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Kimberly Hayes

Professor Evans

ENG 231

March 1, 2009

Puritan Ideals in Modern America:

The Lasting Influence of John Winthrop as seen in

A Model of Christian Charity

Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s most noted historical figures, incorporated the

following famous quote in The Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-

evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain

unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This well-

known sentiment represents American ideals that have stood the ultimate test of time. Many

believe that the basic notions of American equality and freedom began with the brave men who

wrote that important document. However, the ideals of the country America did not originate in

1776. Years before the Declaration of Independence was penned, a diverse group of Puritans

sailed to the American coast, seeking to establish a democratic nation. It was on that journey that

John Winthrop delivered one of the most famous sermons in history, A Model of Christian

Charity. While this address may not be nearly as legendary as the Declaration of Independence

or the United States Constitution, the ideas and mandates that it outlines have been evident

throughout US history and still resonate in American government today. Winthrop's A Model of

Christian Charity serves as examples of American exceptionalism, charity, and communalism

that have actually been present in our culture for centuries; therefore the sermon itself can be
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easily seen as an influential part of the foundation of American society and has likewise been

cited by countless politicians through the years.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines exceptionalism as “the condition of being

exceptional or unique; the theory or belief that something, especially a nation, does not conform

to a pattern or norm.” Winthrop demonstrates his own exceptionalistic view as he nears the

close of his sermon, when he says of the colony the Puritans are to establish “for we must

consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us” (109).

Winthrop believed that he and the colonists had been entrusted with a holy mission from God

and that their actions would be closely scrutinized by the rest of the world. This attitude of

superiority sparked the beginnings of American exceptionalism. In his article “The Power and

the Glory: Myths of American exceptionalism,” Howard Zinn suggests that Americans entertain

the exceptionalistic view that only they have the right to bring liberty and democracy to the rest

of the world, and that this belief has endured in the centuries since Winthrop’s sermon (para. 1).

The assertion that the United States is a “city upon a hill” is one that has been echoed by

numerous politicians and leaders since the birth of the country. In “Remembering John Winthrop

– Hawthorne’s Suggestion,” Matthew Holland tells us that “Winthrop's name and rhetoric have

been explicitly appropriated by major political leaders from John Adams to Bill Clinton,

including almost every president and major presidential aspirant since John F. Kennedy” (4).

Another example of exceptionalism seen in Winthrop's “Model” speech is that of

manifest destiny, or the belief that they had a religious duty to build a sustainable society to be

emulated throughout the world. An example of his spiritual vision is reflected when Winthrop

states “God of Israel is among us . . . 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'” (109). Subsequent
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leaders in American history have used this sort of exceptionalism to justify war and expansion,

and some have even invoked God to legitimize their actions (Zinn para. 6). Winthrop, for his

part, saw the colonization in itself as the fulfillment of a covenant with God that had been made

exclusively with his chosen people the Puritans. We see this underlying thread in the sermon as

he describes all that they must do to satisfy the divine contract, and the grave consequences they

will be subjected to if they do not adequately fulfill their holy mission. Winthrop's tone shifts

from a flamboyant one when describing the success of the colony to one that is fear-inspiring

when discussing the wrath God will inflict upon them if they fail. All of these different

components of Winthrop's sermon serve to impress upon his audience an increased sense of

pride, accomplishment, and divine self-importance.

The notion of charity in Winthrop's sermon is suggested in its very title and may well be

the most crucial element of his speech. He was speaking of charity in terms of “agape,” which is

depicted in the New Testament as the highest form of love (Holland Chris.). Ivy Schweitzer tells

us in "John's Winthrop's ‘Model’ of American Affiliation" that this special type of love was

referred to as “Christian brotherhood or fellowship” by the early church fathers, and Winthrop

relies heavily on Paul's first letter to the Corinthians as it is documented in the Bible to

emphasize the “common source” for this kind of love (para. 4-5). There is much historical

evidence that Biblical charity is still quite an essential ideal in modern American politics, as it

has been for centuries, and as it certainly was for those earliest Puritan settlers (Holland Chris.).

