In the winter of 1620, Pilgrims, traveling by sea, settled at Plymouth, Massachusetts, for religious freedom — a desire to worship God and live according to Holy Scripture. But the country they found was bleak and uninviting, with several inches of snow already on the ground.
Of the 102 passengers aboard the ship, the Mayflower, nearly half died during the first winter of the “great sickness.” Yet, according to settler Edward Winslow, they were grateful to God for his provision in their lives.
A year later, the group celebrated with a feast of thanksgiving, an act of faith. For me much of that celebration hinges on one thing: Freedom of Religion – something that has been forgotten in what is now a mostly secular holiday, filled with eating, football games and shopping.
The scriptures are filled with passages calling us to maintain a thankful heart. From Psalm 106:1, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,” to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians urging them to “give thanks in all circumstances” (5:18). It was this latter verse that sustained the Pilgrims, venturing to the New World, who ushered in the Thanksgiving Day celebration.
One of America’s earliest, religious documents, the Mayflower Compact was the first governing document of Plymouth Colony. It was written by the Separatists, also known as the “Saints”, fleeing from religious persecution by King James of Great Britain. They traveled aboard the Mayflower in 1620 along with adventurers, tradesmen, and servants, most of whom were referred to as “Strangers.”
The Mayflower Compact was signed aboard ship on November 11, 1620 by most adult men, but not by most crew and adult male servants. The Pilgrims used the Julian Calendar, also known as Old Style dates, which, at that time, was ten days behind the Gregorian Calendar.
Signing the covenant were 41 of the ship’s 101 passengers, while the Mayflower was anchored in what is now Provincetown Harbor within the hook at the northern tip of Cape Cod. It is interesting to note that even as they were fleeing religious persecution, they still felt they were Englishmen and wrote their compact as Englishmen.
The document was drawn up in response to “mutinous speeches” that had come about because the Pilgrims had intended to settle in Northern Virginia, but the decision was made after arrival to instead settle in New England. Since there was no government in place, some felt they had no legal obligation to remain within the colony and supply their labor.
The term “Mayflower Compact” was not assigned to this document until 1793, when for the first time it is called the Compact in Alden Bradford’s A Topographical Description of Duxborough, in the County of Plymouth. Previously it had been called “an association and agreement” (William Bradford), “combination” (Plymouth Colony Records), “solemn contract” (Thomas Prince, 1738), and “the covenant” (Rev. Charles Turner, 1774).
The Mayflower Compact attempted to temporarily establish that government until a more official one could be drawn up in England that would give them the right to self-govern themselves in New England. In a way, this was the first American Constitution, though the Compact in practical terms had little influence on subsequent American documents.
John Quincy Adams, a descendant of Mayflower passenger John Alden, does call the Mayflower Compact the foundation of the U.S. Constitution in a speech given in 1802, but this was in principle more than in substance. In reality, the Mayflower Compact was superseded in authority by the 1621 Peirce Patent, which not only gave the Pilgrims the right to self-government at Plymouth, but had the significant advantage of being authorized by the King of England.
Here is the text of the compact as seen in William Bradford’s History Of Plymouth Plantation as written in William Bradford’s History Of Plymouth Plantation. The spelling and punctuation of the document has been modernized.
“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, & Ireland king, defender of the faith, &c
Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith & honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia• do by these presents solemnly & mutually in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant, & combine our souls together into a civill body politic; for the our better ordering, & preservation & furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof, to enact, constitute, and frame such just & equal laws, ordinances, Acts, constitutions, & offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most mete & convenient for the general good of the colony into which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have here under 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, & Ireland the eighteenth and of Scotland the fifty fourth. Ano: Dom 1620.
John Carver, Edward Tilley, Degory Priest, William Bradford, John Tilley, Thomas Williams, Edward Winslow, Francis Cooke, Gilbert Winslow, William Brewster, Thomas Rogers, Edmund Margesson, Isaac Allerton, Thomas Tinker, Peter Brown, Myles Standish, John Rigsdale, Richard Britteridge, John Alden, Edward Fuller, George Soule, Samuel Fuller, John Turner, Richard Clarke, Christopher Martin, Francis Eaton, Richard Gardinar, William Mullins, James Chilton, John Allerton, William White, John Crackstone, Thomas English, Richard Warren, John Billington, Edward Doty, John Howland, Moses Fletcher, Edward Leister, Stephen Hopkins, John Goodman.”
The Mayflower Compact was first published in 1622. William Bradford wrote a copy of the Mayflower Compact down in his History Of Plymouth Plantation which he wrote from 1630-1654, and that is the version given above.
Neither version gave the names of the signers. Nathaniel Morton in his New England’s Memorial, published in 1669, was the first to record and publish the names of the signers, and Thomas Prince in his Chronological History of New England in the form of Annals (1736) recorded the signers names as well, as did Thomas Hutchinson in 1767.
It is unknown whether the later two authors had access to the original document, or whether they were simply copying Nathaniel Morton’s list of signers.
The original Mayflower Compact has never been found, and is assumed destroyed. Thomas Prince may have had access to the original in 1736, and possibly Thomas Hutchinson did in 1767.
If it indeed survived, it was likely a victim of Revolutionary War looting, along with other such Pilgrim valuables as Bradford’s now lost Register of Births and Deaths, his partially recovered Letterbook, and his entirely recovered History of Plymouth Plantation.
Finally, may you and yours celebrate Thanksgiving in a way you feel both free to do and in a manner appropriate to your beliefs.