations, and to violent death in eastern England nearly forty years before. At New Plymouth, Bradford and his comrades recalled as heroic forerunners two Englishmen who were hanged in 1583. They died on gibbets in a muddy field near the market town of Bury St. Edmunds.
Their execution came about because of the career of a man called Robert Browne. Thanks to him, Separatists like the Pilgrims came to be known as Brownists. A man who embarrassed everybody, including William Bradford, he earned the nickname “Troublechurch Browne.” Time and again historians have mentioned him briefly and then pushed him quietly to one side, pretending that this infuriating, volatile character had little direct influence on the Pilgrims. It is time Browne came in from the cold, and with him the concealed history of Pilgrim origins. They lie deep within the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in England and also among the Calvinist gentry of France.