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A City Upon a Hill: Winthrop’s “Modell of Christian Charity,” 1630

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In April 1630, a fleet of four ships set sail for New England carrying four hundred settlers bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Most were Puritans who traveled to North America to establish a godly society and a pure church free of what they considered corruptions in the Church of England. At some point before, during, or after the voyage, John Winthrop, their governor, delivered a sermon entitled, “A Model of Christian Charity,” for the settlers. Winthrop referred often to Scripture in creating the Puritan religious, political, and social covenant, or agreement. The most important covenant the settlers formed with God was to set an example of piety and virtue in their purified church. The political and social dimensions of the covenant would bind society together with mutual cooperation and obedience to the laws for the public good. “A Model of Christian Charity” is most famous for its assertion that the new colony would be “a city upon a hill,” a phrase which has been seized upon by politicians promoting a more secularized representation of America as a beacon of liberty and self-government for the world.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who was John Winthrop and to whom is he speaking in this sermon?
  2. What was his topic?
  3. What do you think his goal was in delivering this sermon?

Vocabulary Text
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. . . .
approbation (n): approval, acceptance

cohabitate (v): to live together

consortship (n): partnership, fellowship

ecclesiastical (adj): relating to the church
Secondly 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 oversway 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.
ordinance (n): law, rule Thirdly 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.
Fourthly 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 wee lived in England, the same must we doe, 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 burthens. 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 doth from those among whom we have lived; and that for these 3 Reasons;
transgression (n): sin, offense First. In regard of the more near bond of marriage between him and us, wherein he hath taken us to be his, after a most strict and peculiar manner, which will make them the more jealous of our love and obedience. So he tells the people of Israel, you only have I known of all the families of the Earth, therefore will I punish you for your Transgressions.
Secondly, because the Lord will be sanctified in them that come near him. We know that there were many that corrupted the service of the Lord. . . .
covenant (n): agreement, contract

dissemble (v): to lie, deceive

carnal (adj): bodily, lustful
Thirdly When God gives a special commission he looks to have it strictly observed in every article . . . 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 breach 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 one 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 we 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 bless 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.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Why does Winthrop argue that the colonists must be knit together, give mutual consent, and have bonds of love?
  2. What kind of authority was recognized in the Massachusetts Bay colony?
  3. Why does Winthrop argue that the public good must supersede private interests?
  4. Why does Winthrop again appeal to working together?
  5. What is the nature of the covenant between the Puritan settlers and God?
  6. What would happen if the Puritans break this covenant?
  7. How could the Puritans keep their side of the covenant? What civic virtues must they practice?
  8. What does Winthrop mean by “city upon a hill?” What responsibilities does this place upon the Puritans?
  9. Why does Winthrop keep referring to Israel in the Bible?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Why did the Puritans want to leave England and come to North America?
  2. What were some difficulties that the settlers expected to face in the New World?
  3. Why were cooperation and mutual support so critical to the settlement and survival of the Massachusetts Bay Colony?
  4. Were religion and government separated or closely linked in Massachusetts Bay?
  5. How did migration to other parts of New England, the creation of new towns, and the establishment of new religious congregations contribute to the breakdown of the original covenant in the ensuing decades?

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