A Model of Christian Charity

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.

The eyes of all people are upon us.”

Summary Overview

Growing religious persecution convinced many Puritan leaders that leaving England was their only viable option in order to openly practice their beliefs. England’s claim to much of the east coast of North America presented them with an opportunity to establish a society based on those beliefs. John Winthrop had been selected leader of the first major group of settlers and during the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean on the Arbella, he set out his vision for the new colony. Although not an ordained minister, he wrote a sermon to convey these ideas to others on his ship. It contained philosophical guidelines for the rules the members would make to govern their lives. It also carried a message of the possibilities that lay ahead and a statement regarding how members were to be role models for others. The vision he had of the unique role the colony could play in history became an enduring theme in US history.

Defining Moment

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, there was a race to solidify and settle land claims in North America. With the success of the Virginia and Plymouth colonies, King Charles I of England desired to extend his nation’s claims. In 1629, a grant was given to the New England Colony, which later changed its name to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to settle and govern lands north of the Plymouth Colony and south of the settlements in what is now New Hampshire. While motivated by religion, as had been the Plymouth Colony, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a much larger group of individuals. It included many wealthy members who had extensive governmental and mercantile experience. They were much better prepared to establish a colony than had been the earlier groups.

About one thousand people sailed from England in 1630 to establish the colony. Unlike earlier colonies, this group owned its own economic and political charters, meaning that virtually all of the shareholders on the economic side of the venture were on the ships. It was to be a democracy, although it differed from some other colonies in that the right to participate in government was limited to members of the Puritan Church. Their collective vision was to establish a theocracy, where the word and spirit of God would rule the colony through decisions made by the members of the church. It was in this spirit that Winthrop wrote the sermon entitled, “A Model of Christian Charity” and presented it to the colonists while sailing to the New World.

The sermon clearly states that the colony is to be based on the religious principles of the Puritan faith. Many New England colonies were explicitly established for members of a particular church. In line with Puritan theology, Winthrop states that the colonists are to work together for the common good. This community spirit is to be patterned after their understanding of God’s love for them. Only through good works, Winthrop stresses, can tragedy be averted. Finally, Winthrop uses the biblical image of a “city upon a hill” to remind the colonists that God and the world will be watching their success or failure. In this passage he makes it clear that he believes they have a special place in the world. Although this was written more than two hundred years before the term American exceptionalism was coined in the United States, many people see a link between Winthrop’s unique colony and the role Americans have historically believed the United States plays on the global stage.

Author Biography

Born on January 22, 1588, in Suffolk, England, John Winthrop was the son of Adam and Anne Winthrop. Raised in a wealthy family, Winthrop had many educational and business opportunities open to him. He entered Trinity College at Cambridge University in early 1603, leaving in 1605 when he married his first wife, Mary Forth. For the first few years they lived with her family, after which Winthrop’s father gave him an estate in Groton, England. About that time he began studying law, although he never formally entered the profession. During this time Winthrop’s first wife died. His second wife died after a year and he married a third time. His estate seems to have done well, although he spent much of his time in London. Eventually he was appointed to work in the Court of Wards and Liveries, a lucrative operation for both the king and those who were in the upper management positions. Life was comfortable and seemed secure.

However, Charles I began to move politically and economically against those who were not a part of the Anglican Church. Prior to his ascension to the throne, the first successful Puritan colony was started at Plymouth, in what is now Massachusetts, in 1620. Thus when Charles I began to tighten religious requirements, many others considered following the example of the Plymouth Colony. In 1629 Winthrop joined the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which had gained land in 1628 and governing rights in 1629. An exploratory group was sent out at that time. Working with others to secure the necessary supplies and people, Winthrop decided to join in the first wave of emigrants in 1630. As the initial leader of the group opted to stay in England for another year, Winthrop was elected governor of the colony.

During the voyage to what is now Massachusetts, Winthrop wrote the sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” and preached it to the other settlers on his ship as they traveled across the Atlantic. The sermon set out his vision for a colony based on the strict Puritan faith. Settling in what is now Boston, the colony prospered. Winthrop was a strong governor with very rigid views on how a colony should be administered. Overall he was a successful politician; he was elected governor twelve times during the first two decades of the colony’s existence. He strongly believed that only those who rigidly followed the Puritan church should be allowed to live in the colony. Many of his political victories and losses were due to theological struggles within the colony. Winthrop died on April 5, 1649.

Document Analysis

The founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was principally a religious undertaking. It was the Puritans’ belief in God, especially the belief that God had a special mission for them, that formed the foundation for the colonists’ life in New England. Winthrop spelled out that vision of the colony in his sermon to his fellow Puritans. While Winthrop’s ideas were meant for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, specifically, phrases like “city upon a hill” have been quoted by others throughout history to describe the United States in general.

As Winthrop wrote, “the end is to improve our lives to do more service to the Lord . . . and work out our salvation under the power and purity of his holy ordinances.” This was the Puritans’ intent when they left England for the New World. As previously mentioned, pressure had been building on the Puritans to accept the teachings of the Anglican Church. Theological differences with the Anglican Church made it impossible for the Puritans to do so. They believed in a strict adherence to the Bible, and they believed that the only way they could practice their faith in better service of God was to leave England altogether.

