They had been at sea for sixty-six days, enduring overcrowded conditions. Storms had caused damage to their ship and sea sickness plagued them all– passengers and crew alike. Meager provisions and no heat on chilly autumn days caused further discomfort.
So on November 9, 1620, when they finally saw the coastline of North America in the distance, the Pilgrims and others aboard the Mayflower must have cheered enthusiastically. Soon they could abandon the cramped, cold, and fetid ship and begin new lives in a new world.
But. All had not been peaceful and congenial among the passengers during the crossing. And when it became apparent the storms had blown them too far off course to land in the Virginia Colony as planned, relations deteriorated further.
Not all of the travelers were Pilgrims. Also aboard were merchants, craftsmen, skilled workers, and indentured servants. The Pilgrims called them “strangers.”
No sooner had the decision been made to anchor off Cape Cod, than an argument ensued. Several of the “strangers” pointed out that, since they were not going to be under the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, they would “use their own libertie” and do as they pleased. “None had the power to command them, they said.” (Quoted words are from William Bradford’s records. He served as historian for the Pilgrims.)
To avoid anarchy, five men gathered in the cabin of the ship to create a basis for law and order. The result of their efforts: the Mayflower Compact.
The first words of the document give strong indication of the Pilgrims’ hearts.
In the name of God, Amen.
“Everything they did started with God” (The Founders’ Bible, p. 187).
Next, the Pilgrims stated their purpose for coming to America.
We, whose names are underwritten,…by the grace of God,…having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and country…
Several phrases indicate the Pilgrims’ desires for their new colony:
- “For the glory of God” would be a guide for all manner of decisions.
- “Advancement of the Christian faith” would encourage them to remain strong in Christian faith among themselves and to introduce others to Jesus.
- “Honor of our King and country” indicates their loyalty to native England and its monarch, in spite of his untoward actions that caused their flight to America in the first place.
…[We] do solemnly and mutually in the presence God and of one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic…
The Mayflower Compact expressed their commitment to live together in a civil manner, in the sight of God.
…[We] will enact…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.”
Note: there is no mention of a leader who would oversee the colony. The Pilgrims created a democratic, representative form of government, in covenant with one another, rather than by a monarchy or dictatorship.
It was the first document of its kind in the history of the world.
But the Mayflower Compact would only be as good as the commitment of Pilgrims and Strangers alike to abide by its guidelines.
Would the mutinous Strangers sign?
John Carver, church deacon and one of the organizers of the voyage, was the first to affix his signature. Other Pilgrims followed.
One book says there was a long pause. Then Captain Myles Standish stepped forward to sign. Standish had been hired by the Pilgrims to be their military captain; he was with them, but not one of them.
Soon other Strangers followed Standish’s example. In total, forty-one signatures appeared on the document. One freeman, two hired men and seven servants declined.
At long last, Pilgrims, Strangers, and crew were able to disembark. And what did they choose to do first?
According to Bradford, they “blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the fast and furious ocean..and a sea of troubles before.” Then he quoted scripture:
“Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good and His mercies endure forever.” (Psalm 106:1).
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We, too, praise you, Lord, for your goodness and mercy upon America all these years. As we celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday, may we remember the solemn history behind this occasion. Thank your for the supreme example and sacrifice of our Pilgrim forefathers–strong in faith, commitment, and perseverance. May we follow their example, not only because you are faithful to the faithful (2 Samuel 22:26), but out of appreciation for what you, our loving God, have already done.
(Sources: By These Words by Paul M. Angle; The Founders’ Bible, The Intellectual Devotional: American History by David S. Kidder & Noah D. Oppenheim; The Rebirth of America, http://www.learningtogive.org; http://www.humanities360.com; http://www.crf-usa.org; http://www.americanhistory.about.com; http://www.tparents.org; http://www.mrkash.com; http://www.mayflowerhistory.com; http://www.plimoth.org.)
Art credit: www.washingtonmayflower.org.