PLYMOUTH'S PILGRIMS CURRICULUM
Our four-part historical introduction and discussion guide, “Plymouth’s Pilgrims: Their Church, Their World, and Ours” is available in PDF format below, free of charge. Written by former CLA Board Member Linda Smith Rhoads, it provides short, pithy historical information along with thoughtful discussion questions.
We’ve also provided a few resources for those who want to dig deeper into the Pilgrim story. This includes four sets of historical documents, each of which pairs with a lesson in the discussion guide. You’ll also find web resources specifically geared toward the youth curriculum, and a list of the best new and old books on Plymouth’s history.
They Were One Body in Christ.
When individuals, generally women as well as men, joined together and signed a covenant setting forth their religious goals, they thereby declared themselves one body in Christ, that is, a formally constituted Congregational church. As Christ is quoted in Matthew 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” All prospective future members of that particular church were required to subscribe to its covenant.
There is no extant copy of the Scrooby congregation’s founding covenant; indeed, there is no evidence that it was committed to writing at the time. In Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford describes that momentous event as follows: “the Lord's free people, Joined themselves (by a Covenant of the Lord) into a church estate, in the fellowship of the Gospel to walk in all his ways, made known, or to be made known unto them (according to their best endeavours), whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them.”
More insight is to be found in Pastor John Robinson’s 1620 advice to his congregation’s departing members. He reminded them of their “Church-Covenant (at least that part of it) whereby we promise and covenant with God and one with another to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us from his written Word” (Winslow, Hypocrisie Unmasked, p. 97–98).
John Murton, Robinson’s contemporary, later reflected, “Do we not know the beginnings” of the Scrooby church?” “There was first one stood up and made a covenant, and then another, and these two joined together, and then a third, and these became a church, say they, etc.” (Timothy George, John Robinson and the English Separatist Tradition, p. 84–85).
They Were People of the Book.
Like other Protestant reformers, the pilgrims understood the Scriptures to be the word of God. But they also thought that biblical truth was not always clear; believers approached the Scriptures, as St. Paul observed, looking through a glass darkly. One of the striking religious characteristics of the pilgrims was their openness to further light, well expressed by their pastor, John Robinson, as recorded by Edward Winslow:
He [Robinson] was very confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word. He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed Churches, who were come to a period in Religion, and would go no further than the Instruments of their Reformation: As for example the Lutherans they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw, for whatever part of God’s will he had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it. And so also, saith he, you see the Calvinists, they stick where he left them: A misery much to be lamented; For though they were precious shining lights in their times, yet God had revealed his whole will to them; And were they now living, saith he, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as that they had received. Here also he put us in mind of our Church-Covenant (at least that part of it) whereby we promise and covenant with God and one with another, to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us from his written Word: but withal exhorted us to take heed what we received for truth, and well to examine and compare, and weigh it with other Scriptures of truth, before we received it; For, saith he, It is not possible the Christian world should come so lately out of such thick Antichristian darkness, and that full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once. (Winslow, Hypocrisie Unmasked, p. 97–98)
Robinson and his followers believed that the Scriptures should be available in the language of the people (the vernacular as opposed to Latin) and that all men and women should be taught to read so that they could engage with the text and, by the grace of the Spirit, better understand its meaning. Still, humans were imperfect interpreters, and so everyone (as Robinson instructed), laity and clergy alike, should be prepared to share their insights and remain open to the views of others. They referred to this process of sharing as “prophesying,” an application of the term that is distinct from its Old Testament use as foretelling future events. While some reformers maintained that only the clergy were capable of receiving and transmitting the Spirit’s enlightenment, others insisted that the Spirit could empower any believer. Robinson defined “prophesying” as “a kind of preaching” not to be limited to the ministry; “but that others having received a gift thereunto, may and ought to stir up the same, and to use it in the Church for edification, exhortation, and comfort.” (John Robinson, "A Justification of Separation from the Church of England," p. 246)
They Were Colonists. They Were Colonizers.
Crucial to the early history of the colony was the relationship between the pilgrims and the indigenous people they met. The sources reveal significant differences among the English in how they viewed and dealt with the Wampanoag Natives. In the following document extracts, colonist Edward Winslow exhibits more honesty toward and interest in engaging with the Natives than does William Bradford.
[William Bradford:] [They found] a good quantity of clear ground, where the Indians had formerly set corn, and some of their graves; and proceeding further they saw new stubble where corn had been set the same year, also they found where lately a house had been where some planks and a great kettle was remaining, and heaps of sand newly paddled with their hands, which they digging up, they found in them diverse fair Indian baskets filled with corn, and some in ears, fair and good of diverse colors, which seemed to them a very goodly sight [having never seen any such before]. (History of Plymouth Plantation, p. 82)
[Edward Winslow:] We found a little path to certain heaps of sand, one whereof was covered with old Matts, and had a wooden thing like a mortar whelmed [overturned] on the top of it, and an earthen pot laid in a little hole at the end thereof; we musing what it might be, digged & found a Bow, and, as we thought, Arrows, but they were rotten. We supposed, there were many other things, but because we deemed them graves, we put in the Bow again and made it up as it was, and left the rest untouched, because we thought it would be odious unto them to ransack their Sepulchers. [Going on further, they found another site] where an house had been, and four or five old Planks laid together; also we found a great Kettle, which had been some Ships kettle and brought out of Europe; there was also an heap of sand, made like the former, but as it was newly done, we might see how they paddled it with their hands which we digged up, and in it we found a little old Basket full of faire Indian Corn, and digged further & found a fine great new Basket full of very fair corn of this year, with some 36 goodly ears of corn, some yellow, and some red, and others mixt with blue, which was a very goodly sight: the Basket was round, and narrow at the top, it held about three or four Bushels, which was as much as two of us could lift up from the ground, and was very handsomely and cunningly made. . . . We were in suspense, what to doe with it, and the Kettle, and at length after much consultation, we concluded to take the Kettle, and as much of the Corn as we could carry away with us; and when our Shallop came, if we could find any of the people, and come to parley with them, we would give them the Kettle again, and satisfy them for their Corn. (Mourt’s Relation, p. 6–7)
The “First” Thanksgiving
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had; and to fit up their houses and dwellings, against winter, being all well recovered in health & strength; and had all things in good plenty, for as some were thus Employed in affairs abroad; others were exercised in fishing, about cod, & bass, & other fish of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion; all the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees), and besides water fowl, there was great store of wild Turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, &c. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. (History of Plymouth Plantation, p. 105)
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 fruit of our labors. 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 they 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. (Mourt’s Relation, p. 61)
Treaty with Massasoit
1. That neither he nor any of his, should Injure or do hurt, to any of their people [i.e., the pilgrims]. 2. That if any of his, did any hurt to any of theirs, he should send the offender, that they might punish him. 3. That if anything were taken away from any of theirs, he should cause it to be restored; and they should do the like to his. 4. If any did unjustly war against him, they would aid him; if any did war against them, he should aid them. 5. He should send to his neighbours confederates, to certify them of this, that they might not wrong them, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace. 6. That when their men came to them, they should leave their bows & arrows behind them. (History of Plymouth Plantation, p. 94)
1. That neither he nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of our people. 2. And if any of his did hurt to any of ours, he should send the offender, that we might punish him. 3. That if any of our Tools were taken away when our people were at work, he should cause them to be restored, and if ours did any harm to any of his, we would do the like to them. 4. If any did unjustly war against him, we would aid him; if any did war against us, he should aid us. 5. He should send to his neighbour Confederates, to certify them of this, that they might not wrong us, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of Peace. 6. That when their men came to us, they should leave their Bows and Arrows behind them, as we should do our Pieces when we came to them. (Mourt’s Relation, p. 37)
Robert Cushman’s Account of Early Relations with the Indigenous People
They [Natives] are very much wasted of late, by reason of a great mortality that fell amongst them three years since, which together with their own civil dissensions and bloody wars, hath so wasted them, as I think the twentieth person is scarce left alive, and those that are left, have their courage much abated, and their countenance is dejected, and they seem as a people affrighted. And though when we came first into the country, we were few, and many of us were sick, and many died by reason of the cold and wet, it being the depth of winter, and we having no houses nor shelter, yet when there was not six able persons amongst us, and that they came daily to us by hundreds, with their sachems, or kings, and might in one hour have made a dispatch of us, yet such a fear was upon them, as that they never offered us the least injury in word or deed. And by reason of one Tisquanto, that lives amongst us that can speak English, we have daily commerce with their Kings & can know what is done or intended towards us amongst the savages. Also, we can acquaint them with our courses and purposes, both humane and religious. And the greatest Commander of the country called Massasoit cometh often to visit us, though he live fifty miles from us, and often sends us presents, he having with many of their governors promised, yea, subscribed obedience to our sovereign Lord King James, and for his cause to spend both strength and life. And we for our parts, through God’s grace, have with that equity, justice, and compassion carried ourselves towards them, as that they have received much favour, help, and aid from us, but never the least injury or wrong by us. We found the place where we live empty, the people being all dead & gone away, and none living nearby 8 or 10 miles; and though in the time of some hardship we found (travelling abroad) some 8 bushels of corn hid up in a cave, and knew no owners of it, we gave them (in their estimation) double the value of it. . . We find in many of them [Natives], especially of the younger sort, such a tractable disposition, both to Religion and humanity, as that if we had means to apparel them, & wholly to retain them with us (as their desire is) they would doubtless in time prove serviceable to God and man, and if ever God send us means we will bring up hundreds of their children, both to labor and learning. (Cushman, The Sin and Danger of Self-Love, p. 8-9)
They Were Congregationalists.
From the outset, New World Congregationalists’ religious beliefs shaped their political institutions and their social outlook and actions.
The Mayflower Compact
Having decided to settle along Cape Cod and fearful that doing so outside the geographic boundaries of their patent might cause disruptions, the adult male passengers signed a document on November 11 known to us as the Mayflower Compact. Quoted here from William Bradford’s account in Of Plymouth Plantation, it reads in its entirety as follows:
In the name of God Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, & Ireland King, defender of the faith, &c.
Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith and honour of our king & country, a voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern parts of Virginia. Do by these presents solemnly & mutually in the presence of God, and one of another, Covenant, & Combine ourselves together into a Civil body politic; for our better ordering, & preservation & furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by vertue hereof to Enact, Constitute, and frame such just & equal laws, ordinances, Acts, constitutions, & offices, from time to time as shall be thought most meet & convenient for the general good of the Colony: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have here undersubscribed our names at Cape Cod the 11[th] of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James of England, France, & Ireland the eighteen[th], and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domine 1620. (Read the manuscript of the Mayflower Compact in William Bradford's hand)
The names of those who signed are provided in the New-England's Memorial, page 26:
John Carver Edward Tilley Digory Priest William Bradford John Tilley Thomas Williams Edward Winslow Francis Cook Gilbert Winslow William Brewster Thomas Rogers Edmond Margesson Isaac Allerton Thomas Tinker Peter Brown Miles Standish John Ridgedale Richard Britteridge John Alden Edward Fuller George Soule Samuel Fuller John Turner Richard Clark Christopher Martin Francis Eaton Richard Gardiner William Mullins James Chilton John Allerton William White John Craxton (Crackston) Thomas English Richard Warren John Billington Edward Doten John Howland Joses (Moses) Fletcher Edward Leister Stephen Hopkin John Goodman
Robert Cushman’s Sermon on Brotherly Love
The Congregationalists’ social outlook is set forth in Robert Cushman’s lay sermon on “the danger of self-love and the sweetness of true friendship,” delivered at Plymouth in December 1621. It may profitably be compared with John Winthrop’s more famous lay sermon on “Christian Charity,” preached to puritans embarking for Massachusetts in 1630. Cushman’s sermon was published in London in 1622 and is extracted below.
I charge you, let this self-seeking be left off, and turn the stream another way, namely, seek the good of your brethren, please them, honor them, reverence them, for otherwise it will never go well amongst you. (p. 13)
There is a generation which think to have more in this world than Adam’s felicity and innocence, being born (as they think) to take their pleasures and their ease. . . Such idle drones are intolerable in a settled commonwealth, much more in a commonwealth which is but as it were in the bud. Of what earth, I pray thee, art thou made, of any better than other of the sons of Adam? And canst thou see others of thy brethren toil their hearts out, and thou sit idle at home, or takest thy pleasure abroad? Remember the example of Uriah, who would not take his ease, nor his pleasure, though the King required him, and why? Because his brethren, his associates, better men than himself (as he esteemed them) were under hard labors and conditions, lay in the fields in tents, etc. (p. 17)
It is reported that there are many men gone to that other plantation in Virginia, which, whilst they lived in England, seemed very religious, zealous, and conscionable, and have now lost even the sap of grace and edge to all goodness, and are become mere worldlings. This testimony I believe to be partly true, and amongst the many causes of it this self-love is not the least. It is indeed a matter of some commendations for a man to remove himself out of a thronged place into a wide wilderness; to take in hand so long and dangerous a journey, to be an instrument to carry the Gospel and humanity among the brutish heathen. But there may be many goodly shows and glosses and yet a pad in the straw. Men may make a great appearance of respect unto God and yet but dissemble with him, having their own lusts carrying them. And, out of doubt, men that have taken in hand hither to come, out of discontentment in regard to their estates in England, and aiming at great matters here, affecting to be gentlemen, landed men, or hoping for office, place, dignity, or fleshly liberty. Let the show be what it will, the substance is nought, and that bird of self-love which was hatched at home, if it be not looked to, will eat out the life of all grace and goodness. And though men have escaped the danger of the sea, and that cruel mortality which swept away so many of our loving friends and brethren, yet, except they purge out this self-love, a worse mischief is prepared for them. And who knoweth whether God in mercy have delivered those men which here departed from the evils to come, and from unreasonable men in whom there neither was, nor is, any comfort but grief, sorrow, affliction, and misery, till they cast out this spawn of self-love. (p. 24)
