During their journey across the Atlantic, Winthrop formulated a sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity.” In it he exhorted his fellow pilgrims that “the eyes of the world are upon us” and that God would have them, in their new home, to be that “city on a hill” of which Jesus spoke, a shining light exhibiting a model of Christian living for the rest of mankind to see.
He also spoke of the seriousness of the covenant with God into which they had entered. He exhorted,
We have entered into an explicit Covenant with God. We have drawn up indentures with the Almighty, wherefore if we succeed and do not let ourselves be diverted into making money, He will reward us. Whereas if we fail, if we fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, the Lord will surely break out in wrath and make us know the price of the breach of such a Covenant.
The Mayflower Compact Was a Covenant
Ten years before Winthrop and his company arrived, the Pilgrims had landed at Cape Cod. Before disembarking, they drew up a written document patterned after the church covenants that were common among Separatist churches in England. Being part of a Separatist congregation, they were very aware of such documents, which knit the signees together in a solemn, contractual agreement with God and one another.
Each signee promised “solemnly and mutually in the presence of God” to “covenant together” for the better ordering and preservation of their community. This covenant also stated that their purpose in coming to the New World was to glorify God and advance the Christian faith. The late Harvard professor, Perry Miller, said, “The Separatists aboard the Mayflower found a covenant the obvious answer to the first problem of political organization.”
Some have called the Mayflower Compact America’s founding document. That is going too far, but there is no question that it set the stage for succeeding communities and colonies that would base their existence on written documents—covenants--that gave recognition to God and prioritized the Gospel of Jesus Christ as their reason for being.
New England Covenants with God
This idea of a social compact (covenant) with God was expressed, not only in the founding of Plymouth, Boston, and Massachusetts, but also in the 1639 founding document of Connecticut entitled “The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut.” This document states,
We, the inhabitants and residents of Windsor, Hartford, and Wethersfield, knowing where a people are gathered together the word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people there ought to be an orderly and decent government established according to God . . . we do for ourselves and our successors enter into combination and confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, which we now profess. (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 48-49).
With thousands of new immigrants arriving in New England and new towns springing up, there arose a felt need for some sort of centralized government to facilitate mutual defense and to arbitrate land disputes. To meet this need, the United Colonies of New England was formed and a constitution was formulated, patterned on the idea of covenant. Dated May 19, 1643, the opening statement of the constitution expressly states why they had all come to the New World. It reads,
Whereas we all came into these parts of America with one and the same end and aim, namely to advance the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ and enjoy the Liberties of the Gospel in purity and peace (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 52-53).
The constitution provided that each colony would choose two representatives who would form a council of eight. This council of eight was invested with power to arbitrate boundary disputes, coordinate mutual defense, and facilitate mutual advice and support. It was clearly stated that this council was also brought into existence for “preserving and propagating the truth and liberties of the Gospel (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 53).
There is no question that this constitutional system wherein each individual colony retained its autonomy, and the powers of government were limited by the constitution, was a forerunner of the federalist system that would be created at Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787. The United Colonies of New England clearly foreshadowed the United States of America in both its form of government and in its Christian character.
The Puritans clearly saw these written statements as covenants, not only between themselves, but also between their society and God. They believed that God dealt, not only with individuals, but also with social units, including families, churches and nations. According to Perry Miller, “The central conception in their thought is the elaborated doctrine of covenant.”
The Blessing & Responsibility of Covenant
These early immigrants saw Israel in the OT as a pattern for their social covenant with God. Like Israel, they believed that if they, as a people, kept their part of the covenant, which was to walk uprightly and make His name known, they would be blessed. If, on the other hand, they lost their sense of purpose and began to live selfish and sinful lives, they would suffer God’s wrath because of their rejection of the covenant. During the voyage to New England, Winthrop warned,
Now if the Lord shall please to bear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He verified this Covenant and sealed our commission . . . but if we fail to perform the terms of the Covenant, we shall perish out the land we are crossing the sea to possess.
This social responsibility to God is the reason the Puritans tended to hold one another accountable. They pointed out that since communities and nations cannot be rewarded in the next world, they must necessarily be rewarded in this one, according to their deeds. The sin of one or a few could, therefore, bring down God’s judgment on the entire community. This is also the reason that laws were passed outlawing adultery, fornication, profanity, drunkenness and Sabbath breaking.
Although New England was where the writing of constitutions was profoundly developed, all the colonies were founded on similar social compacts with God. When the Jamestown settlers disembarked at Cape Henry, VA, their first act was to erect a seven-foot cross they had brought from England. They then gathered around the cross for a prayer service in which they dedicated the land of their new home to God. In his dedicatory prayer, their chaplain, Rev. Robert Hunt, declared, “From these very shores the Gospel shall go forth to not only this New World but to the entire world.”
