The Mayflower Compact and the Foundations of Religious Liberty

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The Heritage Foundation and the Religious Freedom Institute launched a webinar series Thursday that explores the enduring significance of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims and the signing of the Mayflower Compact. The series will examine the meaning of the shortest document in the American canon—barely 200 words—and its impact on the American Founding.

Many of the nation’s elite institutions are offering radically revisionist histories of the United States, focusing almost exclusively on the issues of slavery and racism. The first event in the series, “The Mayflower Compact and the Foundations of Religious Liberty,” challenges these jaded narratives.

“The radical left would like to offer 1619, the year when enslaved Africans were first brought to our shores, as an alternative date for the American Founding,” says Heritage President Kay James in the series’ introduction. “But the year 1620 would be a better candidate: In the Mayflower Compact we can discern the roots of the Founders’ commitment to religious freedom, to the rule of law, and to the rights of private property.”

The opening webinar explores how the Pilgrims’ religious convictions and theology would serve as the foundation for the Mayflower Compact and influence later debates over religious liberty.

The Pilgrims’ emigration to the New World was grounded in their desire for religious freedom, explains Wilfred McClay, a visiting scholar at The Heritage Foundation’s Simon Center for American Studies and the Feulner Institute. Believing that the Church of England was too Catholic in its theology and practices, they travelled to Holland before resettling on the coast of New England.

With the retelling of this story every Thanksgiving, it is easy to forget how intrepid an enterprise it was to sail across the stormy Atlantic and land in a “hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men,” as William Bradford wrote.

The Pilgrims made this harrowing journey and settled so far from their native land so that they might worship according to the dictates of conscience, without interference from the Church of England. Rarely has man so confidently stepped into the dark corners of the Earth: “What indeed, but their religious faith could have sustained them,” McClay asks, “just as it had propelled them across the seas?”

While the Pilgrims’ desire to worship as they saw fit drove them to these shores, they did not establish a theocracy upon arrival. Neither did the Pilgrims set out to “create a tolerant regime or a plantation of religious liberty,” explains Jeffry Morrison, professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University. On the contrary, they sought to establish a “godly commonwealth” for their own congregation.

However, as is so often the case in history, necessity distinguished the desirable from the feasible. Establishing a sectarian community would have been a dangerous proposition, since the majority of the Mayflower’s 102 passengers were not separatists. They were mostly debtors, sailors, and those fleeing economic hardship and English law.

Hearing whisperings that some in the group anticipated freedom from English law as soon as they landed on shore, the Pilgrims realized they needed a way to incorporate them into the community for the safety, prosperity, and, indeed, survival of all.

Thus, the Pilgrims drafted one of the first social contracts to create a “Civil Body Politick,” an agreement made by the passengers themselves without appeals to an established church or the authority of a monarch.

The Mayflower Compact is not a purely secular agreement; its signatories declared that it was made in the presence of God. Yet the document does not use sectarian language or establish the rules of the Pilgrim congregation as the laws of the settlement. Instead, all parties agree to “enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws … as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony.”

This in effect offers religious toleration for the other passengers, while also establishing a degree of civil equality. Although religious toleration in Plymouth Colony and in the Massachusetts Commonwealth would not be a virtue of their early governance, a rough concept of religious liberty in America had been put in writing and would mature to full measure a century and a half later.

The covenantal theology of the Pilgrims played an integral role in developing our modern sense of religious liberty. According to Eric Patterson, vice president of the Religious Freedom Institute, their concept of the church relied on oaths amongst its members, holding each other accountable, freely made without the compulsion of a national church.

The voluntary aspect of Puritan theology simultaneously demands a separation of religious and civil authorities and establishes a foundation for religious toleration.

As Patterson explains, while most colonies would eventually promote a particular denomination, the voluntary nature of the original Pilgrims would continue to play a role in the development of religious toleration in the British colonies.

Unlike other European nations or their colonies, dissenting citizens of New England and elsewhere in America were free to leave and join another colony, or return to England itself.

This right of exit, while seemingly an archaic form of toleration to the modern reader, would be pivotal in establishing the denominational plurality that would come to be a hallmark of American freedom.

Ultimately, the Mayflower Compact forms part of the opening pages in the story of the American founding. It did not divorce the Pilgrims from England or its king, but it was instead a rejection of a national church. Out of necessity, it brought those of different religious backgrounds together into one community, in a solemn agreement under God.

Four centuries later, it serves as a unifying document in the American canon. As McClay explains: “The Mayflower Compact thus served as a model for all that was to come: a free people coming together under God, and, by their own initiative, establishing the institutions by which they would rule themselves.”

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