The Mayflower Compact

When the Mayflower‘s anchor was dropped, and a full month before the Pilgrims set foot on the new world, these seemingly inconsequential people, small in number, without wealth and particular standing, and in a place remote from civilization, had a civil constitution and a government. They were a state. They had an organic law, written by them to which they subscribed; they had chosen rulers and a policy. The document was drafted and signed by forty-one men in the narrow cabin of the ship on the morning of the day when they entered the harbor and furled the sails.

The writing of the Mayflower Compact was precipitated for two main reasons. Insubordination and the breaking up of the colony; and having missed the Virginia territory by hundreds of miles to the north, there was essentially no civil or legal authority they could access for their own protection and that of their dependents and possessions. The land lease the Pilgrims had previously procured from the English authorities specified their eventual landing on a province that was under English rule and authority. But having landed in another territory, they were left without a law. Under these circumstances, the drafting of the Compact became a matter of extreme urgency, whereby they intended to immediately thwart the coming mutiny and lawlessness some among them had made known. Upon realizing that the Mayflower had not reached the shores of Virginia, some passengers who had boarded to either serve as crew, or to travel for their own reasons, spoke openly of their intentions. Landing somewhere else absolved them of their obligation to the company, they argued; and therefore, they attempted to incite mutiny, aiming at severing themselves from their obligations. In the face of this development, these astute statesmen on the ship concluded that a contract drawn up and signed by every responsible person of the company might be as binding as any government grant. In essence, they sought to find a way to enjoin men to rule and authority regardless of their landing location.

These men, in the absence of ruling authority, were in effect organizing themselves on the basis of common rights. They were enacting political equality, and were attempting to ensure stability and order in government by making each person a part and a participant of it. As for socio-economic differences, this document dealt a blow to social distinctions based upon the principle of personal responsibility and accountability. Age was the distinguishing factor. Forty-one adult men affixed their names in agreement to the document, which signatures themselves symbolized and were in essence a thrust against known social pretensions. It was man for man, and simple manhood was what counted. It was an unequivocal statement that man has rights because he is a man as opposed to earning his rights due to being of a certain class. On the Mayflower some men were better than others, some were more intelligent than others, some were richer and others possessed more wisdom, experience and capacity to rule the little and fledging state, but all men were recognized, and their rights protected.

These are the words that have inspired men to strive for freedom; these are the words that have given light and guidance to those who have pledged themselves and their fortunes for the cause of freedom and the pursuit of happiness under the canopy of the rule of law:

“In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are under-written, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland; Defender of the Faith, etc.

Having undertaking for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian Faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern part of Virginia; do by these present solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and, by virtue thereof, 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. 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.”

The Mayflower Compact’s ideals and concepts are enduring. It is generally considered to be one of the most important contributions to civic thought. Its relevance has endured 400 years of human history, in which time man has witnessed changes and radical departures from the Compact’s principles, but has not seen a more sustainable theory. It is a remarkably short and precise document. The Mayflower Compact birthed our popular constitutional liberty, and its depths have been plumbed for continuing guidance and inspiration. Though the text is not a political manifesto, there is no doubt that it ranks among the greatest ideals due to its emphasis in self-government. This fact lends an inescapable accuracy as to its intent and purposes. Not being a political manifesto, which King James would have taken as treasonous, this new world law was the document binding individuals to self-government, by which civil laws would apply to all equally, and give to all equal responsibility to pursue opportunities for personal betterment.

None among the passengers understood this ideal and principle better than the Pilgrims. By virtue of their exile for the sake of freedom, and by having in practice advanced a successful church government system, and by having through it modeled conduct beneficial to all, the Pilgrims’ contribution to the Compact bespeaks of their understanding of the document’s major underlying force: self-governance is the product of obedience to God and His Word. Self-governance, as the Pilgrims modeled, is an idea inherently alien to man apart from the guiding light of the Scriptures. No society had ever adopted such a radically different proposition, and it was upon their landing on distant shores, and due to the ever-present threat of lawlessness, that this document was drafted. It became the Colony’s law and authority that equally benefited the Pilgrims, and those who, in contrast, held not to the same Faith.

The liberty which poets have through the ages dreamed about; the liberty about which philosophers have discoursed and speculated; the liberty which tyrants abhor and treat with disdain; the liberty for which heroes have volunteered their possessions and lives; the liberty which is regulated by the rule of law, and which loses none of its appeal, vitality and rewards emerged in this short document to be the ruling ideal of a tiny colony embarking on an experiment unthinkable and daunting, yet exhilarating and utterly promising.  The issue of society ceased to be whether a man is master of another, or whether a man is a servant of another by virtue of his social class, material possession, name and status. Centuries later, the guiding principle of self-government and freedom inspired the country that was birthed from this ideal to find it necessary to shed its own blood to correct a terrible wrong, and to enshrine forever the noble cause of liberty for all men under God and under the rule of law. It is a high ideal worthy of all efforts which continues to demand attention and consideration, no matter if efforts at times fail, for its worth is not measured by the attempts but by self-evident Truth.

The Pilgrims

Not all Puritans were Pilgrims, but in general, all Pilgrims were Puritans. Puritanism, as expressed by the Pilgrims, was the desire for more holiness of character, for unhindered freedom for direct access to God, as well as freedom to spread the knowledge of truth as it is in Jesus Christ. This was the soil from which the Pilgrims sprang. Puritanism, non-conformity, separatism and exile were the successive degrees through which these men passed. It is not easy to determine the starting point of Puritanism. However, almost two centuries before Martin Luther, in the days of John Wycliffe, Puritanism was in the air. Wycliffe’s teachings and the Bible reached the English people in their mother tongue and were instrumental in influencing and shaping the issue that afterward became the advanced Protestantism of the Puritans. The Reformation in England was two-fold, religious and political. The movement to sever the English government from papal power was started and effectively concluded with Henry VIII. After breaking with Pope Clement VII over his marital problems, Parliament declared the monarch the head of the national church. Queen Mary did her best to repeal and reverse what her father and her brother Edward had done for the advancement of Protestantism. Her successor, Queen Elizabeth, ordered the reenactment of what her father had obtained. All church authority was hers. The people, on the other hand, lost their voice in all matters ecclesiastical. Inevitable discontent and vigorous protest followed.

Groups of disciples developed into strong Independents. Influential Separatists assembled in London; persecution almost ended them. So determined were Separatists to worship God freely and to live by the dictates of their consciences, that a quarter of a century of persecution failed to dissuade them. They grew stronger. The church in Scrooby gives abundant proof. Scrooby, located approximately one-hundred fifty miles north of London, was the meeting place of a group of Separatists who were guests of the hamlet’s postmaster, William Brewster. As Separatists, the congregation at Scrooby was aware that they were both in violation of ecclesiastical and civil law, and knew that in time they would be discovered and punished.

Five years later, after some had endured prison, leaving Scrooby became their main consideration. Although King James had vowed to harass the Puritans out of his realm, he was not willing to allow them safe and legal passage. Therefore, if sailing to Holland was the objective, it would have to be done in extreme secrecy. Their first attempt failed. Betrayal and unsuccessful evasion of the authorities hindered them. Several months later after some were released from prison, they tried again. The second attempt was not without problems. Only a portion of the men were able to board the Dutch ship they had hired, thereby separating the group. Wives and children wept in despair as they looked on their husbands and fathers on the deck of the departing ship. Their reunion came several months later.

