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William Bradford: The Orphaned Pilgrim

6 min

Seven-year-old William Bradford stood over the grave of his mother in the little village of Austerfield in the hills of Yorkshire, England. Having previously lost his father when he was a baby, young William was now alone in the world. Few would have supposed that this orphaned boy would amount to anything. But the Lord Who has “chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise” and “the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” had a special destiny for this orphan.

William was sent to live with an uncle on the family farm. A debilitating sickness left his body too frail to perform the manual labor required on the farm. He turned instead to books, especially the Word of God, and found comfort and strength in the Scriptures.

At the age of eleven, William was invited to go and hear a preacher named Richard Clyfton in the village of Babworth. He walked ten miles each Lord’s Day to hear the Bible taught in its simplicity, without the ceremonies, vestments, and candles of the English church. Thus, young William Bradford was introduced to the group of Christian believers known as “Separatists.” 

In his later writing, William described the Separatists as a group who “endeavored to establish the right worship of God and the discipline of Christ in the Church according to the simplicity of the gospel and without the mixture of men’s inventions, and to be ruled by the laws of God’s Word.”

A kindly postmaster and leader of the Separatist group named William Brewster befriended this poor orphaned boy. The man welcomed him into his large, stately home. Young Bradford was invited to eat meals with the Brewster family, and the family library was made available for his use. In 1602, the Separatist group began meeting in Mr. Brewster’s home. As persecution rose against the group of English Separatists, the leaders came to the conclusion that they must move to the “Low Countries,” as the Netherlands were then called. After many difficulties, the Separatists and William Bradford, now eighteen years old, moved to Amsterdam and lived there for a year before settling in Leiden.

In Leiden, William Bradford met and married Dorothy May, the daughter of another English refugee. The Lord blessed the couple with a son, whom they named John. William Bradford supported his little family by learning the art of weaving fustian, a heavy cotton used in the making of garments.

After ten years in the city of Leiden, the Separatist congregation came to the hard decision to leave the Low Countries and seek another home across the ocean in the wilderness of America.  Bradford himself gives one of the most important reasons for the relocation. “But still more lamentable . . . was that many of the children, influenced by these conditions, and the great licentiousness of the young people of the country, and the many temptations of the city, were led by evil example into dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks and leaving their parents . . . to the great grief of the parents and the dishonor of God.”

Thus, William Bradford and a small band of fellow “Pilgrims” boarded the Mayflower to journey to the New World. Bradford said of the decision, “The difficulties were many, but not invincible.” William and Dorothy made the painful choice to leave their son John in the care of his grandparents and to bring him over once they had made a home in the wilderness. It was a sad parting as the ship pulled away, separating William and Dorothy from the son that they dearly loved.

The voyage on the Mayflower was filled with many dangers and troubles. The Speedwell, the ship that the Pilgrims had purchased for their journey, sprang a severe leak and had to be abandoned in England. Bradford wrote, “And thus, like Gideon’s army, this small number was divided, as if the Lord . . . thought these few too many for the great work He had to do.” Those who were determined to sail on to America crowded onto the remaining vessel.

After many weeks at sea, the weary passengers excitedly sighted land. Bradford wrote of that moment:

But here I cannot but make a pause, and stand half amazed at this poor people’s present condition; and so I think will the reader, too, when he considers it well. Having thus passed the vast ocean . . . they now had no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather-beaten bodies. 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 hue. 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 could now sustain them but the Spirit of God, and of his grace?

Upon arrival at Cape Cod, the Pilgrim men spent the first several weeks exploring the land, searching for a suitable place for a settlement. On one of these occasions, William Bradford accidentally stepped into a snare that the local Indians had set for deer. Catching him by the ankles, the cleverly laid snare, sprung by a sapling bent close to the ground, jerked Bradford’s feet out from under him and left him dangling head-down to the amusement of his companions! 

Another time, upon returning from one of these expeditions, Bradford searched the deck of the Mayflower in vain for his wife Dorothy. He was met with the heart-breaking news that somehow, she had fallen overboard and drowned in the cold waters. Having lost his father and mother in his youth, William was no stranger to death. Yet, the loss of his dear wife was a deeply painful blow.

Bradford bravely pressed on with his duties, knowing that he was not alone in his grief. During the first harsh winter in the New World, one-half of the group died. But the Lord did not abandon His people. He sent them mercy in the acquaintance of Squanto, an English-speaking native who taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, fish the streams, and harvest shellfish and eels from the waters of Plymouth Harbor. Bradford called Squanto “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”

In the spring of 1621, just months after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Governor John Carver died after suffering a pain in his head while planting corn. The colony looked to William Bradford, now only thirty-one years old, for leadership. Orphaned as a young boy and now a grieving widower, William had become by common consent the leader of Plymouth Colony. Through a series of manifold hardships, God had prepared Bradford for this hour.

That autumn, the people of Plymouth gathered to give thanks to God for His abundant mercies over the past year. Though many hardships lay behind them, many more still were in store. But God Who had planted these brave men and women here would continue to lead them. Bradford wrote: “And thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity.”

Governor William Bradford served as Governor of Plymouth Colony for most of the remainder of his life, dying in 1657. He was a wise governor, looking after the welfare of the people of God. He established the Law of God as the law of Plymouth, knowing that the blessing of Heaven could only rest upon them if they followed the Lord. Governor Bradford also remarried. The woman was a Godly widow named Alice Southworth, and the couple was blessed with two more sons and a daughter.

In his later years, Bradford wrote many words of exhortation for the next generation, encouraging the young people to hold fast to the Scriptures and to treasure their Godly heritage. On his four-sided tombstone is a verse from Psalms in Hebrew, a language that Bradford learned and loved: “The LORD is the strength of my life.” On another other side is an exhortation in Latin for succeeding generations. This statement is translated as follows: “What your fathers have with difficulty attained, do not basely relinquish.”

Sources & Further Reference:

  • Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. San Antonio: Vision Forum, 2003.
  • Fiore, Jordan, ed. Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims of Plymouth. Plymouth, MA: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1985.  
  • Fleming, Thomas. One Small Candle. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1980. 
  • Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: Voyage, Community, War. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. 
  • Schmidt, Gary D. William. Plymouth’s Faithful Pilgrim. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. 

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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