Friday, October 09, 2009


Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor 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 our selves together into a civil body politic,…

A few years ago, I attended what was billed as an interfaith event. The first speaker was a minister from a “big box” evangelical Christian church that could boast of having several thousand members of the congregation. The minister quoted the Mayflower Compact, the first few lines of which are cited above. His point in citing that document, written in 1620 and therefore one hundred sixty-seven years before the American Constitution, was to show that America was founded as a Christian country. It was clear from what he went on to say that he believed America should still be a Christian nation and was in peril of losing touch with its Christian roots.

It may be worthwhile to examine some of the assumptions in the minister's claim. The first assumption is that America was founded when John Alden stepped off the Mayflower onto Plymouth Rock. It was not founded by any of the people who had already been living on the continent for millennia, nor was it founded by the Dutch or French or Spanish colonists who were competing with the English to establish European colonies on American soil. Apparently, it was not founded when the American war of independence was concluded, or when the first president took office, or when the constitution was ratified and became the law of the new republic. It did not continue to be founded by the waves of immigrants who migrated in the centuries after the immigrants on the Mayflower. No, it was founded by those passengers on The Mayflower who drew up a pact stating that they had come for the advancement of the Christian faith.

A second assumption is that the intentions of the putative founders of the nation must still be carried out nearly four hundred years later. So even though hardly anyone in America still gets around by sailing ship, and most people no longer wear buckled shoes and knee-length breeches and tall hats that look like inverted flower pots, and few people write sentences as long as the single sentence of the Mayflower Compact—in short, even though the world has changed in technology, scientifiic understanding, literary style and in its perspectives on history—the intention to advance the Christian faith as it was grasped by the Pilgrims is one thing that cannot change. America may now be populated by Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, atheists and people who have no interest at all in any religion, but whatever its population, the assumption goes, it is still a Christian nation.

The first passenger of The Mayflower to set foot on Plymouth Rock was John Alden. He was not among the 40% of the adults on the ship who had gone to America to seek religious freedom. He was not a Pilgrim, if we understand a pilgrim to be one of those who left England for Amsterdam and then Leiden and who took part in a movement of Protestants led by pastor John Robinson seeking separation from the Church of England and who eventually left from Delfshaven, Holland in two ships called The Speedwell and the Mayflower (only one of which made it to the shores of America). John Alden was a ship's carpenter who was hired onto The Mayflower as a cooper, and like many of the 60% of the people on The Mayflower who were not Pilgrims, his primary motivation was probably to find adventure and fortune and not to advance the Christian faith. In his later years, in fact, John Alden was known for his strong dislike of Quakers and Baptists. He did sign the Mayflower Compact, but to what extent he wholeheartedly endorsed all that it is said is impossible to know.

While the advancement of Christianity may have been an undertaking of those who drafted and signed the Mayflower Compact, the signers of the document also sought a

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…

The evangelical minister who cited the Mayflower Compact at the interfatih meeting did not even mention the colonist's determination to frame just and equal laws conducive to the general good of the colony. That might have required admitting that honoring the spirit of the intentions of the Mayflower community could best be done by establishing universal health insurance under a government-managed single-payer insurance system. The particular minister in question revealed political leanings in the rest of what he said that would make his endorsement of such health-care policies unlikely.

I find myself thinking about the Pilgrims these days, because I am living in Leiden and walking the very streets they walked and going into some of the buildings they probably entered. I have stood on the very spot where they embarked from Leiden for Delfshaven and then on to America. William Bradford was one of my ancestors, as was John Alden. I have been aware of that connection for most of my life. I even chose Alden as a middle name for my son, but it never occurred to me that I should try to think as my (and my children's) ancestors thought. I still have no urge to take those who formed my DNA as a model on which to base my own beliefs and prejudices and actions.

That notwithstanding, I find myself intrigued with all the ways that these human things change through the years. How does the descendant of a Quaker-hating ship's carpenter become a Quaker? How does the descendant of at least one person who came to America to advance Christianity end up devoting his life to advancing Buddhism in America? How does the descendant of people who chose to leave Leiden end up being invited to help disseminate knowledge of Buddhism in Leiden?

The answer to those questions is simple. I am selective. I take bits and pieces from the past and put them together in a way that I find palatable. In that respect, I am very much like the evangelical Christian minister who carefully picks out a few phrases from the Mayflower Compact and disregards the rest.