A Model of Christian Charity

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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

  1. 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?

  2. If civil liberty is the freedom to do as I please, why would we have laws?

  3. If civil liberty is the freedom to do as I should, how does a society decide what I should do?

  4. Are there absolute principles that all people should follow? If so, where do those absolute principles come from?

  5. What are the commonalities between the quotes from Winthrop, Franklin, Adams, and King?

How Christian Missionaries Changed the World

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Teach public school students how the world benefits from Christianity

Too many public school students only learn about Christianity by studying the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the Salem Witch Trials. It is important that they learn the rest of the story. Students of all faiths, and no faith, should understand the impact of Jesus on the world.

Robert Woodberry, a political science professor at National University of Singapore, conducted extensive research on missionaries’ impact around the world. His findings were published in the highly respected American Political Science Review with the title, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.”

Woodberry and his research team found that:

“Conversionary Protestants [missionaries] were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, most major colonial reforms, and the codification of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These innovations fostered conditions that made stable representative democracy more likely— regardless of whether many people converted to Protestantism.”


In a later lecture, Woodberry explained, “missionaries wanted people to read the Bible in their own language, which meant poor people and women needed to be able to read — which now we think is normal but at the time was a revolutionary thing.”

He gave specific examples of his findings. For instance:

“The people of Nagaland and Mizoram (North-East India) did not have a written language before the 1890s; they were hunter-gatherer people. And now they are almost all Baptists. Kerala and Goa have large Catholic populations and a significant number of Protestants by Indian standards. These areas have the highest literacy rates in India, particularly women’s literacy.”


Woodberry found similar patterns regarding mass printing. He points out that “for hundreds of years, people knew how to print and didn’t do it….nobody copied printing until you get Protestant missionaries coming along and printing tens of thousands of texts trying to convert people.”

Economic Prosperity

Woodberry also spoke about the missionaries impact on economic prosperity. For example:

“Missionaries also taught other things in addition to reading; they taught concepts of private property, they spread new skills, they spread new crops. In Ghana they introduced cocoa and cotton, various things like that where they were trying to help indigenous people make money and have self-supporting churches.”

Social Movements

The history of nonviolent social movements is also linked to missionaries. Woodberry points out that, today, people think the activities in social movements (organizing, printing pamphlets, public speaking, petitions, etc.) arise naturally. “However,” Woodberry found, “those techniques were pioneered, for the most part, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and they were pioneered mostly by nonconformist Protestants and evangelical Protestants in England and the United States. And they are the people who spread them around the world.”

Reflecting on the impact of Christian missionaries, he tried to find other explanations for the civilizing effects. He admitted, “It startled me certainly when I first found those results, and I spent a lot of time trying to make them go away…and they didn’t go away.”

He acknowledges the complexity of both good and bad actions of missionaries. “You can find examples of almost anything if you look hard enough.” However, he concludes his research with this:

“What we consider modernity was not the inevitable result of economic development, urbanization, industrialization, secularization, or the Enlightenment, but a far more contingent process profoundly shaped by activist religion.”

Woodberry’s research adds to what Historian Rodney Stark, in his book The Triumph of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success :

“Christianity created Western Civilization. Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect, most of you would not have learned to read and rest of you would be reading hand-copied scrolls. Without a theology committed to reason, progress and moral equality, today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were in, say, 1800.”

* * * * * * 

Curriculum Connections

Teachers can introduce students to Woodberry’s findings in academic topics such as:

  1. European colonial activity in Africa and East Asia

  2. How democracy spread around the world

  3. Economic development in the world

  4. The history of social movements in underdeveloped countries

  5. How scientific knowledge spread globally

  6. The role of literacy in modern development

SHARE YOUR IDEAS for how to use Woodberry’s research in your classroom. CLICK HERE

Additional Resources

How Christianity Changed the World, by Alvin Schmidt

The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy, American Political Science Review

Religion and the Roots of Liberal Democracy, The Centre for Independent Studies

Woodberry Lecture: The World the Missionaries Made

A Little-Known MLK Sermon - "Rediscovering Lost Values"

Black History Month

An inspiring sermon America needs to hear,

"Rediscovering Lost Values" (1954)

The Rev. King, motivated by his Christian faith, stood, marched, and spoke to advance civil rights. While many people know about his "I Have a Dream..." speech, few have heard the inspiring sermon he delivered in Detroit in 1954 - "Rediscovering Lost Values."

His message, then, is just as relevant for America today:

"My friends, all I'm trying to say is that if we are to go forward today, we've got to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we've left behind. That's the only way that we would be able to make of our world a better world, and to make of this world what God wants it to be and the real purpose and meaning of it. The only way we can do it is to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we've left behind."

  • For a more powerful experience, read the printed text while listening to Rev. King deliver his 1954 message by clicking here or watching below.


A Christmas Lesson for Language Arts

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We recognize birthdays to celebrate the life of a person. On a national level, we celebrate four birthdays of people that have impacted our world: Martin Luther King, Jr. (celebrated as a federal holiday on the third Monday of January), George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (celebrated as a federal holiday on the third Monday of February), and Jesus Christ (celebrated as a federal holiday on December 25).

On their birthdays we don’t make a big deal of baby Martin and George and Abe lying in their cribs in their diapers. Instead, as we should, we acknowledge the impact their lives had, and continue to have, on society.

Christmas, of course, is different because the birth of Jesus was a monumentally different event. No mere human was born. God’s Son became flesh and dwelt among us. The event, and all that surrounded it, is worthy of honor and glory and praise in, and of, itself! For Christians, who make up the majority of Americans, celebrating his birth is a big deal.


I encourage public school teachers to use the run-up to Christmas as an opportunity to not only teach about the biblical account of Jesus’ birth, but also to talk about the impact of his life. Just as teachers use Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Presidents Day to talk about the impact of these men, teachers should educate students on the impact of Jesus while recognizing his birth.

The history of Western civilization is filled with opportunities to discuss the impact of Jesus on government, culture, and values. Here is an idea involving English/Language Arts that teachers can use to help students appreciate a simple, yet often overlooked, way Jesus influenced our culture.

A Classroom Lesson

Explain that any birthday celebration is a recognition of the life of the person being celebrated. For Christians, the birth of Jesus has important religious significance. However, anyone can appreciate the impact his life had on society. One simple example is found in the common phrases we use.

Introduce students to phrases we use today that had their origin in the words of Jesus. For example, “A house divided against itself…” comes from Matthew 12:25 when Jesus said: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.”


The phrase means there is no strength in disunity. In his nomination acceptance speech of 1858, Abraham Lincoln famously said “a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”

List the phrases (below) on one page. In groups, have students decide what each phrase means and write it next to the phrase.

On another page, give the context of Jesus’ words. Cut and paste the text from an online Bible to provide them with the full context of how Jesus used the phrase. This is not devotional, it’s academic. It is a Language Arts