Winthrop, John

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One of the interesting issues that we might consider is the role of faith in American literature until 1870 or so. In John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," how does faith play a role in the literary construction of identity? What is the author's attitude toward faith and institutions of faith? How does religion or spirituality enable the author to either support or call into question (or better yet, both) some part of the status quo?

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In Winthrop's sermon, Christian faith is the foundation of identity. The people of God on board the Arabella are knit together as different parts of the one body of Christ. However, individuals do have separate identities and a social hierarchy exists. Winthrop says at the start:

God Almighty in his most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection.

These distinctions should not separate people, but, on the contrary, bring them closer together. God, says Winthrop, chose not to directly help the poor himself. Instead, the rich, after providing for their own families, must aid the less fortunate to demonstrate more fully God's love and compassion as spread through human acts. This merciful behavior will build the community into a stronger force through developing bonds of mutuality, such that:

...Every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.

The rich should remember that one day they might be poor and themselves in need of help. The rich should show mercy to the poor and the poor gratitude to the rich.

Love is the glue that binds the community together as one. "This love among Christians is a real thing, not imaginary," Winthrop says, and essential to the body politic.

This spirituality enables the author to maintain a status quo in which some people have wealth and privilege and some don't by insisting this hierarchy is ordained by God and is for the common good. Winthrop is no leveler or social radical. We can see in this sermon why, for example, the Quakers, with their notions of radical equality, would not be welcome in his new community. At the same time, this sermon, with its emphasis on American exceptionalism, on the Massachusetts Bay Colony as the "city on the hill" that the world is watching, critiques the European status quo, in which hierarchy lacks love and in which the "ligaments" of the body are not properly held together by the compassion he hopes will characterize the new world. 

Winthrop's literary construction of an identity built on exceptionalism continues to resonate in the American psyche.

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