This Thanksgiving, we turn our minds back to the men and women who laid the foundation for the greatest nation in human history, the United States of America. In particular, we review the values and ethics the early American colonists brought with them and carefully cultivated in this New World. As we examine the faith and fortitude of the Pilgrims, it is my wish that a part of their intrepid spirit will rest upon you and that you will not only feel grateful for them and their sacrifices to forge a civilization on this wild continent, but that you will seek to be more like them in fighting for a better world.
The other day, a friend posted a copy of the Mayflower Compact on social media. A person commented on the post that they had never read the document until then. It made me wonder how many other people have never read this foundational text. For those who may have never read this Pilgrim constitution, I reproduce is below. First, however, let me provide important context for the European settlement of America.
Seventeenth Century Europe was a place of religious, economic, and social oppression. Popes, kings, and tsars oppressed all who disagreed with them. Christian sects persecuted each other. Church and state were combined in an exceptionally dangerous union. In Rome and many parts of Europe, the pope governed not only in ecclesiastical, but secular matters – often tyrannizing, hunting, and killing so-called “heretics” for dissent. In the British Isles, the Church of England wielded the power of the state against its dissenters. In Russia, the empire forced Russian Orthodoxy on the populace and ostracized “Old Believers.” Though the Dark Ages had formally ended, darkness prevailed throughout Europe in actual fact.
At the time of the War for Independence, the fiery patriot Thomas Paine described the world’s situation:
“O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
The “asylum for mankind,” of course, was and is America. In another spot in Common Sense, Paine wrote:
“But Britain is the parent country, say some. Then the more shame upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families; wherefore the assertion, if true, turns to her reproach; but it happens not to be true, or only partly so, and the phrase parent or mother country hath been jesuitically adopted by the king and his parasites, with a low papistical design of gaining an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds. Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.”
Paine was correct. Freedom was a phantom in nearly all parts of the globe. The Dark Ages prevailed in a very real sense in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, Latin America, Europe, and the uncivilized parts of North America. Only in the aptly-named New World did the fire of Freedom and Independence burn. This Liberty inferno was sparked by the Pilgrims over a century before.
The Pilgrims, as Paine noted, came not only from Britain, but from numerous nations in Europe. Germans, Swedes, English, French, Dutch, Irish, Scottish, Danes, Swiss, and many others, often risked life and limb to abandon Europe and make America their home. These European outcasts threw off their shackles and became among the first Americans.
These men and women came to this continent for Freedom, prosperity, a second chance at life, to escape immorality and worldliness, and to practice their religion free from oppression of other sects. While it is true that some colonists set up their own politico-religious jurisdictions that discriminated against others not of their particular sect, their overarching ideal, which found its ultimate expression in the American Revolution and U.S. Constitution, was that all men should be free to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience and without oppression.
The core group of early Pilgrims were in fact English. They did not, however, subscribe to the Church of England’s theology and practice. Some were Puritans who wanted to purify the Church of England’s corrupt theology. Others were labeled Separatists because they rejected the Church of England altogether. These groups were persecuted for their non-conformity. Many eventually fled to the Netherlands where they were allowed to worship God in a manner pleasing to them. This is important: They did not flee from England to the Netherlands for crass economic reasons! Their motivation was religious Freedom.
After a short time, however, the Pilgrims found the Netherlands, like England, to be unsuitable. They disliked what they considered Dutch worldliness. They also worried about the Netherlands’ embroilment in European wars and intrigues. With their minds fixed on the welfare of their children and of their immortal souls, the Pilgrims left the Netherlands seeking a new hope in the New World.
The first batch of Pilgrims to arrive in America made their now famous voyage in September 1620 aboard the Mayflower. Though they sought to land in Virginia, which received its first settlers in Jamestown thirteen years previous, inclement weather had a different plan. In November of 1620, the little ship arrived off the coast of Massachusetts near Cape Cod. The Pilgrims eventually made a nearby location, which they called Plymouth, their permanent residence. Before they disembarked the Mayflower, however, they gathered to form a new government – the Mayflower Compact.
