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Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

Summary of John Winthrop's
"Model of Christian Charity"

Winthrop, J. (1630/1838). A modell [sic] of Christian charity. Collections of the Massachusetts historical society, 3rd series 7:31-48. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society.

John Winthrop's Model of Christian Charity - delivered on board the Arbella as members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony sailed toward the New World - describes the struggle of Puritans and their "errand into the wilderness." Their struggle? How can a group of outcasts who have a habit of quarreling with authority construct a strong society without fighting amongst themselves? As we will discover, public life in the Puritan era depended upon the manner through which contradictions in a "community of perills" are sustained through the use of the American Jeremiad.

Winthrop's sermon makes for difficult reading, but it's worth the effort. As Sacvan Bercovitch writes, "Winthrop's address comes down to us as a cultural artifact, an integral part of our national legacy, and the city it envisions at its climax is a key to the social-symbolic game through which the United States has perpetuated itself as America" (n.p.). Following a brief background discussion of John Winthrop, I will outline three paradoxes illustrated by the sermon to sustain Puritan public life: (1) a body politic must maintain difference among its members to ensure community, (2) worldly activities such as the acquisition of money can serve spiritual ends, and (3) stable public life depends upon some exterior threat to its existence.


John Winthrop (1588-1649) was governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony - a group of entrepreneurs who left Europe in search of trade opportunities in the New World. Like most members of the Colony, Winthrop was a Puritan. This group claimed that the Church of England was corrupted by selfish leaders and petty squabbles. In contrast, Puritans envisioned an idealized community in which all citizens would focus their lives on the word of God. Ironically, the Puritans' almost single-minded pursuit of a perfected society based on biblical teachings resulted in impressive success in secular affairs.

This success is often explained by the so-called "Puritan Work Ethic" - the ability to sacrifice personal ambitions for larger goals. Puritans also believed that they could be a blessed people - chosen by God to set an example for others. As a corollary, they preached that God's wrath would fall swiftly upon a people who strayed from His divine path. In this case, Puritan society must be unified - public life and all its manifestations must act as a single individual seeking God. This religious approach is quite different than the one described by More's Utopia, marked by its religious tolerance. As you read the sermon and this summary material, consider the rhetorical strategies employed to construct a community in which oppositional forces - individualism and community - must be balanced.

Difference within the Body Politic

Winthrop's sermon begins with a seemingly innocuous question: why are some people rich while others are poor? Many readers assume that the Puritans were simply another group of rich white men trying to form a powerful central government. However, some respondents propose that theirs was a radical notion of public life where faith, not social ranking, could unify an entire people. As usual, one should recall that even the Puritans made a habit of dispatching individuals who, despite their faith, challenged the new state. Similarly, the presence of servants among the mostly well-to-do Puritans indicates some distinction among persons, even in this idealized community. Winthrop states that difference among people (wealth being merely one unit of distinction) is ordained by God for three reasons.

A key implication of this third statement is that all people should view their life's circumstances as the product of God's will. Thus no one should take excessive pride or distress in their identity; it is part of a larger plan than could possibly be designed by human hands: "noe man is made more honourable than another or more wealthy &c., out of any particular and singular respect to himselfe, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man" (p. 1). Perhaps, from this perspective, the worldly acquisition of higher station is acceptable in Puritan life - as long as this self-improvement is defined as a manifestation of God's will.

Wealth in a spiritual society

The role of the individual in relation to the state continues to guide Winthrop's sermon as he anticipates another problem: what is the extent of our duty to others, both within and beyond our community? Do we have a spiritual obligation to serve the poor - even if that results in our becoming poor? Certainly, he sympathizes with the objection that one must first serve the needs of one's family before helping others. In this way (and in many others), Winthrop offers a different philosophy than Plato who, in Book Five of The Republic, displaces the family from his communist public life. Ultimately, however, Winthrop concludes that excessive wealth leads our hearts away from God and toward the sin of pride and its social ramification, disregard for social needs.

Is wealth, therefore, a bad thing? Certainly not, according to Winthrop. He has already established that some wealth can reflect the glory of God and that it should be maintained to help one's family. He also expands the role of wealth to its potential use for the good of the religious state: "the Lord lookes that when hee is pleased to call for his right in any thing wee haue, our owne interest we haue, must stand aside till his turne be served" (p. 2). Finally, he concludes, that one must share one's wealth with others - even if they cannot repay their debts to you. Note the paradox: a religious community seeking wealth in the New World must justify its actions somehow. If a person's individual wealth is redefined as part of a symbolic storehouse for the common good, then personal profit might be acceptable in the Puritan society. Public life must therefore be strong to accommodate and justify the original motives that led many to the New World.

