The Mayflower Compact

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
History of Philanthropy
The agreement set forth principles of a self-governed body not completely separate from the King of England. The Mayflower Compact continued the idea of law made by and for the people. This idea lies at the heart of democracy and made a significant contribution to the creation of a new democratic nation.


The Mayflower Compact, a document signed aboard the ship Mayflower in 1620, set forth principles of tolerance and liberty for the government of a new colony in the New World (The Architect of the Capitol 2001).

The Mayflower Compact expressed four main ideals (Cline 2003):

  1. Deep faith and belief in God and His divine guidance, which was held so dear to the Pilgrim Fathers.
  2. Deep loyalty to native England and to the King, regardless of his actions to persecute and exile the Pilgrims.
  3. Mutual regard for one another as equals in the sight of God.
  4. Intent to establish just and equal laws upon which would be built a truly democratic form of government, the first recorded in history.

Historic Roots

Until the end of the 16 th century, the Bible was printed in Latin (ibid.). After the Reformation, the Bible was printed and available in English translation. Before English versions, the common man was unable to read or understand the Scriptures. Church officials were often the interpreters of Latin. As English translations became more readily available, people read the Scriptures and controversies arose concerning the interpretation of many passages in the Bible (ibid.).

At the beginning of the 17 th century, a group of individuals called "Separatists," gathered in Scrooby, England. The Separatists objected to church beliefs as dictated by English rulers. Although King James was a protestant, he was intolerant of different religious views. The Separatists believed the Church of England had not completed the work of the Reformation and. demanded full separation from the Church.

In 1608, the group emigrated to Amsterdam to escape religious persecution. One year later, they moved to Leiden, Holland. In Leiden, the Separatists enjoyed full religious freedom. However, twelve years later, the group became unsettled with the growing Dutch influence on their families as well as increasing economic difficulties. It was after an extensive evaluation of these circumstances the Pilgrim Fathers decided to emigrate to America.

In order to secure passage to America, the Separatists approached the London Virginia Company. The company awarded a patent to the group and financed their trip in exchange for the group's seven years of indenture. On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower departed from Plymouth, England with 102 passengers.

After a 65-day ocean journey, the Pilgrims sighted Cape Cod on November 19, 1620. Unable to reach the originally contracted land, they anchored on November 21st at the site of Provincetown (Collins). Many boasted that "none had the power to command them;" openly proclaimed, "when they came ashore, they would use their own liberty, for none had the power to command them, the patent they had being for Virginia and not New England, which belonged to another Government, with which the Virginia Company had nothing to do" (Cline 2003). Disagreements regarding issues of governance led to the drafting of the Compact.


The Mayflower Compact was drafted and signed aboard the Mayflower on November 21, 1620. The "plantation covenant" modeled after a Separatist church covenant, was a document that established a "Civil Body Politic" (a temporary government) until one could be more permanently established (ibid.). The agreement set forth principles of a self-governed body not completely separate from the King of England. The Mayflower Compact continued the idea of law made by and for the people. This idea lies at the heart of democracy and made a significant contribution to the creation of a new democratic nation (Constitutional Rights Foundation 2002).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

After analyzing the Compact, the following three issues relate to the philanthropic sector:

1. By-Laws and Governance

According to the Mayflower Compact, a self-governing body rules for the greater good. Comparisons can drawn between the Mayflower Compact and philanthropic organizations; both establish an authority and a structure for making executive decisions. A nonprofit organization needs its own "Mayflower Compact," in order to succeed with objectives, entity function and levels of individual participation.

2. Mission Statement

The Compact clearly defined the mission objective as "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" (Pilgrim Hall Museum 2001). Like the Mayflower Compact, nonprofit and other philanthropic entities are also responsible for fulfilling mission statements and objectives.

3. Mutual Submission for the Greater Good of Society

The drafters of the Compact clearly indicated the importance of the greater good by the written statement, "solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and of one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforementioned" (ibid.). As individuals, the pilgrims divested themselves of resources in order to cause a "furtherance" of colony objectives. Today, individuals accomplish the same objective by donation of money or goods to charity. Society members give resources in the hope and expectation the end result will benefit the greater good. The same objective applies to the philanthropic sector as resources are collected from and disbursed to the community. The philanthropic sector provides a mechanism for self-help, assistance to the needy and the pursuit of a wide array of interests and beliefs (Salamon 1999).

Key Related Ideas

According to the Oxford English Dictionary a covenant is defined as:

  1. A mutual agreement between two or more people to do or refrain from doing certain acts the undertaking of either party in such an agreement;
  2. A formal agreement or promise of legal validity;
  3. In biblical translations and allusions, an engagement entered into by God with a person, nation, etc.

