By the early seventeenth century, England, under James I, had developed into a land of acute religious intolerance. The church governing body became increasingly concerned over two "fanatical" movements, the Separatists and the Puritans. The Puritans were the much larger group, but were perceived as a lesser threat to church authority because they merely wanted to purify the church from within. The Separatists were a smaller group that began as a congregation under Pastor James Robinson in Scrooby, England. This church, established in 1602, was not originally seeking to break away from the Church of England or to formally rebel against it. Robinson and his members considered themselves good Anglicans and believed that the church was separating itself from them by abandoning Biblical principles, not the other way around. "It is not we which refuse them, but they us," said Robinson.
When intolerance intensified into persecution-non-Anglican Christian ministers were routinely silenced, jailed, or banished under the licentious James I-Robinson's congregation left for the Netherlands in search of religious freedom, settling in Leyden, Holland, and forming the English Separatist Church. While the Separatists did acquire significantly greater freedom there, they still lacked the degree of religious autonomy they sought. In addition, they were concerned that they were being absorbed into the Dutch culture. They decided to set out for the New World to establish a biblically based society as Englishmen.
The English Virginia Company financially underwrote the venture, authorizing the Separatists (today known as the Pilgrims) to settle just north of Jamestown, Virginia. The Pilgrims set sail from Plymouth, England, in September 1620 aboard the Mayflower and reached America over two months later. Due to strong winds that blew their ship off course, they landed much farther north than they had anticipated. As they realized they were outside the Virginia Company's jurisdiction and thus free of any sovereign authority, the Pilgrims resolved to enter into an agreement providing for their self-governance, which came to be known as the Mayflower Compact. They executed the document on November 11, 1620, aboard the ship in Provincetown Harbor, Massachusetts, but eventually settled the next month in Plymouth.
This was the first time in recorded history that a free community of equal men created a new civil government by means of a social contract. Thus the colonists, united in this contract, formed a government whose authority was derived from the consent of the governed and which established the principle that all men were entitled to equal treatment under the law. These principles were later incorporated into the United States Constitution, giving lie to the widely held belief that the Constitution's idea of social contract was a secular construct borrowed from John Locke, as espoused in his Second Treatise of Civil Government in 1690. As author M. Stanton Evans notes, "The Compact was executed on November 11, 1620-predating Locke's
Second Treatise by seven decades." "In the American context-one might say, especially in the American context-all the ideas and institutions of free government, including contract theory, far predated Locke, and did so in the most explicit terms imaginable."
The Mayflower Compact acknowledged the Pilgrims' purpose in the voyage -"for the Glory of God and the advancement of the Christian Faith"-and it expressly purported to be a covenant between them and their sovereign God. As historian Paul Johnson wrote, "What was remarkable about this particular contract was that it was not between a servant and a master, or a people and a king, but between a group of like-minded individuals and each other, with God as a witness and symbolic co-signatory."8
The Puritans were quite different from the Separatists, as they believed the church should be reformed from within. But the more they tried to initiate reform, the greater resistance they encountered under Charles I. They eventually concluded that the only way to reform the church was to leave England and establish a purer version of the church in America, which would provide an example for the homeland church to follow. By thus removing themselves from the corruptive influences of the church, they could live in humble obedience to God. They truly believed, according to author Peter Marshall, "that the Kingdom of God really could be built on earth, in their lifetimes They knew that they were sinners. But like the Pilgrims, they were dedicated to actually living together in obedience to God's laws, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ."9
The Puritans left for America in droves in the 1630s, convinced God had chosen them specifically to carry His light to America. They believed that their faith could germinate and prosper in a new land, free from the oppression of the crown and the Church of England. The New England historian, clergyman, and author Cotton Mather said, "Thus was the settlement of New England brought about ... to express and pursue the Protestant Reformation." John Winthrop, captain of the Puritan ship Arbella, wrote "A Model of Christian Charity," which was an eloquent statement of the Puritans' Christian mission and a declaration of their obedience to God. He expressed their intention of glorifying God: "that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us."
Beyond the Pilgrims and the Puritans in New England, all early American settlements, from Massachusetts to Georgia, were comprised of Christians of all denominations, and indeed, all of the early American colonies were established on Christian principles. But it was the Puritans, with their biblically based governments modeled on their church covenants, who laid the primary foundation for our constitutional government. For the Puritans, the concept of self-government was a distinctly Christian ideal, as historian Perry Miller makes clear. "The Puritans," wrote Miller, "maintained that government originated in the consent of the people ... because they did not believe that any society, civil or ecclesiastical, into which men did not enter of themselves was worthy of the name. Consequently, the social theory of Puritanism, based upon the law of God, was posited also upon the voluntary submission of the citizens."
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