This act was in line with the official Virginia Charter, which recognized “the Providence of Almighty God” and expressed the desire that the establishment of the colony would “tend to the glory of His Divine Majesty.” This document also expressly stated that the purpose of the colony was to propagate the “Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God.”
There are amazing similarities between the Virginia Charter, the Mayflower Compact and other founding documents of New England. This led Perry Miller to suggest that Virginia and New England were not that different. He pointed out that both communities were children of the Reformation, “and what we consider distinctively Puritan was really the spirit of the times.”
There is thus no question that these early social compacts, or covenants, were precursors to the founding documents of the United States of America. Gary Amos and Richard Gardiner are correct to say, “The early New England constitutions were covenants. These covenants clearly foreshadowed the United States Constitution” (Hyatt. Pilgrims and Patriots, 49).
God and America’s Founding Documents
The Declaration of Independence begins with an acknowledgement that human rights come from God. It ends with the signees expressing a reliance on Divine Providence, a common expression of that era for the God of the Bible and was commonly used by revivalist ministers, such as George Whitefield, in their sermons and writings.
It is obvious that the Founders saw the Constitution as a sacred document, and they treated it as a covenant. That is why George Washington took the oath of office with his hand on a Bible, and with his hand on the Bible, solemnly swore to uphold and defend the Constitution, “so help me God.”
Indeed, many of those who were part of the Constitutional Convention, saw the hand of God in the formulation of the Constitution. James Madison, the Constitution’s chief architect, declared,
It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in critical stages of the Revolution (Hyatt, 5 Pillars of the American Republic, 10).
Benjamin Rush, a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, was even more blunt, declaring that the Constitution was a work from heaven. A physician from Philadelphia, he asserted that he,
As much believed the hand of God was employed in this work as that God had divided the Red Sea to give a passage to the children of Israel, or had fulminated the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai” (Hyatt, 5 Pillarsof the American Republic, 11).
This sacred view of the Constitution was obviously inherited from those earliest immigrants who considered their covenants to be sacred oaths between their communities and God. This covenantal attitude became a part of the psyche of colonial America and was clearly present in the attitude of the Founders toward America’s founding documents. Historian, Benjamin Hart, says,
The U.S. Constitution has worked because there has been a sacred aura surrounding the document; it has been something more than a legal contract; it was a covenant, an oath before God, very much related to the covenant the Pilgrims signed. Indeed, when the President takes his oath of office he places his hand on a Bible and swears before Almighty God to uphold the Constitution of the United States. He makes a sacred promise; and the same holds true for Supreme Court justices who take an oath to follow the letter of the written Constitution. The moment America’s leaders begin treating the Constitution as though it were a mere sheet of paper is the moment the American Republic—or American Covenant—ends (Hyatt, Pilgrims and Patriots, 50).
Abraham Lincoln Understood America’s Covenant with God
Abraham Lincoln understood that America had a covenant with God. That is why, in the midst of the devastation of the Civil War, he proclaimed a national, day of prayer and repentance for April 30, 1863. In this proclamation, he acknowledged God’s blessing on the nation and explained the present calamity, saying,
But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious Hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us (Hyatt, The Great Prayer Awakening of 1857-58, 37).
The populace, especially in the North, responded en masse to Lincoln’s call to prayer. On the appointed day, businesses and schools closed and people gathered in churches and homes throughout land to pray and repent for personal and national sins.
And whereas the South had been winning battle after battle and it looked as though the American union could well be dissolved, there was an almost immediate turn of the war in favor of the North after this day of prayer. God intervened and America was sustained after she renewed her covenant with God.
Where Are We Today?
America is at a critical juncture in her history. Powerful forces reject the notion of God having any role in the nation’s founding and they consider the Constitution to be a useless, outdated document—a mere sheet of paper, as Hart warned.
Taking the oath of office is now seen as a meaningless formality that may be carried out with the Koran as well as the Bible or any religious book, or with none at all. America’s future has not been this uncertain since the Civil War.
The election of Donald Trump was an act of Divine Providence that opened a narrow window of opportunity for the church in America. Despite his faults, he defends religious liberty and is a friend to Bible-believing Christians. Will we make the most of this opportunity and maximize the moment?
The decision is ours. The future is in our hands. What will we do? Will we renew the American covenant? It begins with God’s people taking seriously their role in the health of a nation as expressed in II Chronicles 7:14.
If My people who are called by My Name
Will humble themselves and pray, and seek My face,
And turn from their wicked ways,
Then I will hear from heaven,
And will forgive their sin and heal their land.
This article is derived from books by Dr. Eddie Hyatt, including Pilgrims and Patriots and 5 Pillars of the American Republic, available from Amazon and his website at www.eddiehyatt.com. Dr. Hyatt has a passion to see America reconnect with her Christian roots and experience another great, national spiritual awakening. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.