Public Square

The Pilgrims & Religious Freedom

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On November 24, we will celebrate Thanksgiving and the 402nd anniversary of the Pilgrims crossing the Atlantic to land at Plymouth Rock. They made this perilous journey to the New World, seeking a place where they could live their lives according to their conscience informed by their Christian faith.

Unfortunately today, too many of the nation’s elite institutions offer a radically revisionist view of United States history, a history focusing almost entirely on the issues of slavery and racism. They would like to suggest 1619, the year when slaves were first brought to America, as the actual date for America’s founding. 

This false narrative tries to erase the fact that 1620 is a better starting date. This is the year the Mayflower Compact was written, which, as Kay James suggests, outlines “the roots of the Founders’ commitment to religious freedom, to the rule of law, and the rights of private property.” Over 400 years later, it remains one of the unifying documents in the “American canon.” As Dr. Wilford McClay explains: “The Mayflower Compact thus served as a model for all that was to come: a free people coming together under God, and, by their own initiative, establishing the institutions by which they would rule themselves.” 

Establishing a Covenant

The Pilgrims believed that the Scriptures established the right of men to associate freely and to covenant to form a church and civil government. As Dr. Paul Jehle writes, this understanding of covenant comes straight from the scripture:

Since the Pilgrims were children of the Reformation, their view of covenant came from the Bible. It was God who initiated the concept of covenant with Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:15-17 and 2:24). Throughout the Bible, covenants were used both vertically (with God directly) and horizontally (with people) to depict God’s process of bringing people into unity with Him and one another… It elevated the common good, or what is best for all, encouraging people to work together.

The Mayflower Compact was both a voluntary and binding covenant. It established the principle of self-government under God, which founded far-reaching religious, legal, and economic implications for all of society. It established the American model of free men, covenanting to maintain a “civil body politic” of self-government under God. 

As Pilgrim historian Charles Wolfe writes

In forming the Pilgrim Republic and framing not only the Mayflower Compact (1620) but America’s first Constitution (1636), they formed a prototype of the American Republic, and an inspiration and an example for a succession of compact and constitution-makers, right up to the Framers of the United States Constitution. To do that, they had to live out step by step the various aspects of the principle of Christian self-government that allowed them to experience, in an orderly, logical sequence, the basic constituents of a comprehensive, genuine, human freedom: first, spiritual liberty, then religious liberty, then in turn political, economic, and Constitutional liberty.

The Priority of Spiritual Liberty

The Mayflower Compact used Christianity as the foundation to maintain that all colonists live in accordance with Christian principles. The Compact was also unusual in that it was a pluralistic document meant for the good of both Christians and non-Christians, moving beyond the idea of religious tolerance.  

The colonists could govern themselves and live in harmony with each other, regardless of their differences. The Compact allowed the colonists to create and enact “laws, ordinances, acts, constitution, and offices” that would allow the new colony to flourish. 

The Pilgrims were instrumental in establishing a foundation upon which our future nation would be built. This would be the first colony in the New World to institute the values of self-government, private property, Christian morals, industry, and religious liberty. These ideas would not be forgotten. One hundred fifty years later, they would become the cornerstone principles in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. 

Human Flourishing & Religious Freedom

We see the best examples of human flourishing today, where people enjoy religious freedom, which we believe is foundational for economic liberty and self-government. Unfortunately, our exercise of this inalienable right, as first defined by the Pilgrims and later enshrined by America’s founders, is under attack now more than ever before.

There are those who would replace religious freedom with religious tolerance or, worse—allow anti-discrimination laws to trump religious freedom completely. Those who should be most uneasy with this development—people of faith—for the most part seem unaware or unconcerned. 

The long-held truth of America’s founders, articulated by Os Gunness in his book A Free Peoples Suicide, states, “Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom.” This idea has been lost, even by most of the faithful.

Editor’s Note: Over the next month, IFWE will publish a number of blogs emphasizing the importance of religious freedom. Our mission is to educate and inspire Christians to live out Biblical theology, which then transforms lives, societies, and nations for Christ. To support you and our mission, we are giving away a free copy of our book Set Free: Restoring Religious Freedom for All to everyone who donates over $50 to IFWE. Support IFWE here.

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