2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the planting of Plymouth Colony. Although the literature about Plymouth is voluminous, the discussion about law and religion has been inappropriately superficial to date. This article addresses the Pilgrims’ conception of law on matters of religion and the new insights into the Pilgrims’ story that can be ascertained by focusing on law.
“Law” has been defined in many different ways by many different people throughout history. Aristotle, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, and other proponents of natural law argued that law is the exercise of reason to deduce binding rules of moral behavior from nature’s or God’s creation. The renowned English positivist John Austin, in contrast, maintained that law is the command of the sovereign. To Karl von Savigny and other proponents of the so-called historical school, law is the unconscious embodiment of the common will of the people. To the philosophical school, law is the expression of idealized ethical custom. The dominant contemporary view seems to be that law is the reflection of social, political, and economic interests.
For the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, law was both the memorialization of their commitment to the Word of God and an instrument for exercising social control so as to effectuate that commitment. The Pilgrims, of course, used law to regulate the more mundane aspects of life as well. Indeed, quantitatively speaking, more laws were enacted by the Pilgrims that addressed the day-to-day activities of life in Plymouth Colony than memorialized the Pilgrims’ commitment to eternal glory in the afterlife, but the latter was unquestionably more important, qualitatively speaking, than the former. In the oft-quoted words of a young William Bradford, “to keep a good conscience, and walk in such a way as God has prescribed in his Word, is a thing which I must prefer before you all, and above life itself.”