23 September 2012

A Model of Christian Charity in the Classroom

This semester in the US to 1877 class that I am teaching, I have been utilizing a variety of primary sources to give students a better understanding of the way the world worked in the early days of European settlement in the Americas. Prior to last week, I've had students look at Richard Hakluyt's "Discourse on Western Planting," some of the diary of Christopher Columbus, and some of John Smith's diary from the early days of Jamestown.

This past week, I utilized an excerpt from John Winthrop's "Model of Christian Charity," a sermon that he utilized before the Puritans disembarked in what would become Massachusetts Bay Colony. Many people, among them Ronald Reagan, have utilized the sermon as the beginning of the idea of American exceptionalism. This is the first use in the British colonies of the phraseology of a "city upon a hill." This was one of the sections that I used in class.

John Winthrop, via Wikimedia Commons

Perry Miller pointed out that this "Errand into the Wilderness" was very much intended to shed the light to Europe as to what a proper Christian commonwealth (note the term commonwealth--it was used extensively at the time) should look like. Winthrop's sermon pointed out the importance of a covenant between both the community and God and the community and each other. One of the important thoughts about the community is found in the following statement: "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)." It is important to remember that this was in the idea of church AND state helping, because they were so interconnected at the time.

The early Puritans get a bad rap for being grubby materialists by some historians, especially those of the Marxist variety. The ideal represented in this sermon was never completely achieved--note the jeremiads of the next generation--but the idea nonetheless shows that there was an ideal of looking out for the good of those in the community, even if it did not benefit an individual. The Puritans were frequently among the leading merchants of the day and they continued this activity in the New World, but this primary source contrasts the popular conception and reality of much of American history, even of that which occurred just a few years earlier in Virginia.

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