Jonathan Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity"
March 16, 2023
In recent days, I have begun reading John Barry's book, "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty."
Although published in 2012, Barry tells the story of how the Puritans chose to leave old England to build a plantation on the rocky New England coast of Massachusetts.
In England, the Puritans wanted to purify and simplify their church. Hence, the title of Puritans. They wanted a rustic sanctuary, without stained glass windows and gaudy artwork. Also, they wanted the Anglican clerics to dress without cassock, cap, or gown.
King James I, his son Charles I, and Charles's archbishop William Laud disagreed. Laud and his henchmen hunted the Puritans down, jailed them, and even tortured them. For these Puritans, exile to North American represented a better choice.
The Puritans formed a corporation, the Massachusetts Bay Company, for the purpose of planning for and constructing a plantation in New England.
On March 4, 1629, King Charles granted the company a royal charter. That same summer the company sent an advance party of five ships carrying 350 settlers to Salem.
In October of 1629, the Massachusetts Bay Company's stockholders voted to elect Jonathan Winthrop as the corporation's governor. He fixed a future date of March 1, 1630, for his and his one thousand fellow Puritans' departure from England.
The planning was monumental. Barry wrote, "It was an immense task, suffocating in detail." Winthrop hired a fleet of eleven ships, including his ship, the "Arabela."
Winthrop ordered "14,700 brown biscuits, 5300 white biscuits, 30 hogsheads of beef, 6 hogsheads of pork, 200 tongues; a number of kettles, pans, ladles, ploughs, hoes, and seeds; plus cattle, horses, dogs, goats, pigs, sheep; muskets, pikes, drums, and colors."
"Everything England society had, New England needed."
About March 1, people began arriving in Southampton, a port city. Most planned to sail to America, but friends and family members showed up to bid them good-bye. They knew that once they boarded a ship, they may not return, and never see England again.
To this host of people, in mid-March, first the Reverend John Cotton preached on 2 Samuel 7:10, and then nearly the same day, Governor Jonathon Winthrop delivered a sermon that he entitled, "A Modell of Christian Charitie."
Winthrop insisted that the Puritans love one another. To them, he said, "We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together." He expected them to practice justice and mercy.
But Winthrop's most often quoted phrase contained the words, "for we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us."
On January 9, 1961, President-elect John F. Kennedy said, "I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship 'Arabela' 351 years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier."
On November 3, 1980, before the election, Ronald Reagan said, "I have quoted John Winthrop's words more than once on the campaign trail, for I believe that Americans in 1980 see that vision of a shining city on a hill, as did those long-ago settlers."
In 2006, Barack Obama mentioned Winthrop's speech in a commencement address.
In 1999, the "New York Times Magazine" asked Peter J. Gomes, a Harvard preacher, to select the best sermon of the previous millennium, and he chose Winthrop's sermon.
Gomes called it "the most enduring metaphor of the American experience, that of the exemplary nation called to virtue and mutual support."
Some would agree that America represents the best that the world offers, and that others watch us and follow our lead. Right or wrong, Winthrop's sermon created an ideal that Americans ever since have tried to practice.
Readers, you can find the archives of previous columns at williamhbenson.com.