As we approach Thanksgiving, images of the Pilgrims assembled around an autumnal feast may pop into mind as we stock our own cupboards with cranberries, stuffing, and canned pumpkin. Although the Pilgrims did bring food supplies with them on the Mayflower, these items ran out during their first winter in the New World; a successful harvest the following year prompted a celebration of “thanksgiving.”
In addition to foodstuffs, weapons, farming supplies, 102 passengers, and two dogs, the Mayflower also carried a copy of the King James Bible belonging to John Alden. In an earlier post, curator Hannibal Hamlin notes that this may have been the first King James Bible to arrive in America.
Alden was not a Pilgrim himself; rather, he was a cooper, or barrel-maker, hired by the Pilgrims at Southampton, where the Mayflower was docked before beginning her trans-Atlantic voyage. William Bradford, leader of the Pilgrims, described the 21-year-old Alden as a “hopefull yong man.” Alden may also have been a man of faith, choosing to carry a Bible with him as he journeyed to the New World.
Alden’s youth and skill must have impressed Bradford, for the future governor of the colony also noted that the Pilgrims very much wished that Alden would join them, although they left the final decision in his hands. Upon arrival on the shores of Massachusettes in November 1620, Alden opted to stay with the Pilgrims and added his signature to the Mayflower Compact, signed on November 21, 1620.
Alden soon had another tie to the Pilgrim settlement. Sometime between 1620 and 1623, he married Priscilla Mullins, a young woman in her late teens or very early 20s. Priscilla had sailed with her parents and older brother Joseph on the Mayflower. However, her parents and brother died soon after their arrival in Massachusetts, leaving Priscilla to fend for herself in the new colony. According to folk tradition, her beauty attracted the attention of Miles Standish, the colony’s military adviser, as well as John Alden, and the two men were deep rivals for her affection. This story prompted Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish.
The historical record offers no evidence of a Mullins-Alden-Standish love triangle. However, Priscilla did end up marrying John Alden (the younger man) and over the course of their long marriage, the couple had 10 children, with a possible 11th child dying in infancy. Several of their descendents became notable figures in their own right; their oldest son, John, escaped being tried for witchcraft in Boston, and a daughter, Sarah, married Alexander Standish, son of Miles Standish and his second wife, Barbara. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was descended from another Alden offspring, and helped immortalize his ancestors through his literary output.
Amy Arden assisted in the development and production of the Manifold Greatness website and Family Guide. She is a Communications Associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.
As we approach Thanksgiving, perhaps thinking of those Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower and feasted with the Indians, we might think about the English Bibles they brought with them. (We ought to note, though, that despite the popular myth about the Pilgrims founding Thanksgiving, it was actually Abraham Lincoln who fixed the official November date after the Civil War. The Pilgrims had a feast of “thanksgiving” in 1621, but it was hardly the state holiday we know today.)
As the hotter, more godly variety of Protestants, the Pilgrims used the Geneva Bible. It was far the most popular English Bible until the mid-seventeenth century, but especially so among those termed Puritans, given its associations with Calvinist Geneva. John Alden, however, brought a copy of the King James Bible printed in 1620. Though Alden became a prominent member of the Plymouth Colony, he wasn’t originally a member of the Pilgrims, but rather the ship’s carpenter on the Mayflower. This may explain why he carried the KJV.
Alden’s 1620 KJV may be the first copy of this translation on American soil, but it’s impossible to be certain. The Roanoke Colony was settled long before the KJV and the colonists had disappeared by 1590. Jamestown was founded in 1607, again too early for the KJV. The first colonists probably brought Geneva or Bishops’ Bibles.
The question is, were copies of the KJV brought to Jamestown between its first printing in 1611 and the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620? Alden Vaughan, professor emeritus at Columbia University, informs me that there was considerable traffic across the Atlantic in those years, and it might yet be possible to determine whether Bibles were part of the cargo.
On the other hand, as Kenneth Fincham pointed out at the Folger Institute conference in September, English churches did not immediately purchase that KJV when it was hot off the presses. Within a few years most London churches acquired copies, but in other dioceses churches were using the Bishops’ Bible, the Geneva, or even the Great Bible, well into the 1630s and 40s. It all depended on whether presiding bishops were keen on the idea.
So who knows what happened in Jamestown? That’s a story waiting to be told, if we can ever find out enough to tell it! For now, we’ll remember the King James Bible John Alden brought over on the Mayflower, which is now on display in the Great Hall at the Folger, and which after January will return to its permanent home at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth.
Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.