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When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, hopes for Protestant reform in England went from bad to worse. She was succeeded by James I, who enjoyed saturating young ladies with liquor and then watching them collapse and vomit at his feet. James was openly homosexual, and once justified his sodomy with blasphemy, remarking that "Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had his John, and I have my George." Ironically, James also commissioned the famous Bible translation that bears his name, a fact that seemed, to many, to underscore the perverse nature of his position as head of the Anglican Church. At one point, he ordered that the "Book of Sports" be read from every pulpit for the purpose of encouraging recreation on Sundays. This was an open insult directed at the Puritan ministers, who were trying to exist within the English Church; it also confirmed the view of the independent Christians that their decision to separate themselves from state-sponsored Christianity had been a correct one. The Sabbath for both the Puritans and the Separatists was to be reserved for God, not amusements. A church headed by a man such as James was not what serious reformers had in mind in supporting England's break from Rome.
In this context, John Robinson's congregation in Scrooby (formed in 1602) began to attract members. They met in the privacy of the home of Postmaster William Brewster. Robinson, Brewster and their followers merely wanted to be left alone, to worship Christ in their own way, undefiled by James's perversions and Anglican extravagance. Robinson was a peaceful man, did not seek a confrontation with the government, and made it clear to the King's men that he certainly had no intention of causing trouble for the official church. He was even willing to call himself an Anglican: "It is not we which refuse them, but they us," he said. But he also made quite clear his dissatisfaction with the King's version of Christianity. "There is but one body, the church, but one Lord, or head of that body, Christ: and whoever separates from the body, the church, separates from the head, Christ," said Robinson. In his view, it was the English Church, not his congregation, which had separated from the body of Christ.
The body of believers in Scrooby were often called "Brownists" - a derisive term in the minds of state and church officials. Robert Browne, like Robinson, was a graduate of Cambridge University, which became the intellectual center for Protestant dissent in England. Browne founded a Congregational church at Norwich, and in 1582 fled under pressure to Middelburg in Zeeland. There he published his famous Treatise of Reformation Without Tarying for Anie, in which he outlined a view of the church as follows: "The church planted or gathered is a company or number of Christians or believers, which by willing covenant made with their God, are under the government of God and Christ1 and keep His laws in one holy communion." Robinson's view of the church was similar, and can be found in his Justification of Separation from the Church of England, published in 1610: "A company of faithful people thus covenanting together are a church, though they may be without any officers among them, contrary to your popish opinion."
The royal authorities saw groups, such as the one in Scrooby, as far more threatening than the Puritans, who at least theoretically professed to support the state church. Puritans could be located if they became too demanding and unruly-and defrocked, fined, or imprisoned if necessary to maintain social harmony. But the Separatists, who had no church buildings, were highly mobile and could easily disappear into the countryside. King James I, much exasperated by the disrespect they continually demonstrated for his authority, ordered that the police hunt down this "private sect, lurking within the bowels of this nation." He saw them as dangerous religious "fanatics" being "ever-discontented with the present government and impatient to suffer any superiority, which maketh their sect unable to be suffered in any well-governed commonwealth." Either "conform yourselves," he declared, "or I will harry you out of the land!"
The Separatists were hunted with zeal. Spies and informers watched the roads and reported any clues to the appropriate authorities as to Brownist whereabouts. Even though the Congregationalists were usually able to elude James's wrath, Robinson and Brewster were concerned about the safety of their women and children. Reluctantly, they decided, after consulting with the congregation, that it was necessary to flee England. "They were both scoffed and scorned by the profane multitude ... and the poor people were so vexed with apparitors, and pursuants and commissarie courts, as truly their affliction was not small," wrote William Bradford, the future governor of Plymouth colony. His famous and moving diary, a History of Plymouth Plantation, one of the great works of New England literature, will be drawn on heavily here. Bradford was not only a gifted writer, he would also become one of the heroic pioneers of Western history, laying the cornerstones that made possible the building of the American Republic. In Scrooby, however, he was just one member of Robinson's and Brewster's congregation and had no grand human ambitions.
In his journal, Bradford wrote poignantly of how dificult it was to leave friends and acquaintances behind for "an adventure almost desperate." But, he said, "these things did not dismay them (though they did at times trouble them) for their desires were set on the ways of God, and to enjoy His ordinances. They rested on His providence, and knew who they believed."
