City on a Hill
The vision shared by the Puritans is most easily understood by delving into John Winthrop’s speech, “A Model of Christian Charity.”
Jamestown was flourishing and the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth, but settlement continued as the stories of rich land, new beginnings, and unlimited possibilities spread.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony, the largest English settlement, would be established less than a decade later by the Puritans, a religious sect that desired to purify the policies and practices of the Anglican Church of the remaining Catholic influences. Since the King of England served as the spiritual and political leader of the nation and the church, the Puritans found themselves in conflict with their King, much as the Pilgrim Separatists had.
To understand the Puritans and their desire for a new life apart from the influences of the Anglican Church requires a brief history lesson — my favorite part of any day.
When King James I died in March 1625, his son was coronated as Charles I, King of England and Scotland. Charles, while much more disciplined and reserved than his father, believed in the importance of a hierarchal church structure with the King as the head of the Anglican Church, assisted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the divine right of kings as absolutist rulers. Additionally, Charles envisioned the creation of a “United Kingdom” of England and Scotland. Charles was well-educated and had developed a love of order, ritual, and “place” that was designed to eliminate the chaos he had experienced during his youth. While we might today celebrate that sense of order and control, it would put Charles in conflict with the English Parliament, the Puritans, and other minority religious sects.
Why? Charles was Protestant but he differed with the Calvinist-influenced believers; where he embraced ornate rituals and a worship based on order, the Puritans desired simplicity. Charles believed that the role of bishops and church leaders was foundational to the church while the Puritans desired local control. Puritans believed in predestination in contrast to the Anglican Church, which taught that the individual could “choose” to follow God. And, for Charles, the growing influence of the Puritans threatened the stability of the English throne and its strong centralized control of government.
It was a situation ripe for open conflict.
Could he not just ignore their demands? No.
The Puritans were often rich and politically powerful individuals who had gained influence in the House of Commons during James I’s reign and were poised to challenge Charles on every major action. Some Puritans were also members of the House of Lords since King James, in a search for additional funds to support his lifestyle, had sold “peerages,” titles that included a seat in the House of Lords.
While many Puritans would remain in England to challenge Charles I’s authority — think Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads — others would immigrate to the New World, establishing the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By 1630, more than 700 colonists had arrived, led by Puritan lawyer John Winthrop.
The vision shared by the Puritans is most easily understood by delving into Winthrop’s most famous speech, “A Model of Christian Charity,” delivered before departure from England, so we’ll begin with his words.
Winthrop, standing in the pulpit in Holyrood Church, Southampton, opened his message with, “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.”
As he continued, Winthrop emphasized the role of stewardship, explaining that God bestowed bountiful blessings on man and that those “gifts” were to be distributed by “man to man” while the “Spirit” would be among the believers to restrain evil and to enable wealth individuals to show “love, mercy, gentleness” while the poor would be granted “faith, patience and obedience.” He was clear in his message that wealth was not given for one’s own benefit but “for the glory of his Creator and the common good of the creation, Man.”
What rules did Winthrop give for the new community that would be established by the believers?
God’s expectations were simple — “two rules whereby we are to walk one towards another: Justice and Mercy”; “if thou lovest God thou must help” thy brother. In his words, “So it is in all the labors of love among Christians, the party loving, reaps love again.” With love as the central theme of the new society — demonstrated through the dual practice of justice and mercy — the Puritans would create a place where they could work together to create a civil and ecclesiastical government that would mirror God’s word written in Micah: “to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.”
Winthrop’s sermon concluded with perhaps the most famous words associated with the colony. “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us … 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 the people are upon us.”
In this season of faith and charity, the Puritans’ goals of justice and mercy — their vision of a “city upon a hill” — speak to us as Americans.
We’ll return next week to examine their arrival and the development of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Would the new community reflect the vision?
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