From the Archives: For Thanksgiving, the Mayflower Compact


It is the day before Thanksgiving, a holiday generally associated with the English colonists of New England. What better time to re-run a piece on the Mayflower Compact and its religious implications? Originally, this desultory ran here, on July 26, 2006.

Dispatches from the Culture Wars features a set of comments on an interview right-right-wing pundit John Lofton did with Roy Moore, the former chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court who lost his job when he illegally tried to force his religion on the court and on Alabama. This year Moore ran for governor of Alabama, losing in the primary election.

One of the grandest canards in current thought about U.S. history is that the Mayflower Compact set up a theocracy in Massachusetts. Lofton and Moore banter about it as if it were well established fact — or as if, as I suspect, neither of them has looked at the thing in a long time, and that neither of them has ever diagrammed the operative sentence in the thing.

The Mayflower Compact was an agreement between the people in two religiously disparate groups, that among them they would fairly establish a governing body to fairly make laws, and that they would abide by those laws. Quite the opposite of a theocracy, this was the first time Europeans set up in the New World a government by consent of the governed.

That is something quite different from a theocracy.

I think people get confused by the run-on sentences, and the flattering, intended-to-be-flowery language in the clauses prefacing the meat of the document.

First, a very brief history: There were two groups aboard the ship in 1620, about 70 artisans and craftsman along to provide the real work to make sure the colony made money, and about 30 religious refugees. The London Company (accurately) thought the religious refugees lacking in key skills, like trapping, hunting and hide tanning, and barrel-making (barrels were needed to ship goods to England). So the London Company had insisted the craftsman go along, to make sure somebody knew how to harvest stuff and ship it back.

The London Company had a charter to establish a colony in Virginia. Because of delays with leaky ships and uncooperative winds, the Mayflower got to America late, and much farther north. The Mayflower landed well outside the territory the company was chartered to colonize, and the 70 craftsmen announced they were striking out on their own. Bradford realized his group would freeze, or starve, or both, and at gunpoint he kept both groups aboard ship to work out a compromise.

Here is the full text, from the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law site:

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 England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, e&.

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the 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 into a civil Body Politick, 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 hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620.

See what I mean? It’s loaded with clauses that tend to obscure what is going on. Starting out with the standard contract language of the day, “In the name of God, Amen,” it loses modern readers. We tend to think that with so many mentions of God without a “damn” following, it must be a religious document. But it’s not.

Here’s the meat the the document, the money quote:

We, whose names are underwritten . . . do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, 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.

Got that? They promised to form a government, enact fair laws, and obey those laws — government by consent of the governed, by mutual compact, not by divine right.

Just because God is mentioned in the document doesn’t change its nature. It’s a secular compact, an agreement between men, outside the stricture of any church, outside any particular belief.

As we noted over at Ed Brayton’s site, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, many New England settlements and towns became little theocracies. But it wasn’t the Mayflower Compact which set that up, or encouraged it.

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9 Responses to From the Archives: For Thanksgiving, the Mayflower Compact

  1. Carley says:

    Who wanted to make the first Mayflower Compact? If you were on the Mayflower who would you want to see? I would want to see Prisslla because in the books I have read it sounds like she is really buttiful.

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  2. edarrell says:

    It seems to me that Rushdooney hoped that most people would be persuaded to his views, and therefore there would be no interpersonal conflicts that would take the place of rational cooperation.

    My experience is that many acolytes of Rushdooney can hardly wait to get their appointment as “magistrate” so they can start executing those who refuse to follow the Biblical laws, which is usually those they disagree with. Rushdooney may have realized the impossibility of getting such a broad consensus on self-restriction of personal freedom (though the feuds among Rushdooney and other Reconstructionists is certainly a clue about something), while his less-thoughtful followers assume there will be a purge at some point. Aristotle was right, there is a wide chasm between the ought and the is, even for utopians of any stripe.

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  3. t h ray says:

    Rushdoony said:

    “Few things are more commonly misunderstood than the nature and meaning of theocracy. It is commonly assumed to be a dictatorial rule by self-appointed men who claim to rule for God. In reality, theocracy in Biblical law is the closest thing to a radical libertarianism that can be had.”

    This has got to be one of the most intellectually dishonest statements I have ever had the misfortune to read.

    Theocracy CAN’T be anything but “dictatorial rule by self-appointed men who claim to rule for God”!! If RJR were an honest anarchist, his god would be the ideal he despises, a stateless society in which rational cooperation trumps religious belief. He ought to look up a reference for “libertarian” to discover the truth of that — a radical libertarian has no more use for a Christian state than a secular one.