In order to launch their voyage, explained Bradford, they needed to commission a ship. "But the ports were shut against them." Unfortunately, they were forced to rely on people they did not know to provide safe passage, and were betrayed by an unscrupulous shipper on the docks of Lincolnshire. He seemed cheerful and eager to help, accepted their money, and made arrangements for them to leave on a particular day. "After long waiting, and large expenses he [the shipper] came at length and took them in... But when he had them and their goods aboard, he betrayed them, having beforehand plotted with searchers and other officers . . . who took them, and put them in open boats, and rifled and ransacked them, searching their shirts for money." Of most concern to Bradford, was that the women were handled without "modesty." The police then "carried them back to town and made them a spectacle and wonder to the multitude." Most of the men were able to escape, thus avoiding almost certain execution. But the women and children were thrown into dungeons. People were not expected to survive long in a 17th-century English prison. "Pitiful it was to see" these "poor women in this distress," wrote Bradford. "What weeping and crying on every side, some for their husbands . . . others not knowing what should become of them, and their little ones; others again melted in tears, seeing their poor little ones hanging about them, crying for fear, and quaking with cold."
But then, said Bradford, "their cause became famous, and occasioned many to look into . . . their godly carriage and Christian behavior," which "left a deep impression in the minds of many." Because of their courageous example as martyrs for their faith, "many more came with fresh courage and greatly animated others." The imprisonment of so many Brownist women and children became a source of political embarrassment to King James, who reluctantly released the pilgrims on the condition that they conform themselves to the Anglican Church, or leave the country. The decision for them was obvious. They joined their husbands who had made it to the Netherlands under much duress and spent a year in Amsterdam, before finally taking up residence in the university town of Leyden.
Many of Robinson's Brownists were, at one time, well-todo Englishmen, with good educations from Cambridge University, and had bright futures ahead of them if they had merely conformed themselves to the English Church. Instead, they lost their homes and all their possessions to tax collectors, officers of the state, and unscrupulous shippers. They were unwelcome in their native country because they believed that the Bible, not the king of England, should be the final authority, not only on matters of faith, but in all areas of life. In their view, James came under the rule of Christ, Christ did not come under the rule of James. Their insistence on this one point caused them many personal hardships - but in the end would make possible the emergence of the freest, richest, and most fervently Christian (in the Brownist sense) society in the history of man.
But all this would come later. First, they would have to carry the cross. As immigrants in Holland, they were permitted only to engage in menial labor and were paid barely subsistence wages. They lived this way in Leyden for 11 years, often working from dawn until well into the night. Because of "the hardness of the place," they aged quickly and a number of them "were taken away by death." But the abject poverty did not discourage the Brownists. "The people generally bore all these difficulties very cheerfully and with resolute courage." Far more pernicious, wrote Bradford, was the "manifold temptations of the place." The children were being drawn away from their parents by the "evil examples" of the Dutch. Many in the Leyden congregation thought it preferable to endure the prisons of England rather than risk falling away from the Gospel by continuing to live in "licentious" Holland.
The Leydenites elected to travel to the New World, to become "Pilgrims," a name coined by Bradford. "It was answered that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courages," he wrote. "It was granted that the dangers were great, but not desperate, and the difficulties were many, but not invincible... and all of them, through the help of God, by fortitude and patience, might either be borne or overcome."
Their pastor John Robinson perceived that God beckoned his people to go to this new land to build a new Jerusalem. As he saw it, the Leydenites, like "the people of God in old time, were called out of Babylon, the place of their bodily bondage, and were to come to Jerusalem, and there build the Lord's temple."
Robinson and Brewster first approached, in a letter, a wealthy businessman, Sir Edwin Sandys, for financial backing:
"We verily believe and trust the Lord is with us, unto Whom and Whose Service we have given ourselves in many trials, and that He will graciously prosper our endeavors according to the simplicity of our hearts therein," they wrote. Sandys was a staunch Puritan, and sympathetic to the more radical Brownists. But he was recovering from recent financial setbacks, including an investment in an unfruitful expedition to Virginia, and was forced to turn them down. Subsequently, they were approached by a conniving London merchant named Thomas Weston, who sought to take advantage of their plight.
Weston agreed to finance their journey in exchange for a seven-year period of indentured servitude. Each settler would be given one share of the company at the outset, and an additional share if they equipped themselves. At the end of seven years, the profits of the company would be divided in proportion to the number of shares. This struck the Pilgrims as fair. So Weston, along with a group of merchants, worked out arrangements to provide them with ships, the Speedwell and the Mayflower. The Speedwell proved completely unseaworthy, and so the Pilgrims were forced to crowd themselves onto the Mayflower. The 40 Brownists were actually a minority among those on the 102-passenger ship. The others were adventurers looking for excitement and people of low social rank hoping to find a better life. Most of the Leyden congregation could not go on the journey because there was not enough room. And John Robinson, the man who most wanted to go, felt obligated to stay with the bulk of his flock, and so remained in Holland. Brewster was made acting pastor.
