This week marks the anniversary of John Winthrop’s sermon delivered to his fellow Puritans aboard the Arabella before landing in the New World in 1630. The most famous line from his sermon is: “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all the people are upon us.”
His message makes for a good civics lesson today. Students should read Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and reflect on the relationship between moral conduct (specifically, loving one another) and civil society.
Winthrop posed a question, asking how people of different status (rich and poor) should treat one another. His answer was that the colonists should live with an eye toward the good of the whole society. Contrary to today’s caricature of Puritans being cold-hearted, he urged the members of his society to live a life of love for one another.
He gave practical application for the colonists by urging them to show mercy by giving generously to those who had need without expecting to be repaid, and to show justice by lending fairly to those who wanted to borrow and had the means to repay. He told the colonists that giving should not be motivated by the need, but by the love for the one needing. He said, “Nothing yields more pleasure and content to the soul than when it finds that which it may love fervently; for to love and live beloved is the soul’s paradise both here and in heaven.”
To apply his message, he urged the people, “We are a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ.” He reminded them that they live “by mutual consent” and “the care of the public must oversway all private respects.” They should operate as the prophet Micah urged, “…to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
It was in this context that Winthrop delivered his most famous portion:
"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."
He continued by quoting Moses in Deuteronomy 30:
"Beloved, ‘there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,’ in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it."
Winthrop ended with this warning:
"But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it."
The Puritans were establishing a civil society guided by their religious faith. They believed in the idea of separate Kingdoms -- the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man. They left Europe where the two realms were blended. However, they saw the need for civil government to function in alignment with biblical principles. Exactly how to do this, as more people came to their colony, was a challenge. Historian Edmund Morgan referred to this as “the Puritan dilemma” -- how to do right in a world that does wrong.
The Puritan Message Throughout American History
The Puritan message, that a civil society requires a moral society, echoes across American history. Benjamin Franklin emphasized the importance of a free people being a moral people. In 1787, he wrote, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As people become more corrupt and vicious [full of vice], they have more need of masters.”
John Adams warned the newly-formed United States of America:
"We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice [greed], ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." (From John Adams to Massachusetts Militia, 11 October 1798)
In standing against the injustice of segregation, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
“How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”
The debate about virtue and liberty continues. Does civil liberty mean having the freedom to do as we please or the freedom to do as we should? The Puritan idea of having the consent of the governed assumed the governed had the moral capacity to live as they should. As our country drifts from the values of its Christian heritage, we are in peril of ruining the very freedom we so lust after. The Puritan dilemma is still with us today.
Classroom Discussion Questions
What do you think is the best view of freedom for a society: Does liberty mean having the freedom to do as I please or the freedom to do as I should?
If civil liberty is the freedom to do as I please, why would we have laws?
If civil liberty is the freedom to do as I should, how does a society decide what I should do?
Are there absolute principles that all people should follow? If so, where do those absolute principles come from?
What are the commonalities between the quotes from Winthrop, Franklin, Adams, and King?