    Tom

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  4. edarrell says:

    Mr. Lofton,

    I’ve often found Rushdooney’s stuff to be quirky at best — his claim that government’s role in “health” was paid for out of a tithe is simply bizarre. In any case, in a modern world where water comes from a system of pipes, where the water is purified before it gets to the consumer, and where disposal of waste water must be done in accordance with Biblical principle, so that it not foul our neighbor’s land or water or food, Rushdooney’s system is simply unworkable. And that’s just in one little area, of “health.”

    I don’t think Rushdooney would claim to know more about the status of the Mayflower passengers than the passengers themselves, but if he does, he’s again bending history and scripture to support a political point, and not paying attention to what is going on. The Mayflower Compact says nothing about financing the government; all it does is set up a system by which people of differing beliefs can live and thrive together. That “together” part probably would irritate Rushdooney, who probably didn’t have much use for the rather orthodox Anglican faith of the craftsmen, and perhaps less use for the libertarian and religious-purity views of the religious refugees.

    Rushdooney also had a bizarre view of “dominion.” As you know, this is an English word, and were we to take it at it’s definition at the time, it does not mean simply “rule over;” dominion requires stewardship — waste is not allowed (as a nuisance). Most of what Rushdooney qualifies as “dominion” is really “waste.”

    In short, Rushdooney’s views neither inform this discussion nor suggest any scriptural error on the part of either group aboard the Mayflower; Rushdooney’s views don’t make a good argument for a theocracy, nor reveal that the Mayflower passengers had either a public or a secret intent to establish a theocracy.

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  5. DavidD says:

    OK, so there’s agreement that the Mayflower Compact did not set up a theocracy in Massachusetts. Was there some other issue here to account for so many words?

    God tells me Dr. Rushdoony is lying about Him and arrogant to dismiss a dictionary definition of “theocracy”. Who trusts God, the real God, not some fantasy of Him, to be the ultimate judge of such things? I do. Who else?

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  6. John Lofton says:

    You misunderstand what theocracy is. This article should help you. John Lofton, Editor, TheAmericanView.com; Recovering Republican.

    The Meaning of Theocracy
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    By Dr. R.J. Rushdoony

    Few things are more commonly misunderstood than the nature and meaning of theocracy. It is commonly assumed to be a dictatorial rule by self-appointed men who claim to rule for God. In reality, theocracy in Biblical law is the closest thing to a radical libertarianism that can be had.

    In Biblical law, the only civil tax was the head or poll tax, the same for all males twenty years of age and older (Ex. 30:11-16). This tax provided an atonement or covering for people, i.e. the covering of civil protection by the State as a ministry of justice (Rom. 13:1-4). This very limited tax was continued by the Jews after the fall of Jerusalem, and from 768-900 AD helped make the Jewish princedom of Narbonne (in France) and other areas a very important and powerful realm (see Arthur J. Zuckerman: ” A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France 768-900” (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1965, 1972). This tax was limited to half a sheckel of silver per man.

    All other functions of government were financed by the tithe. Health, education, welfare, worship, etc., were all provided for by tithes and offerings. Of this tithe, one tenth (i.e. one percent of one’s income) went to the priests for worship. Perhaps an equal amount went for music, and for the care of the sanctuary. The tithe was God’s tax, to provide for basic government in God’s way. The second and the third tithes provided for welfare, and for the family’s rest and rejoicing before the Lord (see E.A. Powell and R.J. Rushdoony: “Tithing and Dominion” (Ross House Books, P.O. Box 67 Vallecito, CA 95251).

    What we today fail to see, and must recapture, is the fact that the basic governmentis the self-governing of covenant man; then the family is the central governing institutionof Scripture. The school is a governmental agency, and so too is the church. Our vocation also governs us, and our society. Civil government must be one form of government among many, and a minor one. Paganism (and Baal worship in all its forms) made the State and its rulers into a god or gods walking on earth, and gave them total over-rule in all spheres. The prophets denounced all such idolatry, and the apostles held, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

    From the days of the Caesars to the heads of the democratic states and Marxist empires, the ungodly have seen what Christians too often fail to see, namely, that Biblical faith requires and creates a rival government to the humanistic State. Defective faith seeks to reduce Biblical faith to a man-centered minimum, salvation. Now salvation, our re-generation, is the absolutely essential starting point of the Christian life, but, if it is made the sum total thereof, it is in effect denied. Salvation is then made into a man-centered and egotistical thing, when it is in fact God-centered and requires the death, not the enthronement, of our sinful and self-centered ego. We are saved for God’s purposes, saved to serve, not in time only, but eternally (Rev. 22:3). To be saved is to be working members of that realm.