As the leader of the Winthrop Fleet, as the group of ships was known in 1630, Winthrop needed to inspire the people for the difficult task of setting up a new life in a seemingly uncivilized wilderness. An affirmation of who they were was conveyed through his understanding of how this needed to be done. In speaking about those traveling to the New World, Winthrop wrote, “when God gives a special commission He looks to have it strictly observed in every article.” Thus the religious mission and message given to the Puritans had to be carried out. In this passage, he refers to the harsh judgment made against people in the Bible who failed to carry out their missions from God. “We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission.” Thus, Winthrop urges his fellow colonists to use the colony as a means to carry out God’s commandments.

Using biblical passages and statements based on Puritan theology, Winthrop helped develop a sense of unity among the people. The introductory paragraph was a clear reminder of the doctrine of predestination in which the Puritans believed. As mentioned toward the end of the sermon, Winthrop was certain that if the voyage was completed successfully, it would be a sign that God had predestined them to undertake the dangerous voyage to the New World.

Although a few shareholders and members of the movement had previously gone to New England to scout out the best location for the settlement, virtually all the shareholders were on the ships traveling with Winthrop. Members of the movement who had decided to wait for future sailings had given or sold their shares to those who left in 1630. This was to make it easier for quick decisions to be made on issues vital to the colony. It also ensured that no shares would pass out of the hands of church members due to unforeseen circumstances to people who were not in the church. Thus the vision for the colony would remain unchanged, except as conditions in the colony might affect it.

As is obvious from all the references to the rich and poor in the sermon, the Puritans were capitalists, not socialists. Although they accepted certain biblical commandments to have mercy on the less fortunate, this did not include a belief in total economic or political equality. The Puritans believed that God decided the circumstances of every individual’s life, including wealth or poverty.

According to Winthrop, the accumulation of fortune gives glory to God, not the expenditure of it on pleasurable things. “We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities . . . .” Wealth must be used to help those in need, if the proper situation exists. This situation occurs when a person has the resources to help one who is in need, where the only other option is divine intervention. By not helping those in need, the wealthy person could be seen to be testing God, which is something Christians are warned not to do. Thus the Puritans are called to accumulate wealth in order to serve God better, in giving to the church and in helping those in need.

According to this sermon, the church and its members are on earth only for the glory of God. While this is in line with mainstream Christian theology, Winthrop does bring the Puritan/Calvinist perspective to the situation. In his three reasons for the existence of the rich and poor, Winthrop clearly states that people are conduits for God’s love and mercy. For certain people to be willing to undertake this task increases the glory given to God. Winthrop goes on to say that with the existence of both the fortunate and the unfortunate, there are more tasks for the Holy Spirit to do, which again increases God’s glory. Finally, the differences among people help build a stronger community. In addition, those who are rich are wealthy because of God, and as such, all that they have belongs to God. Thus, under Winthrop’s theology, those who are rich more fully reflect God’s glory and are better able to be God’s faithful servants. And so a community based on charity would be one that would please God and earn success in the New World.

What Winthrop sees as two guiding lights for life in the new colony, “Justice and Mercy,” are to be combined in such a way that it leads to success, as well. Winthrop believed that justice and mercy are both required of all people. For him, one without the other is an inadequate response to the world and to the dictates of the Christian religion. It is the balancing of these considerations that forms the foundation for the way in which the colony members should work together and govern themselves. The outcome he seeks for the colony is to exceed anything in the past. He wrote, “Whatsoever we did, or ought to have done, when we lived in England, the same must we do, and more also, where we go.” Thus, Winthrop seeks perfection in the new colony.

As they moved forward in this experiment, it was clear to Winthrop that a strong government was needed. As he wrote, “For it is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.” If the individual is to not only survive but prosper, then there must be a civic organization that ensures that the proper policies are implemented. The passages of the sermon that are not printed in this text emphasize even more strongly the capitalist nature of the colony and the need for a government in total alignment with Puritan doctrine.

The end of the sermon holds its most famous passage. “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” The image of the city is taken from a passage in Matthew 5:14 in the New Testament of the Bible. This is another indication of Winthrop’s belief that there is a specific role that the colonists will play in the world, based on their relationship with God. Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, the Puritans saw themselves as a chosen people. Their government was to be “both civil and ecclesiastical.” The world would be watching them, they believed, because they had this special status and were attempting to create a new society based solely on their faith. In this sermon Winthrop is saying that success of the colony will bring glory to God. In a similar vein, failure will bring the swift judgment of God upon them.

In the following decades of American history, this passage would be applied to the United States as a whole. The related ideas regarding the role of the United States in the world, known as manifest destiny and American exceptionalism, come in part from Winthrop’s vision for his colony. Although these terms originated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the ideals they embody have been a part of American heritage at least since the period of the Revolutionary War. Manifest destiny was used as a rallying cry for the westward expansion of the United States, seen as a policy ordained by God. Winthrop believed in predestination, so the idea that God had predestined the westward expansion of the United States can be a logical continuation of this thought. American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States has a special role to play in the world, that it is exceptional among all other nations. The fact that Winthrop saw the Puritans as special people in God’s eyes was extended to the position of the entire country in the world, according to the beliefs of many Americans throughout history.

