“And you my loving friends the adventurers to this plantation; as your care has been, first to settle religion here, before either profit or popularity, so I pray you, go on, to do it more . . .”
In November of 1621, one year after the arrival of the Mayflower, Robert Cushman arrived in Plymouth aboard the Fortune. A member of the same Puritan congregation to which the first settlers belonged, Cushman had personally negotiated with financial supporters in London toward the establishment of the new colony. Devoted to his faith, he saw America as the solution to the persecution Puritans suffered at home, and he believed God had sent the colonists on a mission to propagate their reformed version of Christianity. As the colony’s agent in London, Cushman stayed in Plymouth only a few weeks before returning to report on its progress and secure ongoing financial support. Because tensions between the colonists and their distant investors then ran high, Cushman was caught in a difficult position. Just before he set sail for England, he addressed the colonists in an effort to unite the two sides around their common goals. Published anonymously in London the following year, Cushman’s “sermon” included an epistle dedicatory—a dedication to the investors.
When Puritan Separatists boarded the Mayflower in 1620 to begin their pilgrimage, departure for America was the latest step in a spiritual and political journey they had begun more than a decade earlier. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, English monarchs had split with Roman Christianity. Yet for some who embraced this schism, the English church did not go far enough in the purging of Roman traditions and organizational structure. They demanded a purer form of Christianity, and by the early seventeenth century Puritan congregations were challenging the authority of the English church. Persecuted for their nonconformity, some chose to remove themselves from England. Quick passage across the North Sea was quietly arranged, and migration to Holland began. Many who eventually settled at Plymouth had earlier formed a Separatist congregation at Leiden, Holland. There, the Separatists were able to freely practice their religion, but they struggled to retain their English identity within Dutch culture.
Once England began to settle colonists at Jamestown, new possibilities for repatriation of Separatists emerged. Framing a move to America as divine providence, the Leiden congregants embraced a new mission: establishing their purer form of Christianity in the New World. Though the Dutch government offered them assistance toward settling at New Netherlands (New York) and Guyana (South America), the Leiden faithful preferred to return to English dominion.
Religious intent aside, the establishment of Plymouth was also a financial venture. The pilgrimage of the Leiden congregants was only possible through the support of a group of London investors. The Merchant Adventurers of London, as the stock company was called, was headed by wealthy Puritans, but they were joined by many others who prioritized profit over religious propagation. Investors paid transport and start-up costs for the colonists. In exchange, they expected to receive regular shipments of goods, such as furs, fish, and lumber. Negotiations of the contract between Pilgrims and investors were guided by Robert Cushman and John Carver, deacons of the Leiden church. Though an initial agreement was ratified by both sides, changes demanded by the investors just prior to sailing meant that the Pilgrims embarked under a contested contract.
One year later, still negotiating with the Merchant Adventurers, Cushman arrived in Plymouth aboard the Fortune. In order to ensure continuing support from the investors, he had to convince the settlers to sign the new contract. Cushman’s address to the colonists at Plymouth, often called his sermon, was an effort to remind the colonists of their obligation to God, their investors, and each other.
Born circa 1578 in Kent, England, Robert Cushman immigrated to Leiden, Holland, in 1608, accompanied by his wife, Sara Reder, and his infant son Thomas. Cushman made his living as a wool comber and devoted himself to his faith, eventually becoming a deacon of the Puritan Separatists in Leiden. Cushman remarried in 1617, after his first wife’s death. His second wife, Mary Clark Shingleton, died sometime before Cushman’s voyage to America as well. Only Thomas Cushman survived to join his father on the trans-Atlantic crossing of the Fortune in 1621. The fourteen-year-old stayed in Plymouth when his father returned to London to report to the Merchant Adventurers. Until his death in England in 1625, Robert Cushman continued to serve as the London agent and advocate for the colonists at Plymouth.
