A pastoral farewell letter to those sailing on the first Mayflower trip to America reveals how God’s Sovereignty directed the founding of America, its government and social order.
The reason for the Mayflower voyage and its small band of Pilgrims is so profound in its meaning that most of us are unaware of how the decisions that were made and the actions taken have chartered a course making the United States of America a Christian nation. Although our economy is in economic distress (as of this writing) and the secularization of our nation is increasing, it is the very founding principles of our country and dependence on God that may keep and deliver us.
Knowing our American Christian heritage is more critical today than ever before. This history reveals God’s Sovereignty and how He guides His people. Charles B. Galloway (1898) points out, as quoted in Christianity and the American Commonwealth, that God’s plan is the salvation of individuals and to determine the character of our civil institutions and the course of our social progress.1
England was a country of religious intolerance in the early 17th century. Ministers of the gospel were silenced, imprisoned, or exiled2. The Pilgrims were reformers and made efforts to reform the Church of practices that did not conform to the scriptures. They were tolerated at first, but later, and under King James, they were persecuted. This led to separating themselves from the Church and organizing their own congregations. One group, led by Richard Clyfton, John Robinson, and William Brewster, made a decision to flee England and go to Holland, where religious freedom was permitted. Soon after the congregation settled in Leyden, John Robinson was publicly ordained as their new minister. Other English Separatists had already settled in Holland.3 The decision to relocate was made early in 1619, when Deacon John Carver and Robert Cushman, who had business experience, were sent to London to negotiate with the London Company. They carried with them articles of belief, written by Robinson and Brewster, as evidence of their loyalty and orthodoxy.
Only a minority of the congregation (thirty-five members), under William Bradford, sailed on the Mayflower from England to America. They were joined by sixty-six people from Southampton and London who had little or no religious motivation. The majority of the congregation remained in Leyden, and planned to make the voyage at a later date. John Robinson agreed in advance to go with the group that was in the majority, but did not make the great historic trip. Before Brewster and his group left Holland, a solemn service was held, at which Robinson chose Ezra 8:21 as his text:
“Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.”4
Pastor John Robinson wrote a farewell letter to the passengers of the Mayflower. It was read before departure. This letter set the tone of godly character and addressed the establishment of government. Here is his letter:
“Loving 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 born my part with you in this first brunt, were I not by strong necessity held back for the present. Make account of me in the mean while, 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 concerns 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 known, and generally for our unknown trespasses, so doth the Lord call us in a singular manner upon occasions of such difficulty and danger as lies upon you, to a both more narrow search and careful reformation of your ways in his sight; least 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 mans 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 life 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 lies, especially with our associates, and for that watchfulness must be had, that we neither at all in our selves 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, says Christ (Matt. 18:7). And if offenses in the unseasonable use of things in themselves indifferent, be more to be feared than death itself, as the Apostle teaches (1 Cor. 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 with all we be armed against the taking of them when they be given by others. For how imperfect 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 humane frailty; or lastly, are gross, though close hypocrites, as Christ our Lord teaches (Matt. 7:1-3), as indeed in my own experience, few or none have been found which sooner give offense, then 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 diverse 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, least when such things fall out in men and women as you suspected not, you be inordinately affected with them; which does 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 often as we do murmur at his providence in our crosses, or bear impatiently such afflictions as wherewith he pleases to visit us. Store up therefore patience against the evil day, without which we take offense at the Lord himself in his holy and just works.
Another 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 as a 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 every 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 convenience. 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 eminence 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 bears, is honorable, in howsoever mean persons. 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 diverse among you so well able to admonish both themselves and others of what concerns 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 waters, and whose providence is over all his works, especially 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 well-willer of your happy success in this hopeful voyage,
Pastor Robinson emphasizes that they must live in godliness. He concludes the letter (second to last paragraph) by clearly giving instruction to forming a political body. Again, he encourages the character of the government must also be based on godliness.
In the next blog we will re-visit the Mayflower trip and how God’s providence freed the passengers from their original charter.
1 Charles B. Galloway, Christianity and the American Commonwealth, p3 (American Vision, Inc., Powder Springs, Georgia, © 2005, All rights reserved)
2 Gary DeMar, America’s Christian History: The Untold Story, p53 (2nd ed. American Vision, Inc., Powder Springs, GA 30127, © 1993,1995, All rights reserved)
Reread the original blog on the Mayflower Compact here: