25 Mar

John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630)

John Winthrop was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop and other Puritans who were dissatisfied with the Church of England set sail for New England in 1630. Roughly 700 Puritans sailed to New England on four ships. Before sailing or during the journey, Winthrop wrote the sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.” The sermon outlined Winthrop’s understanding of the covenant that settlers made with God for the New England community. The covenant should be kept by practicing Christian love. If the covenant was broken by unchristian behavior, God would punish the settlers, and they would die in New England and be forgotten by posterity. Winthrop reminded the Puritans that they were to be a model community for Christians living in England. They were to show the world how true Christians lived and practiced.


Winthrop argued that God ordered the world so that the conditions of humans were unequal. Some were rich, others poor, and still others were wise, holy, or powerful. This ordering evidenced God’s wisdom and ability to create harmony among diversity through the work of his Spirit. This diversity acted as evidence that people needed one another; they needed the “bonds of brotherly affection.” Given this dependence on others, Winthrop advised that two rules governed humans: justice and mercy. Likewise, two laws governed humans: the Law of Nature and the Law of Grace. The Law of Nature directed humans to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. This meant helping one another in times of need. This Law was given in the state of innocence (before the Fall). The Law of Grace reminded humans of the necessity of the state of regeneracy (conversion and election). This law urged humans to “Do good to all, especially the household of faith.” But, it also called Christians to love their enemies. Above all, this law urged Christians to support their community in extraordinary circumstances. This included, giving, lending, and forgiving debts. Individuals were not save money or goods for posterity when the community was in need. Individuals were to give and lend as if they expected nothing in return. Winthrop advised that a Christian must always be ready to forgive a debt for the good of the community. Sometimes debts would be paid back, but only if an individual had the means.

Winthrop urged the Christians aboard the Arbella to recognize that a Christian community was bound in love and that “Love is the bond of perfection.” Christian love recognized that “true Christians are of one body in Christ.” The ligaments of this body are knit together in love. No body was perfect without its ligaments (members). All parts of the body suffered and celebrated together, all partaking of others’ circumstances. This sensitivity to other members of the body infused a desire in all members to care for one another. Christ, the Apostles, and Paul served as evidence of this practice of love and a bonded perfection. Winthrop argued that this love “Cometh of God and every one that loveth is born of God, so that this love is the fruit of new birth, and none have it but the new creature.” In other words, this type of Christian loves came from conversion and election. Christians exercised this love outwardly through giving, lending, and forgiving. They also practiced it inwardly when they recognized their resemblance to other Christians: “the ground of love is an apprehension of some resemblance in the things loved to that which affects it.” This inward love was like the love a mother felt toward her child. She “conceives a resemblance of herself in it.” Christian love was reciprocal, pleasurable, and married members of the body to one another. This kind of love was real among Christians and necessary to the being of the body of Christ. This love was also divine in that it brought members nearer to God. The presence of this love rested in the love and welfare of the beloved community members.

Winthrop concluded by explaining what this love meant for the Christians travelling to New England. This love was important, first, because “We are a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ.” Winthrop recognized that in New England many of these settlers would be separated by long distances and trials. The people needed to be bonded by love and “live in the exercise of it, if we would have comfort of our being in Christ.” Without the recognition of Christian love they might forget to love one another and the community. Second, the settlers needed to apply this love because they were seeking out “a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical.” This kind of government required a love that recognized the community above the individual. Christian love promoted and supported the Christian community over individual Christians. Third, this love ensured that the end of the community would be to serve the Lord, seek salvation, and make the world a better place in Christ. Fourth, this kind of love, when professed and practiced, was the means for reforming the Church of England. According to Winthrop:

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.  

The practice of Christian love set these Christians apart from their English counterparts. Particularly, Winthrop advised that 1) New England Christians must recognize their marriage to one another in Christ; 2) only those who practiced Christian love would experience election; 3) this Christian community had been given a “special commission” by God “to have it strictly observed in every article.”

This special commission was a covenant made with God. God allowed these Christians to “draw our own articles,” or rules for governance. In doing so, these Christians asked God for his favor and blessing. They would see evidence and God’s support of this covenant, if they landed in New England. According to Winthrop, “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 we will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it.” If New England Christian did not live up to these articles and Christian love, they would be punished by God. If they failed “to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal desires, seeking great things for ourselves and posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the prices of the breach of such a covenant.” New England Christians could avoid God’s wrath, if they practiced justice and mercy, walked with God, worked together as one body, promoted Christian love, and put the community above individuals.

In the last pages, Winthrop defined the goal and meaning of the community. If New England Christians practiced Christian love, they would succeed in their commission. Winthrop promised his listeners: “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.’” In other words, the Puritans could recognize their success when posterity remembered the Christians of New England. This was the point of travelling to New England. Puritans did not travel to New England to start their own religion or to start their own country. They did not flee to New England to break ties with Christians of the Church of England. Rather, Winthrop called these Christians to be models, for the community to be city upon a hill:

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 going.

The New England Christians had been commissioned by God to be a model for other Christians. If they failed, they failed God. If they failed, Christianity failed. The lives of the settlers and the existence of Christianity depended on their practice of Christian love. Winthrop closed with this prayer:

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.

The New England community would ignite the reform of Christianity. Settlers to New England hoped that their community would be a model community for other Christians in the Church of England.



Full text of John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630) from: http://winthropsociety.com/doc_charity.php.

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