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The Mayflower Compact and what 'city on a hill' meant

Getty Images/ princessdlaf
Getty Images/ princessdlaf

According to modern retellings, the American story is one long tale of violence and oppression, with founders who should be universally condemned as hypocrites, thieves, and racists. Of course, our nation’s history is, like all nations, about sinful and flawed people. However, in our modern attempts to deconstruct the past, it’s easy to miss how remarkable the American experiment was. 

In a Breakpoint commentary years ago, Chuck Colson described one especially significant part of our nation’s history, the Mayflower CompactHere’s Chuck Colson. 

In just a few weeks, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that people of all faiths observe. But between stuffing the turkey and watching football, we ought to make sure our children and grandchildren understand the Christian roots of this holiday, which are often downplayed in school. The first step is to brush up on the details ourselves.  

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On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set sail from England. Ten perilous weeks later, the Pilgrims arrived on the northern tip of Cape Cod. As my friend Barbara Rainey writes in her excellent book, Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember, “This was about sixty miles north of their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River.” Should they sail south, or stay put?  

After much discussion and prayer, they decided to stay. But when the passengers learned of this, dissension broke out. The Pilgrims had a charter with a company that was effective only at the original landing site. As Rainey writes, “The bonded servants on board [who were not Pilgrims] argued that [the decision to stay] changed the terms of their work agreement.” The Pilgrims were afraid that these men would declare their independence and deplete the labor supply. Something had to be done to restore unity.  

As the Mayflower’s captain worked his way around the Cape, searching for a place to drop anchor, an intense debate ensued. By nightfall, the leaders had drafted an agreement, called the Mayflower Compact. Among its key clauses were these words: “Having undertaken for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith … a voyage to plant the First Colony … [we] solemnly … in the presence of God and of one another, Covenant … ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic.”  

As Rainey writes, the compact was a hedge against revolt, but it meant much more. The Pilgrims took it seriously; their Bible told them just how significant covenants were. In the Old Testament, God created covenants between Himself and His people, the Israelites. In the New Testament, God covenants with all who choose to follow Him through the life, sacrificial death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

As Rainey writes, the Pilgrims “journeyed to this new land to proclaim by their lives this message of redemption, the New Covenant, and the light of Christ. This covenant that God established with His people became their model for the Mayflower Compact as well as for the peace treaty they established with Massasoit and his people. They knew a God who keeps His word, and therefore they were faithful to keep their word, their promises to one another and to others.” 

The Mayflower Compact became one of the most important documents in American history — and yet, its religious language may make some teachers reluctant to teach it. But that same language reveals the lengths to which the Pilgrims were willing to go to follow the Lord. 

Ten years later and 40 miles to the north, John Winthrop would expound on the idea of covenant in his famous sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.”  

"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 through the world." 

“City on a hill” is among the least understood phrases in American history. Winthrop was not encouraging arrogance or claiming invincibility with this idea. Rather, he was issuing a warning. Whether in Winthrop’s speech to the Massachusetts Bay colonists or the Plymouth Colony’s Mayflower Compact, these men and women saw what they were doing through the deeply Christian lens of covenant. 

This Thanksgiving, it’s appropriate to thank God for our heritage, to remember the warnings of our nation’s forebears, and to pray for renewal in the Church and in our nation.  

Originally published at BreakPoint. 

John Stonestreet serves as president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He’s a sought-after author and speaker on areas of faith and culture, theology, worldview, education and apologetics.

Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.

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