Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Mayflower Compact: An Origin in American Literature


The Signing of the Mayflower Compact, Percy Morgan, 1900

The Mayflower Compact

In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, France and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc. 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 Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civill body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just and equall laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the generall good of the Colonie unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape-Codd the 11. of November, in the year of the raigne of our sovereigne lord, King James, of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fiftie-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620.

The New Eden


Among the Sierra Nevada, Albert Bierstadt, 1868

The river of American literary history springs from the imagination of an intrepid group of spiritual pilgrims. They boarded their ships and braved the Atlantic in search of more than a New World; they were looking for a New Eden. The separatist Puritans aboard the Mayflower carried with them a utopian vision founded upon Calvinist theology. These Pilgrims considered themselves to be God’s elect, a chosen people who were the inheritors of Adam’s mission to harness the untamed wilderness. Under the guidance of divine Providence they would name everything in the New World, thereby imposing order on all Creation (Fritscher).

The Pilgrims also came in search of a place where they could prosecute their faith free from interference by the government or the Church of England. In an attempt to shield the Pilgrims from whatever tyrannical state might arise in the New World, William Bradford drafted the Mayflower Compact on board the Mayflower in 1620 (Bradford 58). This brief social contract had a significant impact on the subsequent literary and cultural development of America. A close reading of the Compact elucidates the nature of its influence.

Bradford introduces the theme of Christian utopia by stating his purpose in the New World: to glorify God and to advance the Christian faith (Bradford 66). A second group of Puritans who arrived aboard the Arbella in 1630 shared his vision. John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, describes the Puritan experiment in America in “A Model of Christian Charity.” From the beginning, Winthrop recognized the precarious character of the enterprise: “For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world” (Winthrop 86). The Massachusetts Bay colonists left England to “seek out a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical” (Winthrop 85). Winthrop’s Arbella Covenant (“A Model of Christian Charity”) suggests that the New Eden should also be a new theocracy.

Church and State

Bradford does not explicitly say that the church and state should be one, however. Instead, he suggests that the colonists “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic” (Bradford 66). Scholars suggest that the Mayflower Compact was designed to ensure religious freedom rather than to establish a theocracy (Reuben). Nevertheless, the members of the Plymouth Colony would be asked to make sacrifices. Bradford understood that the success of the Pilgrims depended upon giving up individual rights for the common good (Ross, The New Eden: Early Responses). The Mayflower Compact closes with a promise to submit to the “general good of the colony” (Bradford 66). The Pilgrims’ Utopia still depended upon allegiance to Puritan teachings.

The Dilemma of the Outsider

The tension between Christian doctrine and a pluralistic society is manifest in Colonial literature. The dilemma of the outsider is one example. Bradford records the story of Thomas Morton in Of Plymouth Plantation (Bradford 71). Morton immigrated to the New World sometime in the 1620s. He succeeded in convincing a group of indentured servants to rebel against their master in order to set up a slightly different sort of Utopia. Morton encouraged drinking, erected a maypole, and “maintained a school of Atheism” (Bradford 72). The Puritan authorities reacted to his nonconformity by returning him to England.

Maintaining loyalty to Puritanism became more difficult as the interests of the colonists became more diverse. Even aboard the Mayflower, certain “strangers” were present whose end was money, not Christian Utopia (Bradford 66). Over time, the colonists multiplied. They began to raise cattle and to spread out across an increasingly large area (Ross, The New Eden: Early Responses). Many became prosperous. Slowly, Puritan doctrine came into competition with the gospel of success (Ross, The Self-Made Man: Franklin and Crevecoeur). Much of the literature of the colonial period may be seen as an attempt by the Puritans to maintain their influence in society. Examples include Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) and Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741).


In conclusion, it seems that Colonial literature is firmly rooted in the Mayflower Compact. It contains the seeds of many of its strongest themes: the quest for Eden, the tension between church and state, and the dilemma of the outsider. In working out the implications of the Compact, writers like Bradford, Winthrop, Mather, and Edwards embarked on a new voyage: the creation of an American literature.


Works Cited


Bradford, William. "Of Plymouth Plantation." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. Shorter 7th Edition. Vol. I. New York: Norton, 2008.

Fritscher, John J. "The Sensibility and Conscious Style of William Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation." Bucknell Review 17 (1969): 80-90.

Reuben, Paul P. Chapter 1: Early American Literature to 1700 - A Brief Introduction. 29 September 2009.

Ross, Dale. "The New Eden: Early Responses." American Literature to 1865. Ames: Des Moines Area Community College, 2 September 2009.

—. "The Self-Made Man: Franklin and Crevecoeur." American Literature to 1865. Ames: Des Moines Area Community College, 23 September 2009.

Winthrop, John. "A Model of Christian Charity." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter 7th Edition. Vol. I. New York: Norton, 2008.


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