    In a theocracy, therefore, God and His law rule. The State ceases to be the over-lord and ruler of man. God’s tax, the tithe, is used by Godly men to create schools, hospitals, welfare agencies, counselors and more. It provides, as it did in Scripture, for music and more. All the basic social financing, other than the head tax of Ex. 30:11-16 was provided for by tithes and offerings or gifts. An offering or gift was that which was given above and over a tithe.

    Since none of the tithe agencies have any coercive power to collect funds, none can exist beyond their useful service to God and man. For the modern State, uselessness and corruption are no problem; they do not limit its power to collect more taxes. Indeed, the State increases its taxing power because it is more corrupt and more useless, because its growing bureaucracy demands it.

    California State Senator H.L. “Bill” Richardson has repeatedly called attention to the fact that, once elected, public officials respond only under pressure to their voters but more to their peer group and their superiors. Lacking faith, they are governed by power.

    People may complain about the unresponsiveness of their elected officials, and their subservience to their peers and superiors, but nothing will alter this fact other than a change in the faith of the electorate and the elected. Men will respond to and obey the dominant power in their lives, faith, and perspective. If that dominant power or god in their lives is the State, they will react to it. If, however, it is the triune God of Scripture who rules them, then men will respond to and obey His law-word. Men will obey their gods.

    One of the more important books of this country was Albert Jay Nock’s “Our Enemy, The State”(Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho, 1935). Without agreeing with Nock in all things, it is necessary to agree with him that the modern State is man’s new church and saving institution. The state, however, is an antisocial institution, determined to suppress and destroy all the historic and religiously grounded powers of society. With F.D. Roosevelt and “The New Deal,” the goal of the Statists became openly “the complete extinction of social power through absorption by the State” (p.21). This will continue in its suicidal course, until there is not enough social power left to finance the State’s plans (as became the case in Rome). The State’s intervention into every realm is financed by the productivity of the non-Statist and economic sector: “Intervention retards production; then the resulting stringency and inconvenience enable further intervention, which in turn still further retards production; and this process goes on until, as in Rome, in the third century, production ceases entirely, and the source of payment dries up” (p.151f). It is true that crime needs suppression, but, instead of suppressing crime, the State safeguards its own monopoly of crime.”

    We can add that the solution to crime and injustice is not more power to the state, but God’s law and a regenerate man. The best safeguard against crime is godly men and a godly society. Furthermore, God’s law, in dealing with crime, requires restitution and with habitual criminals, the death penalty. (See R.J. Rushdoony: “Institutes of Biblical Law”).

    One more important point from Nock: he called attention to the fact that “social power” once took care of all emergencies, relieves, and disasters. When the Johnstown flood occurred all relief and aid was the result of a great outpouring of “private” giving. “Its abundance, measured by money alone, was so great that when everything was finally put in order, something like a million dollars remained. (p.6)

    This was once the only way such crises were met. Can it happen again? The fact is that it is happening again. Today, between 20-30% of all school children K-12 are in non-state-ist schools, and the percentage is likely to pass 50% by 1990 if Christians defend their schools from state-ist interventionism. More and more Christians are recognizing their duties for the care of their parents; churches are again assuming, in many cases, the care of elderly members. Homes for the elderly people, and also for delinquent children are being established. (One of the more famous of these, under the leadership of Lester Roloff, was under attack by the State, which refused to recognize sin as the basic problem with delinquents, and regeneration and sanctification as the answer.) Christians are moving into the areas of radio and television, not only to preach salvation but to apply Scripture to political, economic and other issues.

    Moreover, everywhere Christians are asking themselves the question, “What must I do, now that I am saved?” Answers take a variety of forms: textbook publishing for Christian Schools; periodicals and more. The need to revive and extend Christian hospitals is being recognized and much, much more.

    Isaiah 9:6-7 tells us that when Christ was born, the government was to be on His shoulders, and that “Of the increase of His government and peace, there shall be no end.” By means of their tithing and actions, believers are in increasing numbers submitting to Christ’s government and re-ordering life and society in terms of it.

    The essence of humanism, from Francis stateto the present, has been this creed: to be human, man must be in control (Jeremy Rifkin with Ted Howard: “The Emerging Order”, p. 27.). This is an indirect way of saying that man is not man unless the government of all things is upon his shoulders, unless he is himself God. It is the expression of the tempter’s program of revolt against God (Gen. 3:5). John Locke developed this faith by insisting that Christianity thus could not be the basis of public activity, but only a private faith. The foundation of the State and of public life was for Locke, in reason.

