It’s been said that history repeats itself. Actually, it’s people who repeat the mistakes of history. We’re seeing a fundamental shift in worldviews taking place in America. A similar shift had taken place in England. It was that shift that brought about fundamental changes to the world. What took place in a small corner of New England had broad implications for the world.
The United States were born during a time of persecution, religious intolerance, and moral denigration. It was these conditions, however, that motivated Christians to action. They would not give in to the status quo.
In the early part of the seventeenth century, England was not friendly to contrary opinions. Ministers of the gospel were silenced, imprisoned, or exiled. In 1609, because of persecution, a group of Christians left their village in Scrooby, England, and went to the Netherlands where they found a fair amount of religious freedom. Led by their pastor, John Robinson, this group settled in Leyden, Holland, where they formed an English Separatist Church.
After a few years, the English transplants began to be concerned that their children were adopting the Dutch language and customs while losing sight of their English heritage. In addition, they wanted to live in a society which was thoroughly founded on the Bible, not simply a place where they would have the freedom to go to the church of their choice. These Separatists (Pilgrims) decided to go to the New World where they could live as Englishmen and in accordance with the Bible.
Unable to finance the trip, the Separatists arranged financial support from a group of English businessmen. These venture capitalists were to receive any profits the colony made in its first seven years. The Pilgrims were also granted permission from the London group of the Virginia Company to settle in Virginia, north of Jamestown.
“I charge you, before God and his blessed angels, that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord has more truth yet to break forth out of his holy word. I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of the reformed churches, who are come to a period in religion, and will go at present no further than the instruments of their reformation.— Luther and Calvin were great and shining lights in their times, yet they penetrated not into the whole counsel of God.— beseech you, remember it,— ‘tis an article of your church covenant,— that you be ready to receive whatever truth shall be made known to you from the written word of God.”1
In September of 1620, the Pilgrims set sail from Plymouth, England, in a ship named the Mayflower. After more than two months at sea, the Mayflower reached the American shore but at a destination not specified by the original charter. The original charter had given the Pilgrim travelers the right to settle in the “northern parts of Virginia.”
The Mayflower had been drawn off course by stormy weather to a point that was north of the Virginia Company’s jurisdiction in Provincetown Harbor in Massachusetts at the tip of Cape Cod. Need for a governing document forced the weary travelers to draft what has become known as the Mayflower Compact. The Compact was drafted and signed by forty-one adult males while all remained aboard ship. The Pilgrims did not disembark but went on to Plymouth where they landed in late December of that same year.
By the terms of the hastily constructed governing document, “the Pilgrims agreed to govern themselves until they could arrange for a charter of their own; they were never able to arrange for such a charter, and the Compact remained in force until their colony at Plymouth was absorbed in that of Massachusetts Bay in 1691.”2
The preamble of the Mayflower Compact emphasizes religious themes and political loyalties which are reflected in later charters and state constitutions. The Compact reads in part:
“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 another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of other ends aforesaid.”
These early settlers to the New World brought with them an old faith, a faith that was rooted in “the name of God. . . . for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith.” Those aboard the Mayflower were conscious of the fact that they were acting “in the presence of God” as they drafted what would later be called “the foundation stone of American liberty”3 and the basis of representative government in the New World.
Let’s not lose sight of this history. Their struggles are our struggles. We can be confident that if in troubling times they forged a new nation that we can do the same. All we lack is the will.
- George Bancroft, History of the Colonization of the United States, 10 vols. 4th ed. (Boston, MA: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1837), 1:307. [↩]
- Mortimer J. Adler, ed., “The Mayflower Compact,” Annals of America: 1493‑1754, 18 vols. (Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1968), 1:64. [↩]
- Frank R. Donovan, The Mayflower Compact (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1968), 12. [↩]