The Mayflower Compact is a significant document. Not only did the Compact govern Plymouth for 71 years, but it set forth the ideological concept of America and sparked the tradition of establishing governments through formal compacts and written constitutions. Before discussing the Compact, I encourage you to read it now in full:
“IN the Name of God, Amen. We whose Names are under-written, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Soveraign Lord King James, by the grace of God of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defendor of the Faith &c. Having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our Kng and Countrey, 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 our selves 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 Soveraign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty fourth, Anno Dom. 1620.”
The document was then signed by forty-one individuals, among whom were William Bradford, Myles Standish, John Carver, and other personalities of note. Please highlight the reason these settlers gave for coming to the New World: The “advancement of the Christian Faith.” Religious Liberty has often been called “the First Freedom.” So it was for the Pilgrim fathers. They fled England not for gold or glory, but for God. They bound themselves together “into a Civil Body Politick,” established “ordered” Liberty, and pledged to work together to advance Christendom. This Christian settlement at Plymouth, not that at Jamestown, was the true birth place of the American nation.
In an article released just in time for Thanksgiving 2020, Eric Patterson and Rebecca Blessing highlighted and underscored the fact that the Mayflower Compact, as you have just seen for yourself, was not created because of politics, social theory, or activism, but was, rather, an organic outgrowth of the Pilgrims’ Christian faith:
“In November 1620, the individuals we know as the Pilgrims created the first social contract in the New World. It was their Protestant faith, rather than some sort of political theory, that provided the idea of covenanting together to form a civil body politic. . . .
“What are we to learn from this today? Most important, the organizing principle for the Compact was the theological motif of covenant. The idea of dedicating oneself to others, before God, in a covenant relationship was essential to many Puritans as well as the Separatists. Covenantalism became a fundamental theological principle for how Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches operated in the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as how they operate today. Therefore, the claim that the social contract theory is necessarily and uniformly secular is utterly inaccurate: the Pilgrims created a theologically informed, non-coercive social compact sans Leviathan. . . .
“At a time when some challenge the morality and religious character of America’s first founders, the plain facts of the 1620 Mayflower Compact, a theologically informed social compact for believers and non-believers alike, remind us of the good seeds planted in our shared past. It is up to us to cultivate those seeds in our own time.”
The Pilgrims of New England planted the good seeds of Faith, Family, and Freedom that were later cultivated and tended to by later generations of Americans; most notably, the generation that won American Independence and nourished the tree of Liberty with their own blood. The Pilgrims established the religious, cultural, social, and even economic patterns that were followed by later Americans and finally codified in our constitutional system. The standout quality of these early Americans was, of course, their reliance upon God – or, as later Americans would declare, their “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”
My own family line, the Strong family, arrived in America in 1635. The first of our clan, Elder John Strong, settled his family in Hingham, Plymouth Colony, and, later, Northampton, Massachusetts. A man by the name of Benjamin W. Dwight, in researching his own family history, found so much information about the influence of the Strongs in early America that he wrote a lengthy book in 1871 detailing our family history up to that point. At the beginning of the book, he made several observations that apply to the Pilgrims generally. I heartily second these words:
“If any part of the world’s history hitherto deserves to be cherished in grateful and admiring remembrance, it is that of this country from its first settlement to the present hour; and the men, that wrought under God all the great benefits which we now enjoy into their present shape, deserve, for the moral purity of their characters, the heroism of their lives, and the greatness of the social results achieved for this nation and for all mankind by their industry and their virtue, to be embalmed forever in the hearts of their descendants. Whatever may occur in future years to change greatly the elements or courses of our development as a people, the fact can never be impaired, that the real builders of this nation, and the inspirers of its aims and purposes, were the Puritans of New England and their immediate descendants. Who and what they were in their every day life; how they spread from point to point over this wide land, first conquered by themselves to Christian civilization, penetrating every part of it with the ideas and institutions of their early homes; and how, from the precious seed which they bore forth and scattered, and often with much weeping, in the waste parts of the wilderness before them, the glorious harvest of our times has grown up for us, it is pleasant to find for one’s self, and to be able to show unto others. The processes of the early settlement of this country, and of the wide-spread development of the active principles of home colonization, which have made out of a few religious strangers here at the first, one of the mightiest nations of the world in so short a time, are among the greatest marvels of human history.
