A Model of Christian Charity

by John Winthrop

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What is the textual summary and analysis of A Model of Christian Charity?

Winthrop's A Model of Christian Charity is structured as a logical argument rooted in Christian ethics. It envisions a model community that will put love and caring ahead of greed and self interest. The essay is most famous today for asserting that America is "a city upon a hill," an exceptional experiment that all eyes are watching.

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In "A Model of Christian Charity," John Winthrop, a main figure of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, discusses the best ideals and philosophy for their new colony in what would come to be known as the United States of America.

How does Winthrop start off his vision? He begins with money.

In all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission,

says Winthrop.

According to Winthrop, the above distribution is up to God. It should not be questioned much further. As Winthrop says,

The rich and mighty should not eat up the poor, nor the poor and despised rise up against their superiors and shake off their yoke.

Winthrop's thoughts about the rich and the poor are quite relevant today. Now, we might call it "income inequality." You might want to see how Winthorp's ideas align and deviate from how powerful people today account for the gap between the rich and the poor.

Winthrop's attempt to justify the existence of rich people and poor people does not preclude solidarity. As Winthrop tells us (and the impending colonists),

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

This, too, connects to modern trends. Think about how well-off corporations (and the people they're composed of) support Black Lives Matter and various LGBTQ movements. Is this an example of Winthrop's "brotherly affection" or is it something more sinister and calculating?

Winthrop then goes on to talk about the importance of giving, lending, and love. According to Winthrop, "Love makes the world perfect."

He then encourages his fellow colonizers to see themselves as a "city upon a hill" with "the eyes of all people" watching them.

Again, it'd be fascinating to analyze Winthrop's speech by talking about how it links to current topics.

Think about how much emphasis people put on the word “love” with slogans like "Love Wins" and "Love Trumps Hate."

Also, you might analyze the pros and cons of Americans still seeing themselves as "city upon a hill." Do Americans still place themselves on a pedestal? Do they still feel like they have to set an example for the rest of the world? Why?

If you go this route, you might want to talk about race. It was an issue in Winthrop's time, as the White settlers fought against the indigenous people whose land they were seizing. Of course, race continues to be an issue, not just with indigenous people, but with all people of color.

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Winthrop wrote "A Model of Christian Charity" onboard the Arabella in 1630 as the ship full of colonists approached the New World. The essay is structured as a rational argument rooted in Christian ethics explaining how the colonists should behave as a community when they arrive on shore. It puts forth propositions, asks questions, answers them, and raises and answers theoretical objections, all to create what Winthrop believed was a rational argument for the creation of a humane and just society.

The essay calls on the members of the community to form a social hierarchy (Winthrop is not a leveler or democrat), but in such a way that compassion rather than greed is at the forefront of the social order. He envisions a society in which the needs of others are attended to in a spirit of Christian love and put ahead of personal gain. Although based in rationalism, Winthrop's emotional fervor shines through the essay, animating it.

The essay is most famous for proposing what has become for many an ingrained part of the American psyche, the concept that America is an exceptional, God-given opportunity to make a better world. He uses the now famous image of the city on the hill, writing,

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

This idea that "America," meaning primarily the White, English colonization of North America, is a divinely appointed experiment, and that all eyes are watching to see how it unfolds, has driven Americans for many generations to try to live up to higher ideals than their European counterparts, so as to provide a light and a path to the rest of the world. While America has never achieved Winthrop's ideal, this foundational mythology is an important part of the United States' cultural identity.

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In 1630, John Winthrop delivered this sermon to the colonists aboard the flagship of the flotilla that was bringing them to New England.  It served to define the expected religious virtues that would epitomize the new colony.

He used scripture to support the basic notion that all men were equal in the sight of God, and must treat each other with equality, respect, and honesty.  One’s station in life should not influence the way one interacted with their fellow man. It mattered not whether you occupied a “lowly” station or a “lofty” one; all were created in God’s image and put here to fulfill their work at their station in life.

Those that had the luxury of material goods were obligated to help the less fortunate. This was to be carried out as an act of love and caring, not one of lording over and to induce a sense of obligation from those in need of help.

Following his reasoning would ensure that the tyranny of their former lives would be left behind as they set forth to foster a more caring society in this New World.

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