In addition to providing the Pilgrims with shoddy vessels, Weston, at the last possible moment, presented them with a revised contract. The major change was that all property, including the land they cleared and the homes they built in New England, would remain the property of the company after the seven years of service were concluded. The Pilgrims refused, not because they would not have agreed to this condition had it been clearly stated at the beginning, but because in their minds an agreement was an agreement. Weston, shocked and enraged that they would not immediately accede to his demands, in desperation informed them he would not settle their final debts. Undeterred, the Pilgrims sold off all food and supplies not absolutely required for the voyage to meet their financial obligations. They then sent off a letter to the London merchants informing them that if the settlement was not profitable after seven years, they would continue to labor until every cent was repaid in addition to yielding a healthy return on the company's investment. This was, in fact, a better deal for the London group than the arrangement Weston had tried to force the Pilgrims to sign.
Prior to boarding the ship, Brewster assembled the congregation to read a letter by John Robinson:
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. . . We are daily to renew our repentance with our God, especially for our own sins known, and generally for our unknown trespasses, so does the Lord call us in a singular manner upon occasions of such difliculty and danger as lies before you.
Anticipating conflict with their non-Christian brethren on the ship, Robinson's particular concern was that the Pilgrims exercise patience: "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 . . . Store up therefore patience against that evil day, without which we take offense at the Lord Himself in His holy and just works."
Finally, Robinson advised, the form of government established should be democratic (congregational), that is, officers reporting to the people and serving at their pleasure: "Whereas you are to become a civil 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 promote the common good, but also in yielding unto them all due honor and obedience in their lawful administrations."
Thus, we see in Robinson's letter to the Pilgrims many qualities unique to the American character and form of government still evident today. His concern was for tolerance of those who did not share their world-view; democratic rule in which even those outside their church would have a voice; and government according to the rule of law. Above all, from Robinson's perspective, their survival as a "civil community" was contingent on staying true to God's wishes and in being a model of Christian charity to the others: "Though it be necessary (considering the malice of Satan and man's corruption) that offenses come... [this] doth require at your hands much wisdom and charity for the covering and preventing of incident offenses."
On August 5, 1620, they set sail, encountering, according to Bradford, "many fierce storms in which the ship was soundly shaken." Amazingly, only two died on the voyage, one of a mysterious illness and the other of scurvy. After seven weeks, and "a long beating at sea," the ship arrived on November 9, 1620, at Cape Cod. They had been blown by a severe storm 300 miles north of their intended destination, which was Virginia. They sailed up and down the rocky coast for two days, finally returning to the Cape as the most suitable place to drop anchor.
But the Mayflower's passengers were faced with a new problem: by choosing to settle outside the Virginia boundary, their patent was no longer valid. Thus, as one passenger pointed out, the ship was under no one's jurisdiction. They were without a sovereign, and were therefore subject to no formal legal or social arrangements whatsoever. Without a government, to use John Locke's term, they were in "a state of nature." And a number of the non-Pilgrim men began behaving as one might expect men to behave in a state of nature. Rebellion stirred in the bowels of the ship, and the Pilgrim leadership had to act quickly in order to avoid mutiny, which quite clearly would doom the expedition. As Bradford described it, the Pilgrims huddled together amongst themselves and drew up an agreement, a sacred "covenant," making them a "civil body politic" and promising "just and equal laws."
That the decision to form such a compact was so instinctive for the Pilgrims is noteworthy. It was a natural outgrowth of the covenantal nature of their Scrooby congregation, which was formed by people coming together voluntarily for a common purpose, which in England and Holland had been to live in strict adherence to the letter of Scripture. But on the Mayflower, an additional covenant was needed to form a legitimate government, necessary for their individual protection, as well as to make possible the emergence on virgin territory of civilized society.
The Mayflower Compact
…Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and the advancement of the Christian Faith and the honor of our King and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by the 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...
This became known as the Mayflower Compact, and is a pivotal document in the development of constitutional government in America. John Carver, who Bradford said was "a man godly and well approved amongst them," was elected governor "for that year."
The signing of the Mayflower Compact by almost all of the adult men on the voyage disproves the impression left by many historians that the "social compact" was an idea of the Enlightenment, invented by John Locke at the time of the Glorious Revolution in England 68 years hence. Now Locke is perhaps the single most important thinker in the codification of American constitutional philosophy; Thomas Jefferson and the founders relied heavily on him for their views on the proper role of the state. But it is very important to understand the correct sequence of events-if for no other reason than to understand Locke.