'Let no man seek his own wealth, but every man seek another’s wealth.' And the word here translated [as] wealth, is the same with that in Rom. 13. 4 and may not be taken only for riches, as Englishmen commonly understand it, but for all kinds of benefits, favors, comforts, either for soul or body. (p. 24-25)
Now brethren, I pray you remember yourselves, and know that you are not in a retired Monarchical course, but have given your names and promises one to another, and covenanted here to cleave together in service of God and the King. What then must you do? . . . We ventured our lives together here, and had a hard brunt of it, and we are in league together. Is his [my brother’s] labor harder than mine? Surely I will ease him. Has he no bed to lie on? Why, I have two. I’ll lend him one. Hath he no apparel? Why, I have two suits. I’ll give him one of them. Why, surely we will part stakes. He is as good a man as I, and we are bound each to other, so that his wants must be my wants, his sorrows my sorrows, his sickness my sickness, and his welfare my welfare. For I am as he is, and such a sweet sympathy were excellent, comfortable, yea heavenly, and is the only maker and conserver of Churches and commonwealths, and where this is wanting, ruin comes on quickly, as it did here in Corinth. (p. 26)
The present necessity requireth it [that all share the burden], as it did in the days of the Jews returning from captivity, and as it was here in Corinth. The country is yet raw, the land untilled, the cities not builded, the cattle not settled. We are compassed about with a helpless and idle people, the natives of the country, which cannot in any comely or comfortable manner help themselves, much less us. We also have been very chargeable to many of our loving friends which helped us hither, and now again supplied us, so that before we think of gathering riches we must even in conscience think of requiting their charge, love, and labor, and cursed be that profit and gain which aims not at this. Besides, how many of our dear friends did here die at our first entrance, many of them no doubt for want of good lodging, shelter, and comfortable things, and many more may go after them quickly if care be not taken. Is this then a time for men to begin to seek themselves? (p. 27–28)
Never measure thy course by the most, but by the best, yea, and principally by God’s word. Look not what others do to thee, but consider what thou art to do to them. Seek to please God, not thyself. (p. 30)
And as you are a body together, so hang not together by skins and gymocks, but labor to be joined together and knit by flesh and sinews. Away with envy at the good of others, and rejoice in his good, and sorrow for his evil. Let his joy be your joy, and his sorrow thy sorrow. Let his sickness be thy sickness, his hunger thy hunger, his poverty thy poverty. And if you profess friendship, be friends in adversities; for then a friend is known and tried, and not before. (p. 31)
Avoid all factions, forwardness, singularity, and withdrawings, and cleave fast to the Lord and one to another continually. So shall you be a notable precedent to these poor Heathens, whose eyes are upon you, and who very brutishly and cruelly do daily eat and consume one another through their emulations, wars, and contentions. Be you therefore ashamed of it, and win them to peace both with yourselves and one another by your peaceable examples, which will preach louder to them than if you could cry in their barbarous language. So also shall you be an encouragement to many of your Christian friends in your native country to come to you when they hear of your peace, love, and kindness that is amongst you. But above all, it shall go well with your souls when that God of peace and unity shall come to visit you with death. . . [and you] may be translated from this wandering wilderness unto that joyful and heavenly Canaan. (p. 32)
RESOURCES FOR YOUNG PEOPLE
Maintained by Caleb Johnson, an author and historian, Mayflower History is "the internet's most complete and accurate website dealing with the Mayflower passengers and the history of the Pilgrims and early Plymouth Colony." Mayflower History includes valuable genealogical information about every passenger aboard the Mayflower, thoroughly researched topical articles about the Plymouth colonists, the Wampanoag, and much more, and copious links to both primary and secondary sources.
Plimoth Plantation is a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts founded in 1947. It attempts to replicate the original settlement of the Plymouth Colony established in the 17th century by the English colonists who became known as the Pilgrims. The museum offers a plethora of activities and workshops geared toward children and adults alike. And the Plimoth Plantation website includes numerous resources as well, including historical essays just for kids, interactive exhibits, tools and resource for teachers, and information about Pilgrim ancestry.