In addition to the continuation and expansion of his ideas throughout American society, Winthrop’s use of the biblical image of the city on a hill has been adopted by various politicians for their own purposes. Bridging party affiliation, the image has appealed to many politicians, both conservative and liberal, throughout the history of the United States. For example, in the second half of the twentieth century both President John F. Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan would use this image in speeches to describe a part of their vision for the United States.

Winthrop’s idea of a city on a hill, however, was more closely tied to religious principles than to secular unity. He believed that the colony would succeed only if it retained religious unity. This was one reason full citizenship was reserved for full members of the church. Only those who affirmed the teachings of the Puritan faith could remain in the colony. He warns his fellow travelers not to “deal falsely” with God, for in doing so, God would withdraw his help from the colonists.

Although Winthrop’s sermon is most famous for its image of the city upon a hill, the climax of the sermon truly occurs in the following paragraph. The closing paragraph focuses on the image of Moses’s speech to the Israelites just prior to his death and the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land, which is reflected in the drama of the Puritan immigrants about to enter the New World. In the Bible, Moses gives his people a choice: they can follow God with total obedience or face destruction. This choice is repeated by Moses’s son, Joshua, after the Israelites have settled in the Promised Land. Winthrop’s expectation was that those who were settling the colony would respond with a strong affirmation, just as the Israelites had responded to Joshua.

This is the point toward which the sermon had been building, a call to the settlers to reaffirm their faith in God and dedication to the task that lay before them. The Israelites entering the Promised Land facing overwhelming odds and an uncertain future, combined with the knowledge that the Israelites succeeded, were the two images that Winthrop wanted each person to have in his or her mind. He most certainly believed that the colonists could give glory to God through their successful occupation of a new land, just as the Israelites had done centuries earlier. For Winthrop, there was a simple correlation between the two groups. Success was assured by the colonists adhering to their faith. The Puritans saw themselves as chosen people who, just like the Israelites, were special people given an opportunity by God to give glory through the settling of a new land. “We are a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ, . . . 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.”

Records indicate that during the first year about twenty percent of those who had settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony died and another twenty percent returned to England on the ships that arrived in 1631. However, we also know that because of the strength of its religious foundation and the desire of other Puritans to leave England, the Massachusetts Colony became the dominant political and economic group in New England with more than twenty thousand immigrants during its first decade.

Essential Themes

Looking toward the challenges ahead for the members of the colony, Winthrop sought to unify them in their purpose for the journey. Although it was clear that there were economic and organizational challenges that the Puritans would have to overcome, the single purpose on which he wanted them to focus was religious purity. “We are a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ.” They were guided by “a special overvaluing providence” with the purpose “to improve our lives to do more service to the Lord;” which needed “a conformity with the work and end we aim at.” Everything outside the church, everything outside devoted service to God was for Winthrop essentially negligible. The strength of this passion to be totally dedicated, as a colony, to God’s service led colonial leaders only fifty years later to judge the colony a failure because of the compromises which they had had to make. In the short term Winthrop was successful in pushing the colonists not only to survive, but to move toward the desired goal. However, in only a few decades, there were not enough church members who met the religious requirements for citizenship, and so those called half-believers were allowed to vote and participate in colonial affairs. They had discovered that the total religious and social unity sought by Winthrop and others was not attainable.

However, Winthrop was successful in his desire to set an example before the world. The positive image of the “city upon a hill” continues to have an impact today. This does not mean that the colony was a perfect place, especially by modern societal standards. However, the vision that this group of people had a special role to play continues to excite. In the context of the United States, this idea of a special role has been enduring. In later years, whether it was by President John Adams or President Barack Obama, Winthrop’s image of the people of the United States forging a new identity has been used in speeches lifting up American ideals. Just as many believe Winthrop went too far in attempting to achieve conformity, many believe that some have gone too far in lifting up the United States as a perfect nation. However, the understanding that the colonists of the seventeenth century—or Americans today—could make a contribution to the broader world through the positive attributes of their society remains true. Winthrop’s vision stands as a testament to the human aspiration to create a better world.


  • Bremer, Francis J. John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.
  • Wood, Andrew. Summary of John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity.” Communications Department, San Jose State University, n.d. Web. 25 May 2012.

Additional Reading

  • Allen, Barbara. Tocqueville, Covenant, and the Democratic Revolution: Harmonizing Earth with Heaven. Lanham: Lexington, 2005. Print.
  • Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. 1975. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. Print.
  • Dunn, Richard S. and Laetitia Yeandle, eds. The Journal of John Winthrop 1630–49. Cambridge, Belknap P of Harvard, 1996. Print.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. 3rd ed. London: Pearson Longman, 2006. Print.
  • Northlend, William Dummer. The Bay Colony: A Civil, Religious and Social History of the Massachusetts Colony and Its Settlements from the Landing at Cape Ann in 1624 to the Death of Governor Winthrop in 1649. 1896. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2010. Print.