While later Puritan settlers would mostly draw support from the middle classes, the Leiden Pilgrims had more limited means. With a costly voyage and settlement before them, they appointed Cushman and fellow Leiden deacon John Carver to negotiate for them with London investors. Traveling twice to London, they sought financial support, transportation, and supplies. Negotiations were difficult. Irritated by Puritan resistance to his authority as head of the English church, King James rejected their initial arrangements with the Virginia Company, the investment group that had established Jamestown. A second plan with the Merchant Adventurers proved more successful after these wealthy Puritans and other opportunity-seeking investors advocated for the Separatists before the Crown.
Cushman was to sail on the Speedwell with his fellow Separatists in 1620, which was originally to travel with the Mayflower to the New World. The Speedwell, however, was found to be leaking and could not sail. Some of its passengers elected to remain behind, while the rest boarded the Mayflower. Cushman, dealing with last-minute contract changes by the investors, was one of the Separatists who remained in England. Since key points of the contract were unresolved, he deferred his plans to emigrate and worked to balance the goals of the Pilgrims and their investors. With little experience as a business negotiator, Cushman placed his faith in God and in the Puritan leaders who were prominent among the investors. Unfortunately, balancing competing interests earned him the resentment of many.
Published in London in 1622, Cushman’s address to the colonists was repurposed to encourage continuing support for the still fragile colony. Targeted at a wider audience than when it was originally delivered, the printed sermon articulates a defining moment in the life of the Plymouth Colony and appeals for support. The address’s epistle dedicatory, included below, lauds the investors and encourages their continued support for the venture.
The printed version of Robert Cushman’s 1621 address to the settlers at Plymouth included this introductory letter dedicating the publication to the London-based financiers of the colony, the Merchant Adventurers. Placing the address in context for the reader, the epistle demonstrates the ongoing challenges Cushman faced as an agent of and negotiator for the Plymouth Pilgrims. The letter reveals Cushman’s struggle to balance the competing religious and secular interests that threatened relations between the settlers in Plymouth and the investors in London.
As Puritan Separatists began to plan their transatlantic migration from Leiden, they framed their journey in religious term as “God’s Providence.” As they saw it, their “removal” from Holland and war-stricken Europe would fulfill a divine plan to establish a foothold for Puritanism within English dominion. Yet, this religious endeavor required financial resources that were beyond the congregants’ means, and they had to look for financial backers in the secular world. Leading negotiations with potential investors, Cushman had initial success in balancing spiritual and secular agendas. His efforts proved crucial to the sailing of the Mayflower and the establishment of Plymouth. In the years that followed 1620, however, Cushman’s balancing act became more difficult to sustain. Forced by circumstances to expand his role as the London agent for the fragile colony, he struggled to unify the religious and secular agendas that drove the colonizing project.
Contract between the Pilgrims and Merchant Adventurers
Cushman was not a minister, and his December 1621 “sermon” at Plymouth was actually an address aimed at easing tensions between the colonists and their investors. At the center of these tensions was the unsigned contract between the two groups. After a few false starts, the basic agreement with the Merchant Adventurers proved acceptable to the Separatists, and more than one-third of the congregation prepared for pilgrimage. Others, including their minister John Robinson, pledged to follow once the colony was established. As the first cohort disposed of their property and prepared for departure, they faced many anxieties about life in an unknown land. Simultaneously, other uncertainties struck the investors. While Puritanism was well represented among the Merchant Adventurers and they therefore had personal interest in supporting a religious mission, most investors aimed to make a profit. As the departure of the Pilgrims neared, the Adventurers made contract revisions that shifted risk toward the colonists and decreased their own financial gamble.
Faced with last minute changes to the contract, Cushman felt compelled to accept the new terms. The contract was not ideal, but to reject it would have meant finding new investors, and delaying departure for new negotiations could take years. Supplies had been purchased and were ready at docks, and would-be Pilgrims, who were now homeless and jobless, were ready for departure. Under such circumstances, Cushman offered preliminary acceptance of the new arrangement. At departure, however, his fellow Pilgrims refused to sign the contract. Committed to facilitating divine providence and setting humble congregants to sail, Cushman was forced to defend the secular world of financial investment, which he had only entered on behalf of his congregation. As a result of his decision, the deacon became resented by people on both sides of the Atlantic.