Locke himself, as we will see in more detail later, was a pious man, educated in fact by Protestant dissenters in England (very similar in outlook to Robinson and Brewster). Locke developed his ardent spirit for liberty largely from his admiration of Protestant sects founded on the "right of private judgment," and was firmly committed not only to their political cause of religious liberty, but also to their religious convictions. His "social compact" theory was not really a theory at all, but was derived mainly from Scripture and his experience with the Congregational church, or "conventicle," which was patterned after the example of the apostolic churches.
The concept of "equal laws" is also very much part of the Hebrew tradition, as the Jews of the Old Testament were people of the covenant that is, they had a compact with God. The Ten Commandments apply equally to everyone within the covenant. Similarly, the Pilgrims, with the Bible in hand, had no difficulty beginning a new society from scratch, just as the early Christians established autonomous societies that were set apart from the Roman empire.1
The non-Pilgrims, by contrast, were confused and anarchic, apparently helpless without a human authority handing down orders. Absent the strong influence of men such as Brewster, Carver, and Bradford, the Mayflower adventurers and thrill-seekers, less firm in their biblical convictions, would have been on the road to very rapid demise. The Virginia settlement of 1607 failed largely because the spiritual bond between the people was weak; there was little sense of mission in Jamestown drawing the people together, in contrast to the Plymouth expedition. That a social covenant, such as the one drawn up by the Pilgrims, could have worked if they had not been an intensely religious people is doubtful. For without God as overseer, always tugging at the strings of conscience, the Mayflower Compact would have been nothing more than a scrap of paper. There was, after all, no real legal redress available against those who decided to violate the agreement.
Similarly, the U.S. Constitution has worked because there has been a sacred aura surrounding the document; it has been something more than a legal contract; it was a covenant, an oath before God, very much related to the covenant the Pilgrims signed. Indeed, when the President takes his oath of office he places his hand on a Bible and swears before Almighty God to uphold the Constitution of the United States. He makes a sacred promise; and the same holds true for Supreme Court justices who take an oath to follow the letter of the written Constitution. The moment America's leaders begin treating the Constitution as though it were a mere sheet of paper is the moment the American Republic-or American Covenant-ends. The American people are bound together by an oath; an oath between the people to form a government of "just and equal laws" under God. When that oath is violated, the bond, too, is dis solved - which is the grave danger our nation faces today.
A sacred bond, both spiritual and actual (as written on paper), enabled the Plymouth settlement to survive the first winter, for which, having arrived in November, they had little time to prepare. The task before them when they first set foot on that "wild and savage hue" was frightening to the sojourners, and the obstacles must have appeared almost insurmountable. As Bradford described their lonely situation, the Pilgrims had "no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh their weather-beaten bodies, no houses . . . to repair to." And as he turned to look whence they came he saw only "the mighty ocean which they had passed," which "was now a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world . .
What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His Grace?" But, said Bradford in a more cheerful tone, they also had much to be thankful for: "Being thus arrived in good harbor, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven who had brought them over this vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perik and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth."
What comes through in these lines by Bradford is the human qualities and emotions these Pilgrims had. They were not supermen. Bradford's diary is an account of very ordinary people who, without their unflinching faith that God was looking after them, could never have accompbshed such a feat. Often they doubted their own abilities. But not once does Bradford allude to any instance in which the Pilgrims doubted, even for a moment, God's commitment to them, His covenant, His promise to make certain their work would bear fruit, and to see their enterprise through the terrible tribulations that awaited. They often read aloud to each other passages in Scripture such as the Prophet Isaiah's promise to "the offspring of Abraham":
You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth,
And called from its remotest parts,
And said to you, ‘You are My servant,
I have chosen you and not rejected you.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, surely I will help you,
Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right band.'
The Pilgrims were absolutely certain that God would not abandon them, and that all hardships and all disasters they would have to confront somehow fit His divine plan. They were there on a mission - on God's errand into the wilderness. They were the new children of Israel, spiritual descendants of Abraham, sent by the winds of Providence into a desolate wasteland, just as Moses and the Jews were sent for 40 years into the desert. But the faith of Brewster, Carver, Bradford, and their Pilgrim brethren, that indeed their ordeal would serve a purpose, was very definitely the source of their power to begin the awesome task of building the United States of America - a fact that should cause even the atheist to marvel.