The Mayflower Compact as the written agreement by the signers "in the presence of God, and of one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic" (Pilgrim Hall Museum 2001). By signature on the Mayflower Compact, the Pilgrims entered into a covenant with God and with each other in the colony. John Winthrop (1630), the first governor of Massachusetts, reflected this concept in his sermon to fellow Puritans:

"Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection; we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities; we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, and liberality. We must delight in each other, make other's conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together; always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body" (O'Connell 1983, 32).

One of the main concepts derived from the Mayflower Compact was governing law for and by the people. The concept is the heart of democracy and the foundation of philanthropy and the nonprofit community. Nonprofit organizations within certain areas of activity, such as health and education, are subject to similar public regulations as for-profit and state sectors. As long as organized entities lawfully observe required safety and employment practices, the boards and staff of organizations are free to pursue their missions (Clotfelter and Thomas 1999).

The Compact created the idea of a social contract . A social contract is an actual or hypothetical compact between the ruled and their rulers that defines the rights and duties of each (Encyclopedia Britannica). Although specific duties were not assigned to each colonist, a concept of higher order was established by the election of John Carver as the first governor of New Plymouth. Nonprofit organizations use the same principle in creating a contract between the agency and its employees.

Important People Related to the Topic

Although 41 men signed the compact, the following individuals played significant roles as colony leaders and in drafting the Mayflower Compact:

  • John Alden (1599 - 1687): Alden sailed to America on the Mayflower and became one of the founding fathers of Plymouth Colony in 1620. He labored as a common seaman aboard the Mayflower and later served in several public offices.
  • William Bradford (1589 - 1657): Bradford was one of the drafters of the Compact. He served as the head of the Plymouth government; Bradford managed the court system, colony finances, correspondence with investors and neighbors, policy formulation and had a very active role in the running of the entire colony (The Mayflower Society 2004). Today, most existing information regarding Plymouth colony can be attributed to Bradford's excellent record keeping.
  • William Brewster (1560 - 1644): Brewster's influence was instrumental in the approval by the Virginia Company for the congregational resettlement in America. He was one of the few original Scrooby Separatists who sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 (The Historical Reference Center 1997). He, along with Edward Winslow and William Bradford, shared leadership of the Plymouth Colony.
  • John Carver (1576 - 1621): Carver played a pivotal role in the arrangement of the Pilgrims' emigration to America and served as Plymouth's first governor. He remained governor until his untimely death from apparent sunstroke in April,1621 (The Mayflower Society 2004).
  • Myles Standish (1584 - 1656): Standish was an English soldier hired by the Pilgrim Fathers to assist with military affairs in the new world. He was responsible for negotiations with the Native Americans and appointed military captain of the settlement at Plymouth.
  • Edward Winslow (1595 - 1655): Winslow sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 and later held a number of political offices. He was elected assistant to Governor William Bradford and later was elected governor of Plymouth on three occasions (ibid.).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC ) grants funds to organizations wishing to further the understanding of local culture. During 30 years of operation, the Council has made thousands of grants to schools, nonprofit cultural organizations, communities and artists( ).

  • The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities was founded in 1974. Some of the foundation's missions are to "foster critical inquiry, promote understanding of our diverse cultural heritage, and provide forums for the citizens of our state to engage actively in thoughtful public discourse about matters of individual choice and collective responsibility" ( ).

  • The goal of the Mayflower Society is to "join together people who share this heritage and to carry on the memory of our Pilgrim ancestors." The Society's website contains information on history, bibliographies, museum and membership opportunities ( ).

  • The Pilgrim Hall Museum is a gallery museum located in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The museum is accredited by the American Association of Museums and operated by the Pilgrim Society , a non-profit organization, dedicated to "striving for excellence in its professionally managed museum and library." The mission of the museum is to "educate the public about the significance of the Pilgrim experience by interpreting and preserving an evolving collection" (

Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • The Architect of the Capitol. "The Mayflower Compact, 1620." (2001). Office of the Curator.
  • Brown, Lesley, Ed. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: On Historical Principles. New York: Clarendon Press, 1993. ISBN: 0198612710.
  • Cline, Duane. "The Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony: 1620." (2003). Duane Cline.
  • Clotfelter, C.T. and T. Ehrlich., Eds. Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector in a Changing America . Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1999. ISBN: 0253335213.
  • Collins, Ron. "The Pilgrims-Overview."
  • Constitutional Rights Foundation. "Foundations of Our Constitution: The Mayflower Compact." (2002). Constitutional Rights Foundation.
  • Historical Reference Center. "Plymouth MA: It's History and People." Historical Reference Center. (1997).
  • The Mayflower Society. "History of the Mayflower Pilgrims." The Mayflower Society. (2004).
  • O'Connell, Brian. America's Voluntary Spirit: A Book of Readings . New York: The Foundation Center, 1983. ISBN: 83081223.
  • Pilgrim Hall Museum. "The Mayflower Compact." (2001). Peg Baker.
  • Salamon, Lester M. America's Nonprofit Sector: A Primer, 2 nd ed . New York: The Foundation Center, 1999. ISBN: 0879548010.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.