In November 1620, the individuals we know as the Pilgrims created the first social contract in the New World. That short document, the Mayflower Compact, set a precedent for religious freedom and ordered liberty that became a foundation for later charters of self-government in North America.

The text of the Mayflower Compact trumpets profound religious commitment while organizing a civil government:

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, 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 Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof 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, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.

Where did the Pilgrims come up with the idea of creating a social contract? How did their religious faith influence the Mayflower Compact?

Some mistakenly suggest that in writing the Mayflower Compact the Pilgrims were influenced by philosophical writing on social contract theory, which was allegedly prominent at the time. This is simply not the case. In fact, the earliest modern social contract theorist, Thomas Hobbes, would not complete Leviathan until 1651, more than a generation after the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower. Following Hobbes, John Locke authored his Two Treatises on Government in 1689. Jean-Jacques Rousseau published his Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men in 1755 and The Social Contract in 1762.[1]

A better place to look for the origins of the 1620 Mayflower Compact is found in the theology of the text itself, specifically the word “covenant.” The idea of covenant, used as a verb (“Covenant and Combine ourselves”), is rooted in biblical covenants and became prominent in Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches. By the 1580s, congregations influenced by Robert Brown believed that they could not reform the Church of England internally, so they would have to separate from it. These “Separatists” established congregations, and many of them relocated to the Netherlands, where there was substantially more religious freedom. In “an astonishing moment in history,”[2] those Netherlands-based Separatists, whom we know as the “Pilgrims,” sojourned across a sea to a New World to establish a “pure” church. En route they drafted the first social contract in North America.[3]

Due to bad weather and the lateness of the season, the Pilgrims landed north of their intended destination in the Virginia Colony. Geographically outside the writ of their patent, some non-Separatist passengers flirted with anarchy. Though the Pilgrims embraced independence from the established Church of England, the idea of lawlessness horrified them. In “an almost startling revelation of the capacity of Englishmen in that era for self-government,”[4] the Pilgrims implemented the same structure they used when founding Separatist churches in England and the Netherlands.[5] They covenanted to form a community of mutual obligations.

Under the Mayflower Compact, the colonists would choose their local leaders and derive their own laws while remaining obedient subjects to a very distant English monarch and Parliament. As one historian observed, this was “an important milestone in the development of self-governing political institutions.”[6] Another scholar concluded that the Pilgrims “articulated and practiced a theory of rule by consent of the governed.”[7] Indeed, just as scholars of the Civil Rights Movement have noted the importance of churches as places for resource development and mobilization, that was also true of these fledgling Protestant communities.

But Plymouth was not only a community of and for the Separatists. In fact, Separatists only made up 42 of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower. United to form a “Civil Body Politic,” the other male passengers on the Mayflower were also signatories of the Compact. Encouraged by the threat of a perilous winter looming ahead, their shared interest in survival caused them to work together and overcome the challenges of surviving in the New World.

What are we to learn from this today? Most important, the organizing principle for the Compact was the theological motif of covenant. The idea of dedicating oneself to others, before God, in a covenant relationship was essential to many Puritans as well as the Separatists. Covenantalism became a fundamental theological principle for how Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches operated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as how they operate today. Therefore, the claim that the social contract theory is necessarily and uniformly secular is utterly inaccurate: the Pilgrims created a theologically informed, non-coercive social compact sans Leviathan.

Second, there were additional theological presuppositions guiding the Pilgrims’ approach to self-government that were rooted in Reformation concepts: freedom of conscience before God, freedom of religion (publicly and privately), and moral equality (i.e., the priesthood of all believers). As free citizens, they conceived and established the Compact. Moreover, the Pilgrims did not attempt to forcibly impose their faith on the other colonists and the Native Americans.

At a time when some challenge the morality and religious character of America’s first founders, the plain facts of the 1620 Mayflower Compact, a theologically informed social compact for believers and non-believers alike, remind us of the good seeds planted in our shared past. It is up to us to cultivate those seeds in our own time.

[1] Celeste Friend, “Social Contract Theory,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

[2] Wilfred M. McClay, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, (New York City: Encounter Books, 2019), 26

[3] “The Congregational Christian Tradition,” Congregational Library and Archives,

[4] Samuel Elliot Morrison, Concise History of the American Republic, (New York City: Oxford University Press, 1983), 94.

[5] Wilfred M. McClay, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, (New York City: Encounter Books, 2019), 26

[6] Wilfred M. McClay, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, (New York City: Encounter Books, 2019), 26

[7] Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 14-15.