The Church and the State
Freedom in America has meant many things: freedom of speech; freedom from unfair, autocratic government; freedom to strive after personal dreams. But in the eyes of many, the fundamental American freedom has been the right to worship or not worship in any way a person chooses. It was supposed to have been that way from the beginning, Thomas Jefferson believed. He wrote: "Our forefathers left their native land to seek on these shores a residence for civil and religious freedom."
Back in seventeenth century England, religious freedom didn't exist. You had to belong to the Church of England or suffer persecution. King James I, speaking about religious dissenters, said, "I will make them conform themselves, or else I will harry them out of the land."
In 1620, 102 brave souls clambered aboard a little shipnamed the Mayflowerand began their sail westward to the new world . Some of them called themselves "Pilgrims," because they were on a religious journey; they hoped to build a new society in America more perfect than any on earth . Theirs was a terrible voyage, sixty-six days long . The ship was small, wet, and foul. The smells were awful. Fresh food ran out. Finally, they sighted land. It was Cape Cod, in Massachusetts . The Pilgrims had planned to go farther south, to Virginia, but they were exhausted. One of them, a weaver named William Bradford, described what they saw: "A hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and men ."
So they sailed the Mayflower around the Cape to a place that their map called Plymouth. There they dropped anchor. Bradford described what happened next: "Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, [we] fell upon [our] knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought [us] over the vast and furious ocean ."
Once arrived in this land that they called a "new" world, this shipload of diverse people had to find ways to live together peacefully. Not all of them were religious pilgrims or "Saints," as they described themselves. Some, who were called "Strangers," had left England for adventure, or because they were unhappy, or in trouble. All of them wanted a better life. There had been tension between the Strangers and the Saints. It needed to be settled. They had to be able to live together peacefully, with rules and laws and leaders. So before landing they drew up a plan of government, the Mayflower Compact . It read in part like this: "Having undertaken … a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts … [we] covenant … ourselves together … to enact … laws … for the general good of the Colony; unto which, we promise all due submission and obedience ."
The Mayflower Compact is one of the great documents of American history. Here was a group of settlers able to govern themselves; reasonable people who agreed to live together under a government of laws.
William Bradford predicted great success for the colony when he wrote, "As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled [shall shine] unto many ."