Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on a group of pilgrims that braved a vast ocean to settle in a foreign and hostile new world. The 65 day journey was cruel and punishing. At the end of their journey, bad weather prevented the pilgrims from disembarking the Mayflower for a couple of days. In addition, the Mayflower was lost and ended up north of their target. Arguments and bickering between the pilgrims and other settlers began to swell within the confines of its walls. William Brewster and William Bradford, the elders of the group, encouraged the pilgrims to form a pact as a way to calm and refocus the passengers. With winter descending upon them, survival depended on mutual solidarity. A document was penned that would change the course of history and become the foundational basis for the US Constitution. The Mayflower Compact outlined as William Bradford put it, ‘…the first foundation of their government…’ principles that included, civil governmental body, justice, equality and laws for the protection and preservation of its people.
Well-crafted and concise The Mayflower Compact was signed by all parties. History has honored the signatories of this famous contract.
But was the Mayflower Compact the original thoughts and words of the pilgrims during a time of distress and anxiety? Could there have been another person and document that influenced the creation of the Compact?
Napoleon Bonaparte commented once, “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.” Sadly, the ancillary details of history are often forgotten.
The Story of the Mayflower and the Mayflower Compact begins just prior to the pilgrim’s departure. Sitting in the harbor in Delfshaven, the pilgrims began preparations for their historic journey. But it wasn’t without sadness and despair. The family and friends that were left behind understood the consequences of the voyage. Some family members would never see their loved ones again. William Bradford and his wife left behind their 3 year old child. The day before the departure their pastor ,John Robinson preached a sermon that encouraged the pilgrims and congregation to “…humble ourselves before our God, and seeke of him a right way for us, and for our children, and for all our substance.” Robinson also pointed out that the occasion was filled with “pouring out prayers” and an “abundant of tears”. For a long time, the community of Delfshaven remembered the mournful scene the morning the Mayflower left for the new world. William Bradford recorded the events:“The next day (the wind being fair) they went aboard and their friends with them, where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to see what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them, what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each heart; that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the quay as spectators could not refrain from tears.”
But history has recorded an ancillary detail just prior to the Mayflower leaving port. John Robinson, their beloved pastor, handed the elders on the Mayflower a letter. William Bradford records the reading of this letter to everyone on board, “All things being now ready, & every bussines dispatched, the company was caled togeather, and this letter read amongst them, which had good acceptation with all, and after fruit with many.”
The letter was full of love, encouragement and Godly instruction and opened with, ‘Loving and Christian Friends…’It’s not hard to imagine that the last link to their old world would be closely read and highly valued. When the arguments, disgruntling and as Bradford described, “discontented and mutinous speeches” began at the end of their journey, it was this letter that was most assuredly on the minds of William Brewster and William Bradford. The letter incredibly predicted malcontent and ‘…a world of offenses…’ and admonishes the group to focus on ‘Heavenly peace with God’ and ‘peace with all men’and not to ‘easily take offense being given by others’but rather, ‘Store up, therefore, patience..’
Robinson’s letter even instructed them how to form the beginnings of a government , ‘…you are become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government…’.This phrase is directly used in the Compact, ‘…combine ourselves together into a civil body politic…’ Equality and respect found its way into the pastor’s letter as he implored the pilgrims to choose, ‘such persons as do entirely love and will promote the common good…’ and not to elevate others to a, ‘specialeminency above the rest.’but yield to, ‘them all due honor and obedience in their lawful administrations….’These concepts, relayed to them from a pastor’s love, are the core of the compact.
At the ‘Pilgrims’ Day Recalled’ in 1879, the New-England Club’s annual banquet, Rev Dr. H.W. Bellows spoke to ‘the social compact of the Mayflower’ when he said, “The social compact of the Mayflower embodied two principles. That the fortunes of life and the opinion of the individual man must be held in obedience to the common interests and the common good. The individual was not only a member of a race to which he owed privileges and gifts, but the race was the child and servant of the most high God. These were the principles-love of God and love of law.”
The Mayflower Compact captured the foundational spirit of America; freedom to pursue dreams, justice, equality and individual responsibility. It is easy to see the impact it had on our founding fathers when they drafted the US Constitution. All this from a love letter from a simple pastor to his‘Loving and Christian Friends‘.
“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 advancements of the Christian faith, and the honor 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 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 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 hereunto 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, 1620.”
Loving and Christian Friends,
I do heartily and in the Lord salute you all as being they with whom I am present in my best affection, and most earnest longings after you. Though I be constrained for a while to be bodily absent from you. I say constrained, God knowing how willingly and much rather than otherwise, I would have borne my part with you in this first brunt, where I not by strong necessity held back for the present. Make account of me in the meanwhile as of a man divided in myself with great pain, and as (natural bonds set aside) having my better part with you. And though I doubt not but in your godly wisdoms you both foresee and resolve upon that which concerneth your present state and condition, both severally and jointly, yet have I thought it but my duty to add some further spur of provocation unto them who run already; if not because you need it, yet because I owe it in love and duty. And first, as we are daily to renew our repentance with our God, especially for our sins knn occasions of such difficulty and danger sa lieth upon you, to a both more narrow search and careful reformation of your ways in His sight; let He, calling to remembrance our sins forgotten by us or unrepented of, take advantage against us, and in judgment leave us for the same to be swallowed up in one danger or other. Whereas, on the contrary, sin being taken away by earnest repentance and the pardon thereof from the Lord, sealed up unto a man’s conscience by His Spirit, great shall be his security and peace in all dangers, sweet his comforts in all distresses, with happy deliverance from all evil, whether in live or in death.
Now, next after this heavenly peace with God and our own consciences, we are carefully to provide for peace with all men what in us lieth, especially with our associates. And for that, watchfulness must be had that we neither at all in ourselves do give, no, nor easily take offense being given by others. Woe be unto the world for offenses, for though it be necessary (considering the malice of Satan and man’s corruption) that offenses come, yet woe unto the man, or woman either, by whom the offense cometh, saith Christ, Matthew 18:7. And if offenses in the unseasonable use of things, in themselves indifferent, be more to the feared than death itself (as the Apostle teacheth, 1 Corinthians 9:15) how much more in things simply evil, in which neither honor of God nor love of man is thought worthy to be regarded. Neither yet is it sufficient that we keep ourselves by the grace of God from giving offense, except withal we be armed against the taking of them when they be given by others. For how unperfect and lame is the work of grace in that person who wants charity to cover a multitude of offenses, as the Scriptures speak!
Neither are you to be exhorted to this grace only upon the common grounds of Christianity, which are, that persons ready to take offense either want charity to cover offenses, or wisdom duly to weigh human frailty; or lastly, are gross, though close hypocrites as Christ our Lord teacheth (Matthew 7:1,2,3), as indeed in my own experience few or none have been found which sooner give
offense than such as easily take it. Neither have they ever proved sound and profitable members in societies, which have nourished this touchy humor.
But besides these, there are divers motives provoking you above others to great care and conscience this way: As first, you are many of you strangers, as to the persons so to the infirmities one of another, and so stand in need of more watchfulness this way, lest when such things fall out in men and women as you suspected not, you be inordinately affected with them; which doth require at your hands much wisdom and charity for the covering and preventing of incident offenses that way. And, lastly, your intended course of civil community will minister continual occasion of offense, and will be as fuel for that fire, except you diligently quench it with brotherly forbearance. And if taking of offense causelessly or easily at men’s doings be so carefully to be avoided, how much more heed is to be taken that we take not offense at God Himself, which yet we certainly do so oft as we do murmur at His providence in our crosses, or bear impatiently such afflictions as wherewith He pleaseth to visit us. Store up, therefore, patience against that evil day, without which we take offense at the Lord Himself in His holy and just works.
A fourth thing there is carefully to be provided for, to wit, that with your common employments you join common affections truly bent upon the general good, avoiding deadly plague of your both common and special comfort all retiredness of mind for proper advantage, and all singularly affected any manner of way. Let ever man repress in himself and the whole body in each person, as so many rebels against the common good, all private respects of men’s selves, not sorting with the general conveniency. And as men are careful not to have a new house shaken with any violence before it be well settled and the parts firmly knit, so be you, I beseech you, brethren, much more careful that the house of God, which you are and are to be, be not shaken with unnecessary novelties or other oppositions at the first settling thereof.
Lastly, whereas you are become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government, and are not furnished with any persons of special eminency above the rest, to be chosen by you into office of government; let your wisdom and godliness appear, not only in choosing such persons as do entirely love and will promote the common good, but also in yielding unto them all due honor and obedience in their lawful administrations, not beholding in them the ordinariness of their persons, but God’s ordinance for your good; not being like the foolish multitude who more honor the gay coat than either the virtuous mind of the man, or glorious ordinance of the Lord. But you know better things, and that the image of the Lord’s power and authority which the magistrate beareth, is honorable, in how means persons soever. And this duty you both may the more willingly and ought the more conscionably to perform, because you are at least for the present to have only them for your ordinary governors, which yourselves shall make choice of for that work.
Sundry other things of importance I could put you in mind of, and of those before mentioned in more words, but I will not so far wrong your godly minds as to think you heedless of these things, there being also divers among you so well able to admonish both themselves and others of what concerneth them. These few things therefore, and the same in few words I do earnestly commend unto your care and conscience, joining therewith my daily incessant prayers unto the Lord, that He who hath made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all rivers of water, and whose providence is over all His works, espeically over all His dear children for good, would so guide and guard you in your ways, as inwardly by His Spirit, so outwardly by the hand of His power, as that both you and we also, for and with you, may have after matter of praising His name all the days of your and our lives. Fare you well in Him in whom you trust, and in whom I rest.
An unfeigned wellwiller of your happy success in this hopeful voyage,
Great article that connects the Mayflower compact to the foundations of US Government:
In this article:
“Deetz illustrates a contrast between the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence. In his view, Deetz points out that the Compact “stresses the larger community, and the individual is not considered: ‘[we]… covenant and combine ourselves together in a civil body politic … and promise due submission to the general good of the colony.’” He goes on to quote the Declaration, “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…,” pointing out the difference between the “civil body politic” and “all men.” This difference between the two documents, according to Deetz, is easily understood, and also “peculiarly suitable to the needs of the people for whom it was written” (Deetz 158-59).”
Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: The Archeology of Early American Life. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1977.