The Mayflower Compact: Happy Thanksgiving!

This week, I decided to do a short Thanksgiving blog on what is known as, “The Mayflower Compact.” Most Americans know something about the journey to America by the Pilgrims and their ship, Mayflower. [1] The Pilgrims initially set sail from England in July 1620 together with its sister ship, Speedwell. Eventually, because of issues with the Speedwell’s seaworthiness, it was left behind, and the Mayflower traveled alone on its long journey across the North Atlantic. The journey was long and difficult. Many people suffered from sea sickness and the close quarters below the Mayflower deck.

After over two months at sea, the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. The trip had exposed differences and divisions among the various seafarers. There were differences between the Pilgrims who had left England in search of religious liberty and those who had left only seeking a better life. There were those in the group who desired to enter into the New World without any firm governmental authority.

Originally, the Mayflower was to land in Virginia, an area governed under a Crown Charter given to the Virginia Company. That area was clearly a colony of Great Britain and had a defined form of government. Unfortunately, the Mayflower landed north of the land controlled by the Virginia Company near what is today, Plymouth Massachusetts.  Within this legally uncertain situation, friction arose between the Pilgrims and the rest of the travelers, with some of the latter threatening to leave the group and settle on their own.

There were those who felt that they were free of any agreement or laws that had been imposed upon them in order to travel to Virginia. In order to create some kind of order and avoid chaos, the leaders of the group drafted the Mayflower Compact, which was signed by the travelers before going ashore.

The Mayflower Compact is only 200 words long, and reads 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, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.

 Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.

There are aspects of the Mayflower Compact that are interesting to any person with an understanding of what is known as “Puritan Covenant Theology” and anyone familiar with John Locke and the Contract theory of Government.

  1. Although the Separatists were not technically Puritans, they had much in common. While the group the Pilgrims represented (“Separatists”) separated entirely from the Church of England, the Puritans felt that they could remain within and reform the English church. Nevertheless, they had certain beliefs in common, one of which was a theological understanding of the term “Covenant” in the Old Testament. The idea of the Bible as characterized by Covenants, agreements and promises between God and human beings, was the central idea of Puritan theology. This Puritan “Covenant” theology was held by many New England colonial leaders.
  2. Covenant theology naturally found application in the notion of a “social contract,” which it did. The Pilgrims, Puritans, and others found a connection between the kinds of covenants that God creates with the human race in the Bible and the social covenants that human beings enter into with a lawful governing authority. It was natural, therefore, for the Pilgrims to enter into a social contract to guide their initial entrance into the New World.
  3. When the Pilgrims landed, they were not within the boundaries of any established colonies, therefore, they were not within the boundary of an existing or what might be called “naturally evolved” state. Therefore, they had to determine whether to go ashore without any form of political organization or to create one, “for our better ordering and preservation.” They understood, as more romantic contemporary people sometimes do not that a “state of nature” where no authority exists is likely to be a form of social chaos. They chose order over chaos.
  4. In creating their social contract, the Pilgrims acknowledged their existing religious and political alignments. They had undertaken the journey for the glory of God and as subjects of the British monarch, whom they acknowledged in the compact. The Mayflower Compact was an evolutionary document, not a revolutionary document. They signers recognized their dependence on the stream of history of which they were a part. They were about do something new, but there was continuity as well as change in the establishment of their new colonial settlement.
  5. There is no “iron wall of separation” between church and state in the Mayflower Compact. Religious and political ideas and necessities combine to form one harmonious whole. There is no indication that the Pilgrims intended to form a theocracy. They speak of “such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony” These just and equal laws, ordinances, constitutions, and officers are not described in theocratic terms, but in those terms that acknowledge a sphere of activity in which human reason is left to operate under the guidance of practical wisdom.

As I wish all my readers a Happy Thanksgiving with hopes that my articles might encourage wise and honorable government and some degree of change in the volatile political environment we enjoy today, it is enough to encourage a sense of common destiny among all Americans. We may not be voyaging over the North Atlantic Ocean in a wooden boat, but we are clearly on a voyage into a new era in American political life. We can hope that the end of our journey will be what Lincoln called, “a birth of freedom” in a postmodern age.

Oh, beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom 
beat across the wilderness
America! America! God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs

[1] The Pilgrims were what are called “Separatists.” The Separatists were a group of English protestants Christians who separated themselves from the worship of the church of England and instead held services in their homes and in other places outside of the official churches of the Church of England. This was not legal under the laws of England at the time. (In this way, England under James I was not unlike Iran and China and other nations today that do not allow house churches not recognized by the state. This seems unusual to Americans, but it is not so unusual in those areas where the state has always regulated religious observances.

One thought on “The Mayflower Compact: Happy Thanksgiving!”

  1. Wonderful words and thoughts for a better tomorrow. How wonderful you saw this comparison to the rivalry of today vs that of yesterday. The Pilgrims setting in place a form of government to ensure peace and stability before disembarking is a great example of putting aside differences for the common good of all parties.

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