    But, reason, separated from Christian faith and presupposition, became man’s will, or better, man’s will in radical independence from God. The State then began to claim one area of life after another as public domain and hence under the State as reason incarnate. One of the first things claimed by Locke’s philosophy and “reason” was man himself! Man, instead of being a sinner, was, at least in the human and public realm, morally neutral; he was a blank piece of paper, and what he became was a product of education and experience. It thus was held necessary for the state, the incarnate voice of “reason,” to control education in order to product the desired kind of man.

    The State claimed the public realm. The public realm had belonged, in terms of Christian faith, to God, like all things else, and to a free society under God. The church was scarcely dislodged from its claims over the public realm when the state came in to claim it with even more total powers.

    But this was not all. The state enlarged the public realm by new definitions, so that steadily, one sphere after another fell into the hands of the state. Education was claimed, and control over economics, a control which is now destroying money and decreasing social and economic productivity. The arts and sciences are subsidized and controlled, and are begging for more. Marriage and the family are controlled; a White House Conference on the Family viewed the family as a public and hence, Statist realm, one the state must invade and control.

    Ancient Rome regarded religion itself as a public domain and hence licensed and controlled it. (The very word “liturgy,” Greek in origin, means public service. Religion is indeed a public concern, more so than the state, but not thereby a matter for state-ist control.) Rome, like all ancient pagan states, equated the public domain with the state’s domain, and it saw all things as aspects of the state’s domain.

    For any one institution to see itself as the public domain is totalitarianism. All things public and private are in the religious domain and under God. No institution, neither church nor state, can equate itself with God, and claim control of the public (or private) domain. Every sphere of life is interdependent with other spheres and alike under God. No more than mathematics has the “right” to control biology do church or state have the “right” to control one another, or anything beyond their severely limited sphere of government.

    There are thus a variety of spheres of government under God. There spheres are limited, interdependent and under God’s sovereign government and law-word. They cannot legitimately exceed their sphere. The legitimate financial powers of all are limited. The state has a small head tax. The tithe finances all other spheres.

    The tithe, it must be emphasized, is to the Lord, not to the church, a difference some churchmen choose to miss or overlook. This robs the individual believer of all right to complain about things; by the godly use of his tithe, he can create new agencies, churches, schools, and institutions to further God’s Kingdom in every area of life and thought. Holiness comes not by our abilities to whine and bewail the things that are, but by our faithful use of the tithe and the power God gives us to remake all things according to His Word.

    Tithing and godly action, these are the keys to dominion. We are called to dominion (Gen. 1:26-28; 9:1-17; Joshua 1:1-9; Matt. 28:18020; etc.). The creation mandate is our covenant mandate; restoration into the covenant through Christ’s atonement restores us into the mandate to exercise dominion and gives us the power to effect it.

    Aspects of that mandate can be exercised through institutions, and sometimes must be, but the mandate can never be surrendered to them. The mandate precedes all instructions, and it is to man personally as man (Gen. 1:28). This is the heart of theocracy as the Bible sets it forth. Dictionaries to the contrary, theocracy is not a government by the state, but a government over every institution by God and His Law, and through the activities of the free man in Christ to bring ever area of life and thought under Christ’s Kingship.

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  7. DavidD says:

    It wasn’t just the higher ups who signed this. A list of those who did is here:

    http://www.provincetowngov.org/historic/timeline/timelink/1620signatures.html

    I am one of many people descended from Edward Doty, who was a servant to Stephan Hopkins, as was Edward Lester. The servants may have had to sign at the bottom, but they still signed as relatively free men. Doty was in a better position after several years, so he then could marry a young woman fresh from England, have many children, who then had many of their own, the ones leading to me moving to New York eventually. They’re actually doing DNA tests now to try to understand that better. The Edmund Doty Society pays for it if you’re a man with right last name (I take it they’re doing Y-chromosome studies). Maybe because that sort of thing is more tangible than words, it won’t be as subject to myth as the one that Plymouth was a theocracy. With DNA one has to be ready to accept that one’s birth certificate might not list one’s actual biological father, as mine doesn’t (my connection to Doty is through my mother). It’s easier to maintain fantasies about words. That’s one reason I prefer to be a scientist, where words prove nothing.

    I suppose there were religious laws in many New England communities that were still far from being theocracies where God rules through His appointed men.

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