One of the most significant chapters in American history opened on this day, September 6, 1620. After failed attempts to sail from England, leaving behind her sister ship Speedwell, the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth for the New World. Aboard were 101 passengers. By today's standards the ship was little bigger than a yacht. Ninety feet long and twenty-six feet wide, it hardly seemed the vessel to alter world history.
Cramped in so small a space and subject to rough weather, the passengers suffered a good deal. The sailors cursed the pious Pilgrims, whom they detested. Food consisted of dried fish, cheese and beer. The only sanitary accommodation was a slop bucket. There was nowhere to bathe. Seasickness was rampant during storms. With little air below decks, the conditions were nauseating at the best. Despite this, only one passenger died at sea. However bad matters were aboard ship, they would prove far worse in the "hideous and desolate wilderness" which soon confronted them.
Two months and five days after sailing, the ship landed at Cape Cod. Before going ashore the Pilgrims signed the famous Mayflower Compact. This not only made them a completely religious entity but broke political ground, too, in that it placed them under their own governance while still paying formal respect to the king of England. The compact was essentially a church covenant, signed by most of the adult men who were aboard. It probably staved off a mutiny, for tensions were running high.
At their destination, the Pilgrims were a long while making up their minds where to settle. The sailors grumbled and wanted to force them off ship before all the provisions were consumed. Fortunately, some of the men who first went ashore found berries and corn which could supplement their rations. The ship remained over winter. Inadequately prepared, the Pilgrims died by the dozens. Less than half survived the first winter. Shelter was lacking. The houses they built were of wattle and clay. But enough settlers survived to establish a community and to open an incomparable chapter in American history.
The idea of a social contract as embodied in the Mayflower Compact would become important in the theories of John Locke, Rousseau and others. Christian forms had a good deal of influence in shaping the character of early American governments which were largely the creation of Christian exiles.
- Bradford, William. Journal. Various editions.
- Curtis, A. Kenneth, J. Stephen Lang, and Randy Petersen. Dates with Destiny; the 100 most important dates in church history. Tarrytown, New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1984.
- Hart, Benjamin. Faith and Freedom; the Christian roots of American liberty. San Bernardino, California: Here's Life, 1988.
- Willison, George F. Saints and Strangers. New York: Ballantine, 1965.
- Various encyclopedia articles, American and church histories.
Last updated April, 2007.