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In this brief discourse, which is believed to have been delivered as a lecture to the group of colonists about to depart for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop (1588-1649) lays out a vision for building a godly commonwealth.
Winthrop, a devout Puritan, was a lawyer, not a minister, and his training shines through in both the structure and content of his argument. From the primary premise that God has ordained a variety of conditions among men–some to be rich, some to be poor, and so forth–he derives the traditional Christian ideal of unity realized through diversity to offer a vision of a political community based in the radical ideal of “brotherly affection.” Based on the extraordinary demands of colonization, Winthrop urged his listeners to willingly be generous with their resources—both tangible and intangible—considering the good of their neighbor to be integral to their own good. The colonists—who were fleeing royal persecution for their religious beliefs—had to recognize that they were drawn together for a purpose far beyond their own liberty, or even security. They were, Winthrop predicted, in the first statement of American millennialism, to become God’s new Israel, and their success or failure would prove to all the world the truth or falsehood of their religious claims.
A Model hereof.
GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of’ mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission.
The Reason hereof.
1 Reason. First, to hold conformity with the rest of his works, being delighted to show forth the glory of his wisdom in the variety and difference of the creatures, and the glory of his power in ordering all these differences for the preservation and good of the whole; and the glory of his greatness, that as it is the glory of princes to have many officers, so this great king will have many stewards, counting himself more honored in dispensing his gifts to man by man, than if he did it by his own immediate hands.
2 Reason. Secondly, that he might have the more occasion to manifest the work of his Spirit: first upon the wicked in moderating and restraining them: so that the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor, nor the poor and despised rise up against their superiors and shake off their yoke. Secondly, in the regenerate, in exercising his graces in them, as in the great ones, their love, mercy, gentleness, temperance etc., in the poor and inferior sort, their faith, patience, obedience, etc.
3 Reason. Thirdly, that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection. From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy etc., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man. Therefore, God still reserves the property of these gifts to himself as Ezek. 16:17—he there calls wealth, his gold and his silver, and Prov. 3:9—he claims their service as his due, honor the Lord with thy riches, etc. All men being thus (by divine providence) ranked into two sorts, rich and poor; under the first are comprehended all such as are able to live comfortably by their own means duly improved; and all others are poor according to the former distribution.
…There is a time when a Christian must sell all and give to the poor, as they did in the Apostles’ times. There is a time also when Christians (though they give not all yet) must give beyond their ability…. Likewise, a community of peril calls for extraordinary liberality, and so doth community in some special service for the church. Lastly, when there is no other means whereby our Christian brother may be relieved in his distress, we must help him beyond our ability rather than tempt God in putting him upon help by miraculous or extraordinary means.
This duty of mercy is exercised in three kinds: giving, lending and forgiving.
Quest[ion]. What rule shall a man observe in giving in respect of the measure?
Ans[wer]. If the time and occasion be ordinary, he is to give out of his abundance. Let him lay aside as God hath blessed him. If the time and occasion be extraordinary, he must be ruled by them: taking this withal, that then a man cannot likely do too much, especially if he may leave himself and his family under probable means of comfortable subsistence.
Object[ion]. A man must lay up for posterity, the fathers lay up for posterity and children, and he is worse than an infidel that provideth not for his own.
Ans[wer]. For the first, it is plain that it being spoken by way of comparison, it must be meant of the ordinary and usual course of fathers, and cannot extend to times and occasions extraordinary. For the other place, the Apostle speaks against such as walked inordinately, and it is without question that he is worse than an infidel who through his own sloth and voluptuousness shall neglect to provide for his family….
Quest[ion]. What rule must we observe in lending?
Ans[wer]. Thou must observe whether thy brother hath present or probable or possible means of repaying thee, if there be none of those, thou must give him according to his necessity, rather than lend him as he requires; if he hath present means of repaying thee, thou art to look at him not as an act of mercy, but by way of Commerce, wherein thou art to walk by the rule of justice; but if his means of repaying thee be only probable or possible, then is he an object of thy mercy, thou must lend him, though there be danger of losing it, Deut. 15:7. If any of thy brethren be poor etc., thou shalt lend him sufficient….
Quest[ion]. What rule must we observe and walk by in cause of community of peril?
Ans[wer]. 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. Likewise in their return out of the captivity, because the work was great for the restoring of the church and the danger of enemies was common to all, Nehemiah directs the Jews to liberality and readiness in remitting their debts to their brethren, and disposing liberally to such as wanted, and stand not upon their own dues which they might have demanded of them. Thus did some of our Forefathers in times of persecution in England, and so did many of the faithful of other churches, whereof we keep an honorable remembrance of them; and it is to be observed that both in Scriptures and latter stories of the churches that such as have been most bountiful to the poor saints, especially in those extraordinary times and occasions, God hath left them highly commended to posterity….
…The definition which the Scripture gives us of love is this: Love is the bond of perfection. First it is a bond or ligament. 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 in the most perfect of all bodies; Christ and his Church make one body; the several parts of this body considered apart before they were united, were as disproportionate and as much disordering as so many contrary qualities or elements, but when 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. 4:16: 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.
…The next consideration is how this love comes to be wrought. Adam in his first estate was a perfect model of mankind in all their generations, and in him this love was perfected in regard of the habit. But Adam rent himself from his Creator, rent all his posterity also one from another; whence it comes that every man is borne with this principle in him: to love and seek himself only, and thus a man continueth till Christ comes and takes possession of the soul and infuseth another principle, love to God and our brother, and this latter having continual supply from Christ, as the head and root by which he is united, gets the predomining in the soul, so by little and little expels the former. 1 John 4:7: love cometh of God and every one that loveth is borne of God, so that this love is the fruit of the new birth, and none can have it but the new creature.
…From the former Considerations arise these conclusions. First, this love among Christians is a real thing, not imaginary. Secondly, this love is as absolutely necessary to the being of the body of Christ, as the sinews and other ligaments of a natural body are to the being of that body. Thirdly, this love is a divine, spiritual, nature; free, active, strong, courageous, and permanent; undervaluing all things beneath its proper object and of all the graces, this makes us nearer to resemble the virtues of our heavenly father….
It rests now to make some application of this discourse, by the present design, which gave the occasion of writing of it. Herein are four things to be propounded; first the persons, secondly the work, thirdly the end, fourthly the means.
- For the persons. We are a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ, in which respect only though we were absent from each other many miles, and had our employments as far distant, yet we ought to account ourselves knit together by this bond of love, and, live in the exercise of it, if we would have comfort of our being in Christ….
- For the work we have in hand. It is by a mutual consent, through a special overvaluing providence and a more than an ordinary approbation of the churches of Christ, to seek out a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of Government both civil and ecclesiastical. In such cases as this, the care of the public must over sway all private respects, by which, not only conscience, but mere civil policy, doth bind us. For it is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.
- The end is to improve our lives to do more service to the Lord; the comfort and increase of the body of Christ, whereof we are members; that ourselves and posterity may be the better preserved from the common corruptions of this evil world, to serve the Lord and work out our Salvation under the power and purity of his holy ordinances.
- For the means whereby this must be effected: they are twofold, a conformity with the work and end we aim at. These we see are extraordinary, therefore we must not content ourselves with usual ordinary means. Whatsoever we did, or ought to have, done, when we lived in England, the same must we do, and more also, where we go. That which the most in their churches maintain as truth in profession only, we must bring into familiar and constant practice; as in this duty of love, we must love brotherly without dissimulation, we must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren. Neither must we think that the Lord will bear with such failings at our hands as he dothe from those among whom we have lived….
…Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. We have professed to enterprise these and those accounts, upon these and those ends. We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing. 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; be revenged of such a [sinful] people and make us know the price of the breaches of such a covenant.
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, for the supply of other’s necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make other’s 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. 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. 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, “the Lord make it likely 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. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going.
I shall shut up this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel, Deut. 30: Beloved there is now set before us life and good, Death and evil, in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his Ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may blesse us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship and serve other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it;
Therefore let us choose life—that we, and our seed may live, by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and our prosperity.
A. What does Winthrop mean by “charity”? How does this principle relate to his understanding of the way that God has “disposed of the condition of mankind” so that “some must be rich, some poor, some high,” etc.? In what ways is the principle of charity intended to shape the new political community?
B. How is Winthrop’s vision of the Massachusetts Bay colonists’ covenant with God similar to or different from John Quincy Adams’ account of America in Celebrating the Declaration of Independence or FDR in The Moral Theory of Civil Liberty? How does his understanding of “charity” relate to later understandings of social justice and religion presented in Documents Religious Education Contemporary Social Conditions, A Christian Manifesto, or Can a Christian be a Communist?, for example?
- Ezekiel 16:17.
- Proverbs 3:9.
- 1 Corinthians 16:2.
- 1 Timothy 5:8.
- Deuteronomy 15:7-8.
- As recounted in Acts 2:44-45.
- As recounted in Nehemiah 5.
- Winthrop here summarizes his reading of Ephesians 4 and 5, in part paraphrasing 4:13-16, which describes the church as a body made of many parts, each member learning to fill a particular role, all striving together in love to become the earthly embodiment of Christ, “the perfect man.” He is also remembering 5:27, which likens the church to a body made perfect by Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
- 1 John 4:7, “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.”
- Micah 6:8.
- Ephesians 4:3.
- Winthrop quotes Deuteronomy 30:15-18, inserting what he understands to be the contemporary application of “other gods”.
- A summary of Deuteronomy 30:19-20.