Native American Resources
Maintained by Claudia A. Fox Tree Arawak (Yurumein), M.Ed, a professional educator for the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness, the Native American Resources blog is an invaluable collection of book recommendations, curriculum ideas, website links, videos, and first person narratives that present truths and perspectives about the Indigenous People of the Western Hemisphere. Claudia also maintains a blog called Multicultural Initiatives, which includes resources and lessons for teaching about social justice.
Ken Burns: The Pilgrims
"Arguably one of the most fateful and resonant events of the last half millennium, the Pilgrims journey west across the Atlantic in the early 17th century is a seminal, if often misunderstood episode of American and world history. The Pilgrims explores the forces, circumstances, personalities and events that converged to exile the English group in Holland and eventually propel their crossing to the New World; a story universally familiar in broad outline, but almost entirely unfamiliar to a general audience in its rich and compelling historical actuality."
Children's Books by Kate Waters and Russ Kendall
On the Mayflower: Voyage of the Ship’s Apprentice & A Passenger Girl
Tapenum’s Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy in Pilgrim Times
Sarah Morton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Girl
Samuel Eaton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boy
Giving Thanks: The 1621 Harvest Feast
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
Francis J. Bremer, Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction (2009)
A brief overview of the history and ideas of the puritan movement, of which the pilgrims were a part.
Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation (2009)
The best recent study of the pilgrims’ origins from the formation of the congregation in Scrooby to the first months in New England.
Rebecca Fraser, The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America (2017)
A very accessible retelling of the Pilgrim story with a focus on Edward Winslow.
Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Study of Courage, Community, and War (2006)
Philbrick has much to say about the evolution of the pilgrims’ relations with the region’s natives.
Nick Bunker, Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History (2010)
This work is particularly useful for understanding the economics of the colonial venture.
Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (2018)
This work focuses on the later half of the seventeenth-century, but has important insights into the nature of Wampanoag society.
Key Primary Sources for the Study of Early Plymouth
William Bradford, History of Plimoth Plantation
The New England Historic Genealogical Society and the Colonial Society of Massachusetts have combined under the aegis of New England Beginning to produce a new edition of William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation. An online edition of this work will rigorously follow the original text, while a print edition will incorporate minor modernizations of spelling and punctuation to make it more accessible to general readers. This edition, scheduled to appear in early 2020, will be newly annotated and will restore to their original locations materials that previous editions had moved to appendixes. Until this new edition is available, the standard edition is Samuel Eliot Morison’sOf Plymouth Plantation: 1620–1647 (1952).
Mourt’s Relation or Journal of the Plantation at Plymouth
This volume is a collection of contributions by colonists George Morton, Robert Cushman, William Bradford, and Edward Winslow and was published in London in 1622. Mourt’s Relation is also available in a modern printing with an introduction by Dwight B. Heath.
Edward Winslow, Good Newes from New England (1624)
This work, by Edward Winslow, chronicles the early experience of the Plimoth colonists in the New World. Kelly Wisecup has edited a scholarly edition of Good News from New England that includes additional documents.
Edward Winslow, Hypocrisie Unmasked (1646)
This work is one of a couple of pamphlets penned by Edward Winslow, after he had returned to England following the English Civil War, in defense of the New England Colonies. Unedited modern printings of Hypocrisie Unmasked are also available.
Nathaniel Morton, New-England’s Memorial (1669)
Nathanial Morton, who was the Secretary of Plymouth Colony, maintained the records of the colony and used them to produce this work which is widely considered the first comprehensive history of the colony. Unedited modern printings of New England’s Memorial are also available.
Thomas Morton, New English Canaan (1637)
This pamphlet is a hostile contemporary account by an avowed enemy of the colony. A modern edition of New English Canaan has been edited by Jack Dempsey.
Nathaniel Philbrick and Thomas Philbrick, editors, The Mayflower Papers: Selected Writings of Colonial New England (2007)
This volume includes selections from a number of the above works, and other contemporary works, in a more modern and accessible format.
Robert Cushman, The Cry of a Stone: A Treatise Showing What Is Right Matter, Form, and Government of the Visible Church of Christ (1642)
Robert Cushman was one of the deacons of the Plymouth congregation; his book was not published until 1642, years after his death. A modern edition, transcribed and annotated by James W. Baker and edited by Michael R. Paulick, was published in 2016.
New Studies for the Four-Hundredth Anniversary of the Mayflower
Francis J. Bremer, One Small Candle: The Story of the Plymouth Puritans and the Beginning of English New England (2020)
Jeremy D. Bangs, New Light on the Old Colony (2020)
Peter C. Mancall, The Trials of Thomas Morton: An Anglican Lawyer, His Puritan Foes, and the Battle for a New England (2019)