Winthrop, John Insights

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Analysis of “A Model of Christian Charity” by John Winthrop

In 1629, fed up with the prejudices and restrictions against Puritans in England, John Winthrop and other like-minded individuals decided to seek religious liberty in the New World. Winthrop was elemental in penning the charter and conducting negotiations with the Massachusetts Bay Company, the organization that would fund travel for the Puritans.

To help keep the purpose of the journey alive during the hardships of the voyage, Winthrop composed “A Model of Christian Charity” aboard the “Arabella” in 1630. He wanted to impress on his audience that, unlike the Puritans who had settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, this group of Christians did not wish to be separate from the church; they wanted to reform the church from within. Additionally, Winthrop’s group thought that their pending settlement was part of a covenant with God, who wanted his followers to serve as a pious example to the outside world. Famously, Winthrop exhorted his followers to be as a “city upon a hill,” a light that would guide others to God.

For Winthrop, the connection between the community and individual behavior was completely intertwined. He writes, “First, for the persons. We are a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ, in which respect only, though we were absent from each other many miles, and had our employments as far distant, yet we ought to account ourselves knit together by this bond of love and live in the exercise of it.”

He explains how this group must form a cohesive government—specifically, a theocracy. “Secondly for the work we have in hand. It is by a mutual consent, through a special overvaluing providence and a more than ordinary approbation of the churches of Christ, to seek out a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical,” Winthrop argues.

The words Winthrop most often uses to show this correlation between the individual and the community include

  • "Conformity”: To hold conformity with the rest of His world, being delighted to show forth the glory of his wisdom in the variety and difference of the creatures, and the glory of His power in ordering all these differences for the preservation and good of the whole, and the glory of His greatness, that as it is the glory of princes to have many officers, so this great king will have many stewards, counting himself more honored in dispensing his gifts to man by man, than if he did it by his own immediate hands.

  • “Things of our brethren”: We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on our brethren's.

  • “Bond of marriage”: In regard to the more near bond of marriage between Him and us, wherein He hath taken us to be His, after a most strict and peculiar manner, which will make Him the more jealous of our love and obedience. So He tells the people of Israel, you only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore will I punish you for your transgressions.

  • “Obedience”: For patterns we have that first of our Savior who, out of his good will in obedience to his father, becoming a part of this body and being knit with it in the bond of love, found such a native sensitivity of our infirmities and sorrows as he willingly yielded himself to death to ease the infirmities of the rest of his body, and so healed their sorrows.

  • “Sacrifices”: Because the Lord will be sanctified in them that come near Him. We know that there were many that corrupted the service of the Lord; some setting up altars before his own; others offering both strange fire and strange sacrifices also; yet there came no fire from heaven, or other sudden judgment upon them, as did upon Nadab and Abihu, whom yet we may think did not sin presumptuously.

  • “Knit together”: The only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man.

  • “Members of the same body”: We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; and rejoice, mourn, and labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.