Winthrop begins his lecture by claiming that it is the sovereign will of God that there should

always be persons who are rich and poor, powerful and submissive. He believes that God intends

this balance to test His people – if everyone were equally wealthy, there would be no poor people

to whom they could give. He impresses upon his fellow colonists that God has designed the
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world this way so that “the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor, nor the poor and despised

rise up against and shake off their yoke” (Winthrop 99). Charity, he asserts, is vital to the

successful establishment and prosperity of a tightly knit community, because it spurns

relationships between givers and receivers alike and promotes the image of people helping

people.

In his article Story Time, Robert Reich equates Winthrop's sense of charity to the term

“benevolent community” (para. 4). This benevolent community, Reich says, is made up of

“neighbors and friends who roll up their sleeves and pitch in for the common good” (para. 4).

Reich further suggests that this idea of Benevolent Community is illustrated by the Social

Security Act, in which all Americans share the financial risk of unemployment and of “retiring

without adequate savings” (Reich para. 13). Throughout A Model of Christian Charity, Winthrop

discusses various ways in which a Christian may be charitable. He says that charity can be

readily shown by giving material things to those who need them, forgiving a debt that is owed,

and offering unconditional love to others. This general theme of friendship is non-

discriminatory; in other words, Winthrop believed that God intended them to show compassion

to all men equally. To stress this point, he quotes the scripture from Matthew 5:44: “Love your

enemies…Do good to them that hate you.” Winthrop's vision of the world as a chosen Christian

fulfilling a sacred mission of God as depicted in his sermon revolved around the intention of

showing charity to all as a model for the entire world to watch and follow. He was personally an

advocate of peace throughout his life, personifying his assertion in the pivotal “Model” speech

that “There are two rules whereby we are to walk one towards another: Justice and Mercy.”

The concept of communalism, defined as a type of cooperative society that puts the

interests of the total community above those of the individual, is further addressed in Winthrop's
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sermon A Model of Christian Charity. In spite of the fact that he believed it was God's intent for

there to always remain an imbalance of wealth among the people, he clearly felt that as

Christians, he and his people had a responsibility to do all that was in their power to remedy that

situation. Likewise, examination of American history reveals this idea. Communalism is a

practice that has historically been implemented by U.S. Leaders in response to various types of

national crisis and can be readily seen in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, Harry S.

Truman's Fair Deal, John F. Kennedy's New Frontier, and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society

(Reich para. 13-14). An example of communalism in today's America is evidenced by the current

implementation of President Barack Obama's Bailout Plan, introduced to help Americans and

American businesses overcome the recent economic crisis. These policies, all designed to assist

the American community as a whole, share several similarities with the mandates laid down by

Winthrop in his sermon. While the reasoning and basis for these ideals may differ, they are quite

alike in essentials. To emphasize this idea of communalism, Winthrop suggests in his sermon

that in times of crisis, the colonists should seek “more enlargement towards others and less

respect towards ourselves and our own right” and also that “We must be willing to abridge

ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others' necessities”. Similarly, he says “For it is a

true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public” (Winthrop). His ultimate

vision was that of a vibrant community filled with citizens who worked together so that the entire

colony would succeed in becoming the ideal “city upon a hill” that he hoped the world would

strive to emulate. He knew that their colony had to flourish in order for others to follow their

example. In looking at the colony's actual progress, we see that Winthrop was a man who

practiced what he preached. Matthew Holland sums up this idea well in “Remembering John

Winthrop: Hawthorne’s Suggestion” when he writes:


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Winthrop's stand was more than rhetorical. On his watch, considerable care was

rendered to the poor. For those unable to support themselves in that somewhat infertile,

hostile wilderness, a solid mix of public and private support was provided even when the

colony was highly impoverished.” (7)

The guiding principles outlined in A Model of Christian Charity show that Winthrop

sought to form a united communalistic society reflective of Christian love. He believed that the

manifestation of such charity was essential “for the preservation and good of the whole.” “We

must bear one another's burdens,” he says. “We must not look only on our own things, but also

on the things of our brethren” (Winthrop). This common thread of communalism persists still

today and is an intrinsic component of freedom and prosperity; essentially, the American dream.

