Be thankful for religious freedom (and the not-so-uniform Pilgrims)

Written by William C. Duncan

November 24, 2020

The Mayflower Compact, signed 400 years ago on November 19, 1620, is a fascinating document. It declares that the 102 passengers on the ship Mayflower were now “covenant[ing] and combin[ing] ourselves together into a civil body politic.” As the Constitutional Rights Foundation explains, “The format of the Mayflower Compact is very similar to the written agreements used by the Pilgrims to establish their Separatist churches in England and Holland.”

This might be surprising to some because we think of the passengers on the Mayflower as an undifferentiated group called “the Pilgrims” (with buckles on their hats, no less). Why would such a homogeneous group need to establish a new organization with the power “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.”

The perception of uniformity is, however, not a reflection of the reality the aspiring colonists faced. As Stan Rasmussen noted last week, the passengers included a number of “Strangers,” i.e., non-Puritans who were essential to the success of the proposed colony because they had specialized skills. As a potential landing at Plymouth neared, divisions arose between the Puritans and the “Strangers.”

Some of the “Strangers” objected to the religiously motivated approach of the “Leideners.” These were the Puritans who had been part of the same congregation in Holland and had come together on the trip to find a place where they could build a community in which to live their beliefs.

As Nathaniel Philbrick notes in his great book on the Plymouth colony, the non-Puritans “had little holding them together except, in some cases, a growing reluctance to live in a community dominated by religious radicals.” The unified community formalized by the Mayflower Compact was thus critical to the survival of the community.

Philbrick explains that the compact’s “civil covenant would provide the basis for a secular government in America.” That characterization is at odds with the popular perception of the Plymouth Colony as religiously uniform, but it is an essential point.

The Puritan leaders recognized a need to accommodate the differing beliefs of the non-Puritans and thus laid the foundation not only for self-government but for religious freedom as well.

That initial effort to accommodate differing religious beliefs faced challenges as the New England area developed. Most prominently, some dissenters like Roger Williams were expelled from the Massachusetts colony because of their beliefs. Native American beliefs were not accorded respect either. But the compact and the resulting colony were just the beginning. The initial fragile seed of religious freedom planted in the Plymouth colony would eventually contribute to a mature and sturdy commitment to religious freedom in the United States.

Though religious freedom is still at risk – the Puritans are not the last group who would have to struggle with accommodating other beliefs – there is a robust commitment to the principle in the United States that would likely surprise the Pilgrims.

For instance, the religious beliefs of Native Americans are now protected by court decisions and a federal statute. The Pilgrim tradition of accommodation for practical reasons has even extended today beyond religious belief, with an individual’s belief and practices connected to sexual or gender identity being protected by the law. The Pilgrims’ baby steps toward religious toleration have had surprising but welcome ramifications through the last four centuries.

Thanksgiving is an appropriate occasion to talk about religious freedom. Not only does it commemorate the culmination of a voyage of religious people to a land where they could live their beliefs, it also commemorates an important first step, however halting, to recognize and accommodate the religious beliefs of those who were “outsiders.”

That is definitely something to be grateful for.

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