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:
Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, 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 of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in 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, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.
Some mistakenly suggest that in writing the Mayflower Compact the Pilgrims were influenced by philosophical writing on social contract theory. This is simply not the case. A generation before Hobbes (1651), Locke (1689) and Rousseau (1755), the Pilgrims created a social contract from Reformation theology.
The idea of covenant, used as a verb (“Covenant and Combine ourselves”), is rooted in Biblical covenants and became prominent in Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches by the 1580s. Believing they could not reform the Church of England, such “Separatists” established congregations, and many of them relocated to the Netherlands, where there was substantially more religious freedom. Those Netherlands-based Separatists, whom we know as the “Pilgrims,” sojourned across a sea to a New World to establish a “pure” church. En route, they drafted the first social contract in North America.
Due to bad weather and the lateness of the season, the Pilgrims landed north of their intended destination in the Virginia Colony. Geographically outside of the writ of their patent, some non-Separatist passengers — which made up more than half of the settlers — flirted with anarchy. Though the Pilgrims embraced independence from the established Church of England, the idea of lawlessness horrified them. The Pilgrims implemented the same structure they used when founding Separatist churches in England and the Netherlands. They covenanted to form a community of mutual obligations.
Under the Mayflower Compact, the colonists would choose their local leaders and derive their own laws while remaining obedient subjects to a very distant English monarch and Parliament. Just as scholars of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement have noted the importance of churches as places for resource development and mobilization, that was also true of these fledgling Protestant communities in 1620.
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 sixteenth and seventeenth 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.
Second, there were additional theological presuppositions guiding the Pilgrims’ approach to self-government that were rooted in Reformation concepts: freedom of conscience before God, freedom of religion (publicly and privately), and moral equality (i.e. the priesthood of all believers). As free citizens, they conceived and established the Compact. Moreover, the Pilgrims did not attempt to forcibly impose their faith on the other colonists and the Native Americans.
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 authors: Eric Patterson is Executive Vice President of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C. Rebecca Blessing is a research assistant at the Religious Freedom Institute and a graduating senior at Baylor.