A Model of Christian Charity sets forth principles that have been successfully used in American

government and politics for centuries. The oppression of the Puritans and their courageous move

to build a new life in a strange unknown world serves as an ongoing inspiration to all American

people. Winthrop intended for his sermon to inspire the colonists to strive for a common goal of

ultimate Christian unity. The original inhabitants of the Massachusetts Bay Colony represented a

mixed collection of people who were commonly united by the mere fact that they opposed the

Church of England. Likewise, the United States is made up of citizens with all sorts of

contrasting backgrounds that share the common desire for a free and democratic nation. In his

speech, Winthrop uses the commonalities among the population to unite them in their quest,

making the point that although in England they “were absent from each other many miles, and

had our employments as far distant” they are all devoted to God and therefore united in Christian

love (Winthrop). When John Winthrop gave his maiden speech to those early Puritan colonists

so long ago, he probably never envisioned that he was laying the conceptual foundations for an
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entire country of free men and women that make up today's America. His ideas of

exceptionalism, charity, and communalism have persisted throughout the entire history of

America and are still practiced, to some degree, in modern society. Matthew Holland’s article

further asserts that regardless of what one may think of the “supporting religious framework and

demands of Winthrop's concept of love, the result is a quite compelling vision of community”

(Rem. 5). Winthrop's philosophies have traveled through the centuries and have prevailed again

and again in the United States of America. A Model of Christian Charity is truly a literary

cornerstone for this unified country of equality and freedom for all. As Peter Gomes states in his

abstract of “Best Sermon; A Pilgrim’s Progress”, this speech represents “perhaps the most

enduring metaphor of the American experience – that of the exemplary nation called to virtue

and mutual support.”


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Works Cited

“Exceptionalism.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. 2000.

Netlibrary. Wake Technical Community College Lib., Raleigh. 27 Feb. 2009.

<http://nclive.org>.

Holland, Matthew S. "Christian Love and the Foundations of American Politics:

Winthrop, Jefferson and Lincoln." Conference Papers -- New England Political

Science Association. Jan. 2004: 1-27. Academic Search Premier.

EBSCOhost. Wake Technical Community College Lib., Raleigh. 22 Feb. 2009

<http://www.nclive.org>

Holland, Matthew S. "Remembering John Winthrop---Hawthorne's Suggestion."

Perspectives on Political Science. 36.1 (2007): 4-14. Academic

Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Wake Technical Community College Lib., Raleigh.

22 Feb. 2009. <http://www.nclive.org>.

Peter J. Gomes. "Best Sermon; A Pilgrim's Progress." New York Times Magazine. 18

Apr. 1999: 102. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Wake Technical

Community College Lib., Raleigh. 22 Feb. 2009. <http://www.nclive.org>.

Schweitzer, Ivy. "John's Winthrop's "Model" of American Affiliation." Early American

Literature 40.3 (2005): 441-469. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost.

Wake Technical Community College Lib., Raleigh. 22 Feb. 2009.

<http://www.nclive.org>.

.Reich, Robert B. "Story Time. (Cover story)." New Republic 232.11/12 (2005):

16-19. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Wake Technical Community

College Lib., Raleigh. 22 Feb. 2009. <http://www.nclive.org>.


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Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity” Anthology of American Literature. 9th ed. Ed.

George McMichael. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. 98-109.

.Zinn, Howard. "The Power and the Glory: Myths of American exceptionalism." Boston

Review, 2005: 20-22. Literary Reference Center. EBSCOhost. Wake Technical

Community College Lib., Raleigh. 22 Feb. 2009. <http://www.nclive.org>.

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