Summary of John Winthrop's
"Model of Christian Charity"
(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
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.
(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
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.
- Diversity among people allows for a variety of ways in which God may be honored.
- Acts of
kindness by the rich toward the poor - and a spirit of obedience by the
poor toward the rich - further manifest the spirit of ideal public life.
need among individuals with different qualities - shared struggles from
different stations in life - is necessary to society.
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.
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:
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).
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:
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
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.
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:
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.)
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.