When climbing aboard the Mayflower and learning that his young wife, Dorothy, had fallen overboard and drowned, more than likely committing suicide,(1) William Bradford called his tiny flock of English Separatists (Pilgrims) together for another prayer. He attributed his wife’s death to the “hand of God,” as another test of faith.
Days earlier, Bradford had insisted on setting out with a small group of men in search for a place to establish a colony. He did this regardless of Dorothy’s sickness and her bouts of severe depression, which were caused by weeks of being confined to a small ship (the Mayflower) while enduring fierce storms and a near mutiny.
Upon landing, Bradford and the others were attacked by Indian insurgents. After locating a suitable piece of land, as well as cornfields that had been cleared by earlier inhabitants but killed due to newly arrived plagues, Bradford called for prayer. He credited the unpopulated and bountiful lands to be “the hand of God,” as being God’s will.
Because Bradford survived the Atlantic crossing and became the first male-dominated appointed governor and historian of Plymouth Plantation (1621-1656), this story has been apotheosized in the United States. It created an imaginary narrative that forged an empire founded on piety, fortitude, and industry. One always guided by “the hand of God.”
Underlying this story is a conviction of divine election, of being exceptional and favored by God while others are less favored and ordinary. “It pleased God,” wrote Bradford, that a lusty young man on board the Mayflower became sick and died, the first to be thrown over.(2) It was the “hand of God” that killed half of their party in the first winter.
God’s love and mercy might be boundless, but for Governor Bradford and the Pilgrims it had its limits. When their exclusive claim to ecclesiastical legitimacy was challenged, they exiled those who disagreed doctrinally by the “hand of God.” It was also the “hand of God” that dictated new mandatory laws for church attendance and church tithing.
Bradford and the Pilgrims used the “hand of God” theology in every triumph and tragedy, a kind of spiritual eugenics, as a way of rationalizing their heavenly election and divine conquests at the expense of others. Such dark impulses are arrogant and selfish, even negligent and criminal, cloaked as divine revelations or sacred oracles.
The “hand of God” theology still serves as a source of reassurance in upholding an exceptional national destiny, a “City on a Hill,” chosen and guided by elite leaders backed by an absolute supernatural force. Such forms of high spirituality and born-again politics are evident in trying to remake the world, as attempted in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Having fled conformity, Bradford and the Pilgrims imposed a new kind of conformity. It encouraged “survival of the fittest” and diminished democracy. God overlooks the less fortunate-which are less fortunate due to either events beyond their control, or of having suffered at the hands of abusive and criminal perpetrators.
Bradford and The Pilgrim’s Regress, or “hand of God” ideology, is a tyrannical faith, a theological totalitarianism, that always attributes “success” to the special work of God. Embracing such a superstitious narrative reverts to a worse condition, a more infantile and psychologically debilitating state.
It is also extremely illusionary and anti-history. One must wonder how more real and authentic and democratic the United States would be if Dorothy Bradford, Native Americans, Black Animist and Muslim Slaves, the poor landless and indentured servants, and the children, all of whom perished, would have been able to write their stories.
Religious myths have been behind some of the worse war crimes in the service of despotic regimes, ones that often proclaim to be commonwealths. Blaming the deaths of others on the “hand of God” is a sin against reality-the ultimate revelation. It also neglects human hands and the will of humankind-which are the ultimate faiths.
(1) Michael, E. and Sharon Rusten. Christian History. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale Publishing House, 2003., p. 31.
(2) Meacham, John. American Gospel. New York, New York: Random House Publishers, 2007., p. 38.