Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Pilgrims

In our continuing historical diversion . . .

Several recent posts surveyed the colony of Virginia, started in 1607 by the London group of the Virginia Company. What about that part of the company known as the Plymouth group? In the same year of the London group established a settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, the Plymouth group started a settlement at the moth of the Kennebec River in what is now Maine. It lasted only a year, however, that the settlers boarded a supply ship for home.

Ironically, the London group that initiated the Virginia colony also sponsored a second settlement named after the city of Plymouth. A group of religious dissenters decided to leave England to avoid continuing legal harassment for their refusal to conform to England's established church. 

To understand who these people were, it is necessary to distinguish the main religious factions within the Church of England. Within the Anglican communion many Christians who desired a more radical reformation of the church. They sought changes in both church dogma and church government. Regarding dogma, they wanted to bring the church more in line with the teachings of John Calvin. Regarding church government, most of these reformers wanted to replaced the episcopacy (rule by bishops) with presbytery (rule by association of  ministers. A smaller group wanted to replace the episcopacy with congregational government. 

The dissenters who came to America desired congregational government. In contrast to the majority of reformers, they gave up any hopes of reforming the church. So they became complete separatists. This brought legal harassment from a government that desire religious uniformity. Before coming to America, the fled to the Netherlands in 1609. After ten years, however, many families decided to leave the Netherlands. They could not see returning to England. As described by one of the leaders, William Bradford, “They knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.” Discussions began about a plan to move to the New World.

Even while its original settlement struggled in Jamestown, the Virginia group agreed to sponsor a second settlement. They funded Bradford's group to settle near the mouth of the Hudson River, which at that time lay within the original grant of the Virginia Company. A little over one hundred adventurers, including Bradford's “Pilgrims” and several of what the Pilgrims called “Strangers” set sail for American in the Mayflower.

They never made it to “Virginia.” Storms forced a landing on the coast of Massachusetts. Although sponsored by the London group, the Pilgrims ended up on land owned by the Plymouth group. Because they possessed no charter rights in Massachusetts, the settlers drew up a document that announced the formation of a “civil body politic” to enact and submit to laws for the good of the colony.

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, and Ireland, King, defender of the Faith, etc.
Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honor 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 another, covenant and combine ourselves together into 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 hereunto 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, 1620.

Some have interpreted the Mayflower Compact as an example of a real social contract than anticipated the more famous philosophical Lockean version. The settlers found themselves in a “state of nature” with no established governing authority. Consequently, they formed themselves into a civil political body pledged to form a governing body and to submit to its laws.

This is a partial truth. The Mayflower Compact was a type of social contract. It differed, however, from Locke's more theoretical contract in a couple of important ways. First, although the settlers found themselves in a state of nature, they were not completely beyond all authority. They had no company charter rights to be in Massachusetts, but the land constituted part of the dominions of the English monarch. So in the compact, the settlers acknowledged that they remained the “loyal subjects” of King James. Second, the compact cited different ends that Locke's contract. In Locke's version, the reason for the establishment of a social contract was the protection of individual rights. The security of natural rights would be tenuous at best in a “state of nature.” In the Mayflower Compact, the ends consisted of the “furtherance and preservation” of the mission behind their voyage: the glory of God, the advancement of the Christian faith, and the honor of king and country.

The compact did, however, provide another early example of self government among the English in the New World

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