Arriving in Amsterdam, among them William Brewster, John Robinson, their pastor, and seventeen-year-old William Bradford, these Scrooby Separatists found themselves in the midst of conflict and much consternation. Free from constraints, other English Separatists congregations started to advance faith issues that put them at odds with their flocks. As fellow Separatists, it was impossible for the new-comers to remain uninvolved. Showing the firmness, sensitivity and judgment that later characterized his ministry, Pastor Robinson led the majority of the group to relocate to nearby Leiden, where they were free to establish themselves on their own terms. Once established in Leiden, their sense of purpose renewed despite the challenges and difficulties of being exiles. Though freer, life and work in Leiden were hard and very different from their previous life of husbandry. However, these men and women of conscience and self -respect went to work in simple everyday tasks as offered to them by employers of manual labor. Some became carpenters, others weavers, brick layers, twine spinners, furniture and glass makers, and the like. As a group, the Pilgrims did honest work and conducted themselves in a way that met the hearty approval of the community. The small group prospered.

During their twelve-year stay, more than forty marriages were celebrated; their community increased with the addition of more children born to them; recognition and honor came from the city as many were awarded citizenship. Still, the most important preparatory activity was the increasing distinctiveness with which they were defining in their minds and in practical terms the system of church government which they had adopted. At Scrooby, this group had taken a stance for independence and self-government. In Leiden, they took the occasion to apply that standard. Later at Plymouth, they worked out, in a much larger scale and with demonstrable success, self-government, order, fellowship and efficient church management. They became habituated to, and perfected Congregationalism.

Three years before their 1620 sea voyage, the Pilgrims enumerated important reasons for leaving. Firstly, they sought to enlarge their church. And though grateful, exile and hard toil in Leiden had indeed taken its toll on the group’s leaders; they determined that the aging group would scatter or succumb to necessity. Their children’s moral and spiritual safety was paramount. The Pilgrims’ children were “oftentimes so oppressed with their heavy labors…their bodies bowed under the weight of the same, and became decrepit in their early youth.” The most lamentable thing was that in their youth, their children gave into the city’s many temptations, grieving their parents and imperiling their souls. War was another critical consideration. The truce between the Dutch and the Spaniards, which had been in force since 1609, was nearing its termination. War between Spain and Holland could erupt at any moment in 1619. In addition, the Continent was suffering the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War, and freedom appeared tenuous as the political landscape darkened with threats.

Deciding on Virginia, plans were started to secure passage and a land lease. After two years, the efforts were fruitless. Offers to finance their venture came from the Dutch, but the group of Pilgrims accepted one made by an association of English merchants and business men who had a solid financial condition. Articles of agreement were drafted and accepted by the two parties, and the necessary preparations were undertaken in earnest. It would be too late when significant changes were forced on them, and fearing tremendous loss, the Pilgrims accepted. The new agreement essentially made them to be at the employ of the financiers and gave them no legal latitude to occupy themselves in the settling and furthering of themselves and their families. Suddenly, they were to produce gains for the enlargement of the common stock, into which they had no great participation. Their personal time, their labor, their vigor and enterprising activities were to be the common property of the parties, favoring the financiers more according to the number of their shares. This represented a sure prospect for the Pilgrims’ eventual failure.

Meanwhile, two ships were secured for their transport. One was for the passengers and the other for their cargo. These were the Mayflower, the hired vessel, and the Speedwell, which had been purchased, and destined to be kept by the Pilgrims in the new world. Sadly, of this last vessel they were also dispossessed. Only a small group was to make the historical voyage, for many in the Leiden church were already advanced in age, some had not the means, and others had not enough time. On the day before departure, the little church in Leiden, under the direction of Pastor Robinson – whose death five years later thwarted plans for reunion – came together from the morning hours until night to pray and fast and to ask with many tears for the Lord to bless the travelers. Twenty-four miles away the Speedwell waited for the little band of Pilgrims to depart the Dutch port en route to Southhampton, where they were to join up with the Mayflower. Tears, prayer and the asking of God’s blessing and protection, was the scene among the two groups of Pilgrims. The small group was on its way to accomplish more than they would have ever imagined. If history and circumstances had not produced the Puritan, there would have been no Pilgrim to write a new chapter in the history of Christianity and of humanity.