Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

John Winthrop

excerpts from 

"A Model of Christian Charity"

(sermon preached aboard ship Arbella in the Puritan "Great Migration"
from England to Boston, Massachusetts in 1630)


John Winthrop, 1587-1649

Instructor's note for Early American Literature, American Immigrant Literature, and Literary & Historical Utopias: Winthrop's sermon sets out the uniqueness of the Puritans among European immigrants and settlers to North America.

Most Europeans and later immigrants traveled as individuals or with their immediate families, creating an origin story for American individualism and aversion to community identity.

In contrast, the Puritans migrated as a community rather than as individuals. Instead of immigrating for wealth or economic advancement, the Puritans—according to Winthrop's ideals—share each other's wealth and suffering as "one body in Christ," creating "a city upon a hill" that all people may see as a model for better living.

Biographical note: Winthrop, educated as a lawyer, was governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, centered around Boston and populated mostly by English Puritans, for most of the colony's first generation. As with Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, Winthrop's Journal provides important records for the early colonies' history including religious disputes and Indian relations.

Discussion questions:

1. How does Winthrop's "model" for American society both exemplify and differ from idealizations of American origins and American exceptionalism?

1a. President Reagan was famous for quoting the "city on a hill" passage in para. 13a, though he paraphrased it as "a shining city on a hill."

1b. When Winthrop prophesies that "the God of Israel is among us," what implications for American identity throughout history?

1c. How may Winthrop's text (esp. his distinction and combining "the law of grace and the moral law") exemplify Christian Humanism, the practice from the Renaissance of balancing Judeo-Christian and Classical Humanist traditions? (See Classical Humanism and Judeo-Christian Religion: Primary Sources / Strands of Western Civilization)

2. In what ways is Winthrop's sermon a utopian text? How does it rely on religious impulses to achieve utopian or community goals? How does his vision exemplify the covenant relationship of God and society also witnessed in the Mayflower Compact? (Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, chapter 11)

2a. Covenant,” a concept inherited from the relationship of Yahweh and the Jewish people, is the essential "social contract" by which the Pilgrims combine religious devotion and civil government.

3. Given the tension of America as a "community of individuals" (obj. 3), what metaphors or figures of speech does Winthrop use to persuade people to function as a community instead of getting rich and not caring?

A Model of Christian Charity

[1]              . . . that every man might have need of other, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection. . . . [note family metaphor ("brotherly") for utopian community; contrast Declaration of Independence model emphasizing "independence" rather than "knit" or "bonds"]

[2]  . . . There are two rules whereby we are to walk one towards another: Justice and Mercy. . . .

[2a] There is likewise a double Law by which we are regulated in our conversation [interaction] towards another. In both the former respects, the Law of Nature and the Law of Grace (that is, the moral law or the law of the gospel) . . . . By the first of these laws, man as he was enabled so withal is commanded to love his neighbor as himself. Upon this ground stands all the precepts of the moral law, which concerns our dealings with men. To apply this to the works of mercy, this law requires two things. First, that every man afford his help to another in every want or distress.

[2b] Secondly, that he perform this out of the same affection which makes him careful of his own goods, according to the words of our Savior (from Matthew 7:12), whatsoever ye would that men should do to you. ["golden rule"] . . . The law of Grace or of the Gospel hath some difference from the former (the law of nature), as in these respects: First, the law of nature was given to man in the estate of innocence. This of the Gospel in the estate of regeneracy.

[2c] Secondly, the former [law of grace] propounds one man to another, as the same flesh and image of God. [covenant] This as a brother in Christ also, and in the communion of the same Spirit, and so teacheth to put a difference between Christians and others. Do good to all, especially to the household of faith. Upon this ground the Israelites were to put a difference between the brethren of such as were strangers, though not of the Canaanites. [dominant culture as separation or "white flight"]

[2d] Thirdly, the Law of Nature would give no rules for dealing with enemies, for all are to be considered as friends in the state of innocence, but the Gospel commands love to an enemy. Proof: If thine enemy hunger, feed him; "Love your enemies... Do good to them that hate you" (Matt. 5:44).

[3]  . . . Quest.  What rule must we observe and walk by in cause of community of peril?

[4]             Ans. The same as before, but with more enlargement towards others and less respect towards ourselves and our own right.  Hence it was that in the primitive church they sold all, had all things in common, neither did any man say that which he possessed was his own. . . . [See Acts 2: 42-45, copied at bottom] [note also the persistent return of Protestantism to origins or models in the "primitive church" or the church formed by the Apostles in the generation of Christ's incarnation.]