But the trials of the journey, of which Bradford wrote, were small in comparison to the deadly miseries of the winter months to follow: "That which was most sad and lamentable was that in two or three months time half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with scurvy and other diseases, which this long voyage and their unaccommodate condition had brought upon them. They died, sometimes two or three on a day.. . and of the times of most distress six or seven sound persons," one of which was Bradford's wife. Her death must have grieved him terribly, though he never mentioned it in his journal. But this would be in keeping with Bradford's character which was to never discuss his own suffering. The word he used was always "they," never "I" or even "we"; it was a precaution he took against engaging in self-pity as well as protection from the ever-present threat to the soul posed by the ego.
But with spring came a thaw, and when the cold left so did the "starving time." The colonists met two Indians, one named Samoset and the other Squanto. Squanto knew English, as he had spent time in England, traveling there with a previous expedition sponsored by the Virginia Company. They exchanged gifts, according to Bradford, and then they went back to their tribe to the "great Sachem, called Massasoit, who, about four or five days after," arrived with a cadre of braves. To Bradford's great relief, the tribe proved hospitable. Chief Massasoit provided entertainment and ordered that the settlers be given back their tools, which the Indians had stolen that winter.
The Pilgrims were craftsmen and townspeople in England, with virtually no experience as farmers or hunters. In four months time they had caught only one codfish. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to provide for the necessities of life, including how to plant corn and fish for cod. The English-speaking Indian seemed to Bradford a gift delivered from Heaven. The settlers and Indians agreed to sign a treaty of peace and mutual assistance, which read as follows:
This compact, really an expansion of the covenant the Pilgrims had signed on the Mayflower, would last inviolated for 50 years. Squanto continued to assist the settlers, teaching them how to stalk deer, plant pumpkins, and skin beavers. Governor Carver, however, while working in the fields, died suddenly of an unknown cause, perhaps of a heart attack. This was a sad moment in the midst of so much encouragement. But our eloquent historian, William Bradford, was elected unanimously as governor, and would win re-election 30 consecutive times.
Even with the coming of spring, friendly relations with the Indians, and Squanto's assistance, the colony was still a long way from prospering. Weston's contract imposed a socialist system on the settlement, in which all property was owned by the company. In addition, all produce had to go into a common store, from which each individual would receive an equal ration, regardless of how much he had contributed. Any excess produce belonged to the investors. Also, the Pilgrims' homes, which they had built, and all land, which they had cleared, was company property - terms the Pilgrims wanted to abide by, despite Weston's shenanigans.
Under this essentially communist economic system the people received no reward for individual effort and the colony was unable to produce enough food. "No supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any," wrote Bradford, who went on to reflect on the folly of coliectivist economics:
"The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times, that by taking away of property, and bringing community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing-as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense... This was thought injustice."
Not only did socialism fail to provide for the basic needs of the people, in Bradford's estimation, it was counter to God's plan for man. "If it did not cut relations God established among men, it did at least diminish and take mutual respect that should be preserved among them," he observed. "Seeing all men have corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them." Because of man's fallen state, man cannot be expected to labor for no reward, which, in Bradford's view, is why the God of Scripture rewards man for his good works. The Pilgrim leadership - after much discussion about whether it was right to ignore their company charter - abolished the socialist system, and "assigned every family a parcel of land," observing that: "This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content."
The elimination of communal, or corporate, property in favor of private ownership created prosperity. In fact, the Pilgrims soon found themselves with more food than they could use. They set themselves up as a trading post, exchanging their surplus corn to the Indians for beaver skins, which they in turn shipped back to England to the enormous delight of the investors. When news of the colony's success began circulating, more ships arrived with more settlers, mostly separatist Protestants. At first, Bradford worried that they would not be able to feed them all, but Plymouth's free enterprise system easily absorbed all who wanted to settle there: "Instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed to rejoicing in the hearts of many, for which they blessed God." Bradford's decision to conform to the dictates of the profit motive inherent in human nature - rather than adhere to the letter of their corporate charter - enabled the Pilgrims to purchase their land outright from the company, thus more than adequately fulfilling their part of the bargain.
In addition, Bradford added a seven-member governor's council, also elected annually, the purpose of which was to give as many people as possible an opportunity to take on the responsibilities of government. In his view, government was not a privilege to be enjoyed by a special ruling aristocracy at the expense of the citizenry; government was a burden which ought to be shared by everyone. American constitutional democracy and free enterprise, quite clearly then, did not stand in opposition to the supposed "theocracy" of Plymouth (which was not a theocracy at all, as many historians would have us believe). Nor were such ideas first developed during the European Enlightenment (so-called) of the 18th century. What Abraham Lincoln described as government "of the people, by the people, and for the people," was inherited from a tradition beginning with the Congregationalist Protestant settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the 1620s.
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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.
© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart