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Scott’s Column: Mayflower Compact

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
November 11 2020

On November 11, 1620 the Mayflower floated in Provincetown Harbor (the landing at Plymouth was a month away).  The crew was grumbling.  The voyage had been delayed, they’d gotten off course, supplies were running short, and winter was coming.  They wanted the passengers gone.

And the passengers were a mixed bunch, not all of them devout Separatists.  Worried that discord would spoil the venture, the leaders drew up a compact for the settlers to sign before anyone went ashore.  It reads:

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 BritainFrance, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the 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 Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, 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 eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of EnglandFrance, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini; 1620.

41 male passengers signed the document.  Including three of my ancestors–John Howland, John Tilley, and Edward Tilley.  Howland was an indentured servant; he almost died on the voyage when he slipped overboard in a storm and providentially caught hold of a halyard and was saved.  The Tilley brothers would die that first winter.

The contemporary author Nick Bunker advises that we evaluate the document by the question–would an Englishman at the time have viewed the document as doing anything radically new?  And he thinks it was viewed that way.  Not only were a group of men coming together to fashion their own civil government without outside authority, the 41 signers were treated as equals in doing so, despite differences of faith, class, and status.  The indentured servants signed too.

Here’s what Bunker concludes about the Compact:

The Pilgrims drew up the agreement in a new location, at the moment of creation of a new colony.  They did so in terms that, two decades later, could be used as a rationale for outright resistance to the Crown.  This, the right of disobedience, existed within the language of the Mayflower Compact from the very start.  Most radically of all, they produced a document that nearly every man signed. . . . This was all very new indeed.

The historian Vernon Parrington, despite being no fan of the Puritans (who arrived in 1630), claimed that “Two cardinal principles–which at bottom were one–thus found their way to New England in the Mayflower: the principle of a democratic church and the principle of a democratic state.”  He added, “The new world would ultimately throw off the old-world repressions and explore the reaches of those generous idealisms that were the bequest of English Separatism.”

So, this week, let’s honor this milestone in the history of our country, our congregationalist faith, and the development of democratic ideals.  This is something to be thankful for.