John Winthrop

A Model of Christian Charity

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A Model of Christian Charity Summary

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“A Model of Christian Charity” (1630) is a sermon written and delivered by Puritan leader John Winthrop. In 1629, he joined the Massachusetts Bay Company, sold his English estate, relocated with his family to America aboard the Arbella, and was elected governor of Massachusetts. The overall theme of the sermon is unity. The colonists are traveling to an untamed wilderness to create an entirely new society, so Winthrop stresses cooperation, as well as the virtues of faith in God’s providence, mercy, and justice as necessary to success.

The sermon begins with the idea that not all men are created equal. It is God’s will that some people be rich and powerful, and others poor and lowly. He gives three reasons:

  1. God created natural difference and dispenses gifts to the rich and powerful so that they may best reflect God’s glory and act as His stewards.
  2. A man’s circumstances are meant to test his character and virtue. Being given wealth does not mean a man has license to trample his inferiors, any more than poverty excuses a poor man’s revolt against his betters. Instead, a rich man is supposed to exercise “love, mercy, gentleness, and temperance,” while the poor man is supposed to strengthen his “faith, patience, and obedience.”
  3. Difference in social station creates community bonds. If everyone were equal and had the same advantages and gifts, then people would not need each other or God. Building on the idea that the rich are stewards of God’s gifts, it is to everyone’s benefit that they do not hoard their gifts (which tempts God’s wrath) but use them to be charitable and merciful to the less fortunate.

Winthrop argues that there are two rules which are standard to all: Justice and Mercy. These two rules should be practiced by everyone and are necessary to the colony’s success in the difficult times ahead. Furthermore, he discusses two more laws: the law of nature (or morals), which was given to humans in a time of innocence; and the law of grace (or the Gospel), which was given to humans in their sinfulness. The law of nature requires everyone to render help to others in times of distress, while also practicing good sense in preserving their own goods. The law of the Gospel is more extreme: in times of great distress or peril, Christians may be called upon to give more aid than they are comfortable with, but it is better to give too much than to tempt God by requiring Him to save the distressed through divine intervention (which means that the wealthy have failed in their stewardship and risk punishment for their disobedience).

In the second section of the sermon, Winthrop clarifies his ideas in a question and answer format that proposes common situations regarding the “laying up” and use of resources and then models appropriate responses. Essentially, he gives the colonists the “money talk.” Winthrop advises exercising common sense: give as much aid as you can in extraordinary circumstances, but do not endanger yourself or your family. At the same time, he quotes Matthew 16:19 and cautions against hoarding treasures on earth instead of treasures in heaven. He also warns them that not everything given will be paid back—this is the virtue of charity. People are to help each other to the best of their ability, to be merciful and just in their aid and actions, and to remember that everything they have belongs not to them, but to God.

In the third section, he begins to draw his conclusions, which are:

  1. All men are part of the body of Christ, and when one part suffers, everyone suffers. It is paramount that all Christians aid, comfort, and love each other, because they are stronger together.
  2. Adam was perfect before he fell to the sin of selfishness. It is everyone’s responsibility to strive to regain that perfection, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
  3. God loves His elect because they are made in His own image, just like mothers love their children because they see themselves in them. Therefore, people should do their best to reflect God’s glory. Furthermore, there is nothing better than to love and be loved.

Finally, Winthrop lays the groundwork for the society they want to create. First, he reiterates that they are a Christian people, knit together by the strongest bonds of love. Second, they desire to create a government that is both civil and ecclesiastical, agreeing that the good of the public overrules private interests. Third, the result they want is a better, more Christian society than the one they left. Fourth, they are on a mission from God. If they follow the rules, God will preserve them and make them successful, but if they fall prey to corruption and their own self-interests, they will fail and be punished for breaking covenant with God.

The most famous line in the sermon neatly sums up their entire mission and the stakes riding on their success: “For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” In other words, the world is watching. Failure would make them a laughingstock. He ends his sermon with Moses’s final message to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land: keep the Covenant or be destroyed. This was a powerful message to the Puritans, who knew their survival depended on God and each other.