Monday, November 26, 2012

The Puritan Vision

In our continuing historical diversion . . .

In most ambitious colonization effort to date, eleven ships carrying over 700 English Puritans arrived in Massachusetts on 12 June 1630. The flagship Arbella carried the leader of the project, Governor John Winthrop. Prior to coming ashore, Winthrop read a sermon he wrote entitled “A Model of Christian Charity.” It laid out his vision for a Christian commonwealth.

He opened the sermon with his recognition of the traditional hierarchical social order that in his view rested on God's providence:

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.”

God did this for three main reasons.

First, the show the glory of his wisdom, power, and greatness to all his creatures in ordering society for the good of the whole.

Second, to show the workings of his Spirit in restraining the wicked--so that the rich would not consumer the poor and the poor would not revolt against the rich—and in showing grace to the regenerate—so that the rich would show love, mercy, and gentleness and the poor would exhibit faith and obedience.

Finally, to show that every man needs others.

Much of rest of the sermon developed these three points in an exhortation of the settlers to show Christian love and unity in their support of the common good.

The most memorable phrase from this largely forgotten sermon was Winthrop's call to be a “city on a hill,” a reference to the declaration of Jesus that his followers were “the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

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. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God's sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”

As a future post will show, the Puritan vision of “a city on a hill” faded with time. Later generations of American politicians appropriated the phrase and applied it in a secular fashion to America's mission in the world on behalf of freedom and democracy.

And for unfortunately for some, even if that means war.

Governor John Winthrop

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