The Mayflower Compact – Self Government

William Brewster signing the Mayflower Compact (19th century painting by Tomkins Harrison Matteson)

We discussed The Mayflower Farewell Letter to the passengers sailing to America.  It reveals God’s Sovereignty in the founding of our country, its government and social order as a Christian nation.  The next blog was an overview of how God’s Sovereignty has led nations. We then examined the Mayflower trip and the reasons for it. We now come to the Mayflower Compact.  It is an amazing event that took place, yet very profound in its outcome.

Imagine the situation: over 100 people, cut off from any government, with a rebellion brewing. Only staunch determination would help the Pilgrims land and establish their colony. If they didn’t work as a group, they could all die in the wilderness.

The Pilgrim leaders realized that they needed a temporary government authority. Back home, such authority came from the king. Isolated as they were in America, it could only come from the people themselves. Aboard the Mayflower, by necessity, the Pilgrims and “Strangers” made a written agreement or compact among themselves.

The Mayflower Compact was probably composed by William Brewster, who had a university education, and was signed by nearly all the adult male colonists, including two of the indentured servants. The format of the Mayflower Compact is very similar to the written agreements used by the Pilgrims to establish their Separatist churches in England and Holland. Under these agreements the male adult members of each church decided how to worship God. They also elected their own ministers and other church officers. This pattern of church self-government served as a model for political self-government in the Mayflower Compact.

The colonists had no intention of declaring their independence from England when they signed the Mayflower Compact. In the opening line of the Compact, both Pilgrims and “Strangers” refer to themselves as “loyal subjects” of King James. The rest of the Mayflower Compact is very short. It simply bound the signers into a “Civil Body Politic” for the purpose of passing “just and equal Laws . . . for the general good of the Colony.” But those few words expressed the idea of self-government for the first time in the New World.

Self-Government Takes Root

Immediately after agreeing to the Mayflower Compact, the signers elected John Carver (one of the Pilgrim leaders) as governor of their colony. They called it Plymouth Plantation. When Governor Carver died in less than a year, William Bradford, age 31, replaced him. Each year thereafter the “Civil Body Politic,” consisting of all adult males except indentured servants, assembled to elect the governor and a small number of assistants. Bradford was re-elected 30 times between 1621 and 1656.

In the early years Governor Bradford pretty much decided how the colony should be run. Few objected to his one-man rule. As the colony’s population grew due to immigration, several new towns came into existence. The roving and increasingly scattered population found it difficult to attend the General Court, as the governing meetings at Plymouth came to be called. By 1639, deputies were sent to represent each town at the other General Court sessions. Not only self-rule, but representative government had taken root on American soil.

The English Magna Carta, written more than 400 years before the Mayflower Compact, established the principle of the rule of law. In England this still mostly meant the king’s law. The Mayflower Compact continued the idea of law made by the people. This idea lies at the heart of democracy.

From its crude beginning in Plymouth, self-government evolved into the town meetings of New England and larger local governments in colonial America. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, the Mayflower Compact had been nearly forgotten, but the powerful idea of self-government had not. Born out of necessity on the Mayflower, the Compact made a significant contribution to the creation of a new democratic nation.1

When creating the Mayflower Compact, the signers believed that covenants were not only to be honored between God and man, but also between each other. They had always honored covenants as part of their righteous integrity and agreed to be bound by this same principle with the Compact. John Adams and many historians have referred to the Mayflower Compact as the foundation of the U.S. Constitution written more than 150 later.

America was indeed begun by men who honored God and set their founding principles by the words of the Bible. They lived their lives with honesty, reliability, and fairness toward establishing this country “for the sake of its survival.” A great many of America’s Founding Fathers have been quoted in regard to living by Biblical values.

Edmund Burke (1729-1794), outstanding orator, author, and leader in Great Britain, defended the colonies in Parliament. “There is but one law for all, namely, that law which governs all law, the law of our Creator.”

Patrick Henry (1736-1799), five-time Governor of Virginia, whose “Give me liberty or give me death” speech has made him immortal, said: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly, nor too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. . . .”

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), third U.S. President, chosen to write the Declaration of Independence, said: “I have little doubt that the whole country will soon be rallied to the unity of our Creator, and, I hope, to the pure doctrines of Jesus also.” He proclaimed that it was the God of the Bible who founded America in his 1805 inaugural address: “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in this country.”2

THE MAYFLOWER COMPACT

by William Bradford

November 11, 1620

A copy of The Mayflower Compact with signatures

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 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 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 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 hereunder subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the 11 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 Domine 1620.3

1 The Mayflower Compact, © 2002, Constitutional Rights Foundation, 601 South Kinglsey Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90005. http://goo.gl/XY7jW

2  Mayflower Compact-The Common Anchor, © 2002 – 2011 AllAboutHistory.org, All Rights Reserved. http://goo.gl/v0zlQ

3 The Mayflower Compact, The National Center for Policy Research, http://www.nationalcenter.org/MayflowerCompact.html

 

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