[5]  Having already set forth the practice of mercy according to the rule of God's law, it will be useful to lay open the grounds of it also, being the other part of the Commandment and that is the affection from which this exercise of mercy must arise, the Apostle tells us that this love is the fulfilling of the law, not that it is enough to love our brother and so no further; but in regard of the excellency of his parts giving any motion to the other as the soul to the body and the power it hath to set all the faculties at work in the outward exercise of this duty; as when we bid one make the clock strike, he doth not lay hand on the hammer, which is the immediate instrument of the sound, but sets on work the first mover or main wheel [i.e., to wind the clock; mechanical metaphor]; knowing that will certainly produce the sound which he intends. So the way to draw men to the works of mercy, is not by force of Argument from the goodness or necessity of the work; for . . . it cannot work such a habit in a soul, as shall make it prompt upon all occasions to produce the same effect, but by framing these affections of love in the heart which will as naturally bring forth the other, as any cause doth produce the effect.

[5a] The definition which the Scripture gives us of love is this: Love is the bond of perfection. First it is a bond or ligament [metaphor]. Secondly, it makes the work perfect. There is no body but consists of parts and that which knits these parts together, gives the body its perfection, because it makes each part so contiguous to others as thereby they do mutually participate with each other, both in strength and infirmity, in pleasure and pain. To instance [provide an example] in the most perfect of all bodies: Christ and his Church make one body. . . . [W]hen Christ comes, and by his spirit and love knits all these parts to himself and each to other, it is become the most perfect and best proportioned body in the world (Eph. 4:15-16). Christ, by whom all the body being knit together by every joint for the furniture thereof, according to the effectual power which is in the measure of every perfection of parts, a glorious body without spot or wrinkle; the ligaments hereof being Christ, or his love, for Christ is love (1 John 4:8). So this definition is right. Love is the bond of perfection. . . .

[6] From hence we may frame these conclusions:

[7] First of all, true Christians are of one body in Christ (1 Cor. 12). Ye are the body of Christ and members of their part. All the parts of this body being thus united are made so contiguous in a special relation as they must needs partake of each other's strength and infirmity; joy and sorrow, weal and woe. If one member suffers, all suffer with it, if one be in honor, all rejoice with it. [unity of church = unity of community]

[8] . . . this sensitivity and sympathy of each other's conditions will necessarily infuse into each part a native desire and endeavor, to strengthen, defend, preserve and comfort the other. To insist a little on this conclusion being the product of all the former, the truth hereof will appear both by precept and pattern. 1 John 3:16, "We ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." Gal. 6:2, "Bear ye one another's burden’s and so fulfill the law of Christ." . . .

 [8a]  . . . concerning the exercise of this love, which is twofold, inward or outward. . . . From unfolding [inward love] we must take in our way that maxim of philosophy, "simile simili gaudet," or like will to like [Latin: "like prefers like"]; for as of things which are turned with disaffection to each other, the ground of it is from a dissimilitude or arising from the contrary or different nature of the things themselves; for the ground of love is an apprehension of some resemblance in the things loved to that which affects it. This is the cause why the Lord loves the creature, so far as it hath any of his Image in it; He loves his elect because they are like Himself, He beholds them in His beloved son. ["elect" = those chosen for salvation]

[9]  . . . So a mother loves her child, because she thoroughly conceives a resemblance of herself in it. Thus it is between the members of Christ; each discerns, by the work of the Spirit, his own Image and resemblance in another, and therefore cannot but love him as he loves himself. . . . [Winthrop here combines the family metaphor and the church-unity metaphor to unify the community]

[10] . . . nothing yields more pleasure and content to the soul then when it finds that which it may love fervently; for to love and live beloved is the soul’s paradise both here and in heaven. . . .

[11]  . . . Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. . . . Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it; but if we shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends we have propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.

[12] 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 [excesses], for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.

[13] So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with.

[13a] We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "may the Lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. . . .

New Testament, Book of Acts, chapter 2: 42, 44, and 45: (compare to paragraph 4 above)

42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and in fellowship ... 44 And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; 45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.

Acts 42: 32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. 33 And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. 34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, 35 And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. 36 And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, 37 Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet. (King James Version)