This public life rests upon an interesting relationship between wealth and love. Members of the Puritan society must love one another, turn to each other, and be willing to give freely of their gathered riches. This love is not manifested by ideals alone; mere warm feelings are not enough. One must manifest love toward community through works and sacrifice. To the contemporary reader, this notion of love may seem quaint, an emotional fancy. However, Winthrop claims that emotions, not logic alone, are necessary for this ideal community:

"[T]he way to drawe men to the workes of mercy, is not by force of Argument from the goodness or necessity of the worke; for though this cause may enforce, a rationall minde to some present act of mercy, as is frequent in experience, yet it cannot worke such a habit in a soule" (p. 3).

However, this notion of love serves more of a public role than that "love" celebrated in contemporary society. Love, according to Winthrop, unites the body politic as ligaments unify the human body:

"There is noe body but consists of partes and that which knitts these partes together, giues the body its perfection, because it makes eache parte soe contiguous to others as thereby they doe mutually participate with each other" (p. 3).

Members of this society united by love (which to Winthrop is the ever-present deity) must be willing to sacrifice for each other - even if that sacrifice must include their wealth or their lives. But how might individuals practice this supreme sort of love? Winthrop notes that Adam, after all, left God's presence for his selfish transgression. All individuals since his Fall manifest the same sin. Yet, they may be redeemed if, despite their material differences, they manifest the same spirit. Winthrop illustrates this notion by describing the love of a mother for her child. The infant, a separate individual, is recognized as being of the same flesh as the mother. So are all people the same spirit in Puritan public life. The rewards of this love far outweigh any economic price that must be paid to maintain this community.

Risk and the stable society

The discussion of money may have seemed strange to his audience who, despite their relative wealth, faced a seemingly uncivilized land where wilderness must be cleared, homes must be built, and fortifications (against the aboriginal inhabitants of this "New World") must be secured. Indeed, the bulk of Winthrop's sermon concerns a community in almost perpetual danger - natural and human threats from outside and an admittedly sinful and fractious group within. Toward the end of his sermon, Winthrop attempts to relate his teachings to those practical concerns: a group of people brought together for various reasons hopes to profit from the New World and seeks to escape religious persecution in Europe. They must cling together in a time of troubles.

To foster the unifying love necessary for this public life, a government that addresses both the secular and spiritual sides to this community must be formed. This government, like those of Plato and More, must have certain powers over its citizens, since "care of the publique must oversway all private respects, by which, not only conscience, but meare civill pollicy, dothe binde us" (p. 5). Such a public life cannot be manifested in symbolic acts such as weekly church attendance; it must be witnessed in everyday life. Like a contract, this social covenant cannot be broken without risking the wrath of God. Failure to build this ideal community would be a shipwreck - a powerful metaphor, given the location of this address.

Winthrop contrasts that shipwreck with his vision of public life that has woven itself into the discourse of America: "wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill" (p. 6). This holy city, this New Jerusalem, restates Christ's statement in Matthew 5, verse 14: "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid." Like all public ideals, this new Boston does not exist and can never be realized. It is a contradiction of opposites whose tension both sustains and justifies Puritan society. Bercovitch explains:

This fantastic configuration Winthrop turns into a means of legitimating a particular economic and social hierarchy. [Moreover, Winthrop's city] deploys uncertainty and displacement as vehicles of cultural self-invention. What is displaced is both visionary (a medieval utopia) and actual (familial, communal, and geographical origins). What comes into place is broadly modern: a community written into existence by contract and consent, through a declaration of principles and rules that bend tradition to legitimate a venture in colonial enterprise. As things turned out, those new-fangled rules also opened into something specifically American: a corporate identity built on a provisional-apocalyptic view of history. (n.p.)

While Winthrop's sermon is more than 370 years old, its role in the American narrative cannot be underestimated. In the 1980s, the city upon a hill was employed by diverse speakers such as Ronald Reagan and Mario Cuomo. It has also appeared, of course, in more contemporary political ads. In a more general way, one finds traces of John Winthrop's ideal for public life every time the American experiment is defined as being somehow distinct and separate from human history.