by Governor John Winthrop
Winthrop gave this sermon aboard the Arabella, the ship upon which the Puritan community arrived in New England. Winthrop served as both spiritual and political leader of the community. In this sermon he prepared the people for the hardships ahead of them, with a promise of blessings and rewards so long as the lived in the spirit of charity and moral decency. This sermon is one of the most important in American history and, according to some, introduces the theme of American exceptionalism.
The important theme here is that of a covenant, and unbreakable bond between God and his chosen people. Part of the covenant is that it places demands on both parties. In the Old Testament, these demands carried with them duties (care for the widowed and orphaned, love God above all, and so forth) as well as the promise of being blessed if the community fulfilled the terms of the covenant and would be cursed if they failed to do so. The second part of the terms led to the development of the Jeremiad, sermons or writings that explained historical events as punishments for not upholding the covenant. A well-known example of this is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.
The covenantal idea is a very strong one in American history, and begs certain theological questions about the authority of the Old Testament and why God would see it necessary to work out the plan of salvation through an historical people. Contemporary readers might be surprised by some of the strictures of these early American settlers, but that’s mainly because we tend to see religious freedom as an individual right while they tended to see it as a communal one.
The speech has met with additional controversy in our current world, some claiming that it is evidence of America’s Christian founding while others argue that the speech was both particular in nature and subsequently surpassed. It’s most famous borrowing of a scriptural metaphor (the city on the hill) was mostly dormant until taken up again by Ronald Reagan.
The speech begins by clearly laying out a theological foundation:
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 submission….
Debt forgiveness was a common practice in colonial America. This was in part because of the tenuousness of agrarian life, where farmers might not bring in crops through no fault of their own. Puritan leaders distinguished between the deserving poor and the indolent, with charity being properly extended to the former.
Lastly, when there is no other means whereby our Christian brother may be relieved in his distress, we must help him beyond our ability rather than tempt God in putting him upon help by miraculous or extraordinary means. This duty of mercy is exercised in the kinds: giving, lending and forgiving (of a debt)…
Any political community must stipulate and ritually strengthen its principle of unity. For example, a sense of “patriotism” might be a way of overcoming other differences. For the Puritans, however, the only enduring principle of unity was a common commitment to faith in Christ as known in the Christian scriptures. Winthrop draws an analogy between the relationship of Christ to the church – the church as the body of Christ – and the Puritan community as an ecclesial polity. Christian love alone can hold a community together.
The definition which the Scripture gives us of love is this: Love is the bond of perfection. First it is a bond or ligament. Secondly, it makes the work perfect. There is no body but consists of parts and that which knits these parts together, gives the body its perfection, because it makes each part so contiguous to others as thereby they do mutually participate with each other, both in strength and infirmity, in pleasure and pain. To instance in the most perfect of all bodies: Christ and his Church make one body. The several parts of this body considered a part before they were united, were as disproportionate and as much disordering as so many contrary qualities or elements, but when Christ comes, and by his spirit and love knits all these parts to himself and each to other, it is become the most perfect and best proportioned body in the world (Eph. 4:15-16). Christ, by whom all the body being knit together by every joint for the furniture thereof, according to the effectual power which is in the measure of every perfection of parts, a glorious body without spot or wrinkle; the ligaments hereof being Christ, or his love, for Christ is love (1 John 4:8). So this definition is right. Love is the bond of perfection.
“Government both civil and ecclesiastical.” This principle of uniting sacred and secular authority had a long history, and was a common principle of Calvinism. All authority, the thinking goes, is given by God, so whether civil or ecclesial authority is dependent on and accountable to God, and included the proper care of people’s souls.
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, if we would have comfort of our being in Christ…
Secondly for the work we have in hand. It is by a mutual consent, through a special overvaluing providence and a more than an 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. In such cases as this, the care of the public must oversway all private respects, by which, not only conscience, but mere civil policy, doth bind us. For it is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.
Thirdly, the end is to improve our lives to do more service to the Lord…
“I will be your God, you will be my people.” The covenant is offered by God, and once in place cannot be broken. It is held together by a series of commands enforced by rewards and punishments. Winthrop reminds the people that if they live faithfully according to God’s law they will prosper, but if they disobey God will punish them.
Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. We have professed to enterprise these and those accounts, upon these and those ends. We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it; but if we shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends we have propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.
Winthrop then advances to his famous passage about the blessings that obedience would bring. This paragraph stands not only as the single greatest exposition of the covenantal idea in America – an idea that endures to the present day – but also introduces into our discourse the idea of the political community as singular and united which, when acknowledging God’s law, would be a model for other settlements. The metaphor of “the city on a hill” comes from the book of Matthew, and has a long and interesting history in American life, most famously resurrected by Ronald Reagan who used it to identify America’s favored status in the midst of the cold war.
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when 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." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
- How has the idea of a covenant persisted in American history? How has it been taken up again at critical moments?
- Would someone such as Winthrop thought it ridiculous to think that Hurricane Katrina was punishment for sinfulness? Why are we inclined to think there is no connection?
- What do speeches such as this tell us about the importance of religion in forming the American experiment? Is our notion of “separation of church and state” too simplistic?