“The Puritan element, whose influence has been so all-conquering and beneficent among the social forces that have made us what we are as a people, is becoming manifestly every year a more and more diminishing quantity among the agencies at work to perpetuate and enlarge our greatness among the nations of the earth. How carefully, therefore, should we secure the memorials, while we may, of the long procession of true-hearted men and women that have borne down, with many tears and toils and prayers, the precious ark of God’s covenant and of our liberties to the present hour. We will not, we cannot, forget those who toiled and dared and endured so much for God and for us. To enjoy the splendid heritage of good which they so laboriously and lovingly prepared for us, as if that were all that we of this day cared for, and to forget them as the magnanimous bestowers of its rich benefits upon us, would be the strongest possible proof of our utter degeneracy from the noble historic stock to which we belong.
“Our fathers were workers. They ate their own bread, and were almost all of them at the first honest and earnest tillers of the ground. Self-help was the universal law of life. Nothing, next to vice itself, was more odious to them than idleness. Ministers and people alike, husbands and wives, fathers, mothers, and children, all helped themselves and helped each other. Self-indulgence was no part of the original fabric of our constitution as a people. It is pleasant to convey the records of the lives and deeds of such a sturdy and God-fearing ancestry as ours, to those who shall succeed us, as among the most precious remembrances of all past times. These were they who used to pray regularly at their firesides, and in their sanctuaries, that “God would bless their children and children’s children to the latest generation;” and in what a fullness of all good things has the blessing that they prayed for, been rained down upon us! The aroma of their many virtues, which is so fresh in our hearts, who live within the very precincts of their times, we would fain perpetuate, if possible, in the happy consciousness of all their posterity” (Benjamin D. Dwight, The History and Descendants of Elder John Strong, of Northampton, Mass., Vol. 1, 1-2).
These glowing praises are not unfounded. The early Pilgrims, while not perfect, were God-fearing, hard-working, pious, virtuous, and zealous. They were humble men and women who put God, family, and community above self. Their principles of “self-help,” community service, faith in God, reliance on the Almighty, and “moral purity,”distinguished them. They forged a community dedicated to Jesus Christ, virtue, and personal Liberty.
Our Pilgrim fathers were made of the stuff that all true Americans in every age have been made of. They possessed integrity, heroism, diligence, discipline, and faith. We owe an unpayable debt to these humble “Separatists.” Had they not separated themselves from the corruptions and contentions of Europe, the makeup of this nation – if we would have become a nation at all – would be vastly different. As it turned out, the Pilgrims infused their religion and ethics into the very fabric of America, recreating this land in their image. The Mayflower Compact which they drafted firmly established America as an outpost of Christianity – an asylum for all who wished to be free and worship their God in peace.
Paul Strand has observed of our Pilgrim ancestors:
“The Pilgrims didn’t just give America Thanksgiving celebrations. They believed religious freedom and liberty were worth dying for. They made the Bible America’s most-read guide to life. And the Pilgrims’ covenant with God and man in 1620 and the form of self-rule they pioneered would eventually shape America’s Constitution and the entire government.”
This Thanksgiving, let us remember that the Pilgrims “toiled and dared and endured so much for God and for us.” They set the example of writing constitutions to bind people together in voluntary compacts for the greater good and for the advancement of Christendom. They left us a legacy of fervent faith in God Almighty, as well as an example of hard work and perseverance. These good men and women would not have seen themselves as heroes, but we rightly view them today as larger-than-life figures who crossed an ocean, left behind everything they knew, tamed a wilderness, forged a new nation through written contracts, and did their best to put into practice their noble values.
I give sincere thanks on this special day to my God for the Pilgrims, including for my own Strong family – past and present. I cherish the heritage of Faith, Family, and Freedom handed down by these faithful individuals. God help us remember them, honor their sacrifices, and reenthrone their values – the values that made America great – so that we may win for ourselves and our countrymen God’s marvelous protection, blessings, and grace. All of this and more can we accomplish if we will do as our forebears did and enter into a covenant to serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ. Happy Thanksgiving.
November 26, 2020