That the terms of the new contract favored the investors added to the building anxiety of the Pilgrims. As a result, dampening enthusiasm decreased the participation rate of the Leiden group. Interested in sending the largest contingent possible, the Merchant Adventurers arranged for dozens of non-Puritans to fill available berths on the ships. Separatists deemed these new voyagers as “Strangers.” The number of Leiden Separatists making the journey was further lowered by a leaky ship. When the Speedwell, which was to accompany the Mayflower, was forced to return to port, many of its anxious passengers opted to return to Leiden.
Importantly, in addition to being Pilgrims and “Strangers,” those who soon formed Plymouth Colony were also stockholders and employees of the Merchant Adventurers. Required to work for the company for seven years, they agreed to send furs, fish, lumber, and agricultural goods back to England to cover the debt incurred for passage. In Plymouth, all property was to be held in common until the end of the contract, when it would be divided among stockholders on both sides of the Atlantic. The last-minute revision to the contract, however, changed the equation for liquidating property in the colony at the conclusion of the seven years. It reserved up to half of that property—improved land and buildings—for the Merchant Adventures in England. Also eliminated was the original concession that settlers could have two days to work for themselves toward building homes and improving individual fields. Under the disputed terms, all time, excepting the day of worship, was company time. These new conditions meant that houses and fields the colonists built would not be their own at the end of the contract. Offered little incentive for personal gain, they refused to sign the agreement. Cushman, who had been on board the leaky Speedwell, was left to sort out the contractual issues in England as the Mayflower continued on its voyage.
One year later, Cushman arrived in Plymouth aboard the Fortune to resolve the unsigned contract. While he intended to join those at Plymouth permanently, until contract issues were settled he had little choice but to return to London. His stay in Plymouth was a brief few weeks. Convinced that the success of the colony depended upon the contract, his goal was to secure the colonists’ agreement to its latest terms. At Plymouth, however, Cushman found a vulnerable colony. Half of the Mayflower voyagers had died in the first year. Though the colony had begun to stabilize and the recent harvest had been good, Plymouth remained a fragile experiment. Relations with the local native populations had been positive since arrival, but uncertainty remained. Winter was about to begin, and that season brought greater uncertainty. Having watched family and friends die during the past year, basic survival remained a priority for many in the group. Settlers feared that the colony was on the brink of collapse. Not surprisingly, resentment of the Merchant Adventurers remained strong. Many viewed the rigid contract of the investors as a serious threat to individual survival.
Cushman addressed the colonists in their common house on December 9, 1621, just weeks after arriving and days before his departure on the returning Fortune. Given his task of securing signatures to the contract and recognizing harsh conditions in the colony, the address emphasizes common goals and sacrifice over individual pursuits. Attempting to refocus the settlers around a common mission, Cushman’s sermon decries self-love (or self-interest) as the “bane of all societies.” Arguing that they needed to look past the short-term and take a longer view, he reminds colonists that they were laying a foundation not for themselves but for those who would follow. He frames the mission as religious and draws upon gospel passages that extol the virtues of working for the common good. Given the role he was forced to assume, Cushman understood that various agendas—religious, financial, and personal—clashed at Plymouth. Among both colonists and investors, many embraced the task of facilitating God’s providence; they desired the growth of Puritanism under English dominion and hoped to Christianize the “heathen” American Indians. Yet, such work would only be possible if the Merchant Adventurers and the Plymouth-based stockholders made profit on their investment. Failure of the company would mean dissolution of the colony. Thus, religious goals were dependent on secular realities.
Complicating the balancing act between spiritual and financial goals were the individual goals of the settlers. In difficult times, basic survival was at the forefront, but in the long run securing land and livelihood was paramount. Dissention within the colony and resentment toward the Merchant Adventurers had grown under the stresses of settlement. Over time, these stresses were exacerbated by divisions between Pilgrims and other Plymouth colonists. Thus, Cushman needed to appeal for unity around a common agenda. The colonists, he argues in the address, had made a contract with God, with the English king, and with the Merchant Adventurers. Christians were obligated to abide by each of the contracts and work together for the common good. In order for the all of the various agendas to be fulfilled, the colony had to be placed on firm financial, spiritual, and political ground. Colonists had only to look south to the contemporary failures at Jamestown to recognize the dangers of disunity. Cushman’s appeal before the gathering of colonists had the desired effect, and colonists affixed their signatures to the revised contract before he returned it to the investors in London.
Cushman’s address at Plymouth first appeared in print in London in 1622. Marketed as a sermon because of its religious content, it was titled “A Sermon preached at Plimmoth in New-England.” Consistent with the rejection of self-love that was at the center of his argument, Cushman published the address and epistolary anonymously: “I have not set down my name, partly because I seek no name, and principally, because I would have nothing esteemed by names.” Combined with the epistolary, the sermon was later given the title The Sin and Danger of Self-Love. Anonymous publications fuel historical debates about authorship, yet there is little doubt that the published address was the one originally delivered by Cushman. Firsthand observations penned by English settlers at Plymouth resolve any questions regarding the author’s identity. No paper trail exists for the epistle dedicatory, but most scholars agree that it was written by Cushman.
The content of the speech served a different purpose on either side of the Atlantic. At Plymouth, the oral address was an attempt to quell dissention and convince colonists of their obligation to their investors. The printed version circulated in England served a broader aim. Removed from the palpable tensions at Plymouth, the sermon was not interpreted as a plea for unity in a fractious community; instead, it was read as the philosophy that unified that distant settlement. With the skillful use of the epistle dedicatory as an introduction, Cushman redirected the address at the Merchant Adventurers whose continuing support was essential, at factions within English society who questioned the Englishness of the Pilgrim Separatists, and at Puritans in the general public who might consider joining the colony.
After a year’s time, the colonists had yet to produce anything close to the volume of trade goods expected by the Merchant Adventurers, and many were growing impatient. Thus, the epistle dedicatory explicitly—and the sermon implicitly—asks the Adventurers to stay the course. The work at Plymouth had only just begun. Though the first year of the venture had been difficult, Cushman projects optimism about current and future conditions. Balancing secular and religious interests, he reminds the investors that they had contracted with Puritans and, as such, had made a commitment to establishing religion “before profit or popularity.” Echoing the sermon it introduces, the epistle directs the Adventurers to focus on the long run and reject short-term self-interest. Cushman argues that they should continue to “honor God with [their] riches” and to recognize that “no labor is lost, nor money spent which is bestowed for God.” Articulating a view that was popular among Separatists, Cushman argues for expediency in supporting the venture because God’s judgment day was “not far off.”
While Cushman’s appeal targets those Puritans who were prominent among the Adventurers, he also addresses the non-Puritan investors. The colony would continue to need their financial support, and it also needed new settlers. In appealing to all investors to send “godly men” to join the colony, Cushman makes subtle reminders of the benefits of contracting with religious dissenters; because Puritans were often persecuted at home, they demonstrated greater enthusiasm than others for settlement abroad. At a time when few Englishmen were willing to sail into the unknown, sending Puritans made the most sense. They were community-oriented and prepared to make sacrifices. For those investors and for Puritans who might be convinced to emigrate, Cushman lays bare the reality of life at Plymouth. Work would be difficult with no allowance for comforts. Men seeking “great riches, ease, pleasures, dainties, and jollity” should remain at home.
At the time of the sermon’s publication, criticisms of the Separatists were circulating in the London press and among influential social and political sectors. Having abandoned England for Holland and then America, the Pilgrims’ English identity was openly questioned. Their loyalty to the Crown was suspect, and they were mocked as uneducated simpletons. How could such people retain Englishness surrounded by wilderness and savagery? Conscious of the value of public relations in an increasingly literate world, the epistle directly counters such charges. Cushman celebrates the Plymouth Pilgrims as plain Englishmen who honored their contract with God, King, and fellow countrymen. Though Separatists, they had enthusiastically returned to English dominion, and while the colony was removed from England proper, it was like home in many ways; its geography was English geography. Compared to low-lying Holland, New England was familiar and its climate differed only in extremes. Clearly, after just one year, the finer geographic contrast had yet to be understood and ignorance prevailed. New England, for example, was not, as Cushman suggests, an island. Still, the broad geographic comparison defined Pilgrims as Englishmen on English soil.
During the early colonial experience, concerns for retaining English identity were common among both the critics of the Separatist Puritans and those who were considering joining them in New England. At the core of such anxieties were fears of American Indians and the influences of “savage” cultures. Criticizing Spain’s brutal treatment of American Indians in its own American colonies, many questioned whether Englishmen would revert to similar savagery when living among the “heathen.” Recognizing that such fears were obstacles to investment and migration, Cushman presents a rosy portrait of Pilgrim–American Indian relations at Plymouth and dispels concerns over mistreatment. Pilgrims were facilitating God’s providence, and to the extent that the American Indians were involved or affected, Cushman considers this part of God’s design. Upon arrival, Pilgrims found American Indian communities in decline: “very much wasted by late, by reason of a great mortality that fell amongst them three years since . . .” Not understanding that European diseases had already traveled northward from earlier settlements in Virginia, Cushman interprets abandoned villages as God’s hand in clearing the region for the Pilgrims’ entrance. While those who survived remained heathens to the settlers, the experiences of the first year suggested to Cushman that the natives might soon “prove serviceable to God and man.” In his optimistic view, American Indians would readily cede territory and authority to the English king. Acknowledging how Wampanoags extended assistance to the Pilgrims during their difficult first year, Cushman finds no reason for fear. Compared to American Indians, he explains, “many christians are not so kind, nor sincere.”
Cushman’s epistle and sermon demonstrate his struggle to balance competing interests that converged in the settlement of Plymouth. Negotiating and sustaining the trans-Atlantic venture required the humble wool comber and deacon to strike an uncomfortable balance between religious and secular worlds.
Cushman’s address at Plymouth was the first published sermon from New England, and its publication in 1622 marks the emergence of a regional literary genre that flourished for more than a century. Considered by some as the earliest example of American literature, Cushman’s address was not a sermon in the true sense of the word. The author was not an ordained minister, and his words did not carry the weight of one. While crafted in typical Puritan style—clarifying biblical references and elevating spiritual mission—the sermon’s intent was to convince Plymouth Pilgrims to accept a business contract. An appeal to reason regarding secular realties, the address is distinct from the enormous body of New England Puritan sermons that followed. Unlike those subsequent sermons which confidently demand religious conformity and model rigid application of doctrine, Cushman’s address was delivered in the years before Puritanism had achieved cultural hegemony in New England. Instead, the sermon reveals the fragility of the first settlement at Plymouth. It also reflects the uncertainties and anxieties that would later dissipate as English and Puritan dominion over the region was secured.
Crucial to achieving dominion was establishing English control over native populations and resources. Cushman believed that this process would be easy; in his view, American Indians were “like lambs, so kind, so submissive.” He celebrated how American Indian leaders “subscribed obedience” to King James with little prodding. While his idealization of Pilgrim–American Indian relations was based on largely positive interactions during the colony’s first year, Cushman’s notions of divine providence and English superiority reduced complex relationships to simple power equations.
Soon after Cushman sailed for London, however, it became clear that peaceful relations would not be sustainable. Gradually tensions mounted as more English settlers arrived and spread beyond the coastline. Competition for resources soon sparked conflicts. Settlers’ demands that “savages” conform to English notions of civilization and religion intensified an increasingly volatile situation. While small conflicts became common after that first year, Pilgrim–American Indian tensions in the Plymouth colony reached a crescendo by the 1670s. At that time, the son of the Indian leader Massasoit—Cushman and many settlers had considered Massasoit a valuable friend to colony—led a charge to roll back English settlement to the coast. The campaign of Metacom, or King Philip, was initially successful, but English forces eventually prevailed. By that decade, accelerating trans-Atlantic migration, bustling maritime commerce, and a powerful Puritan ministry fueled English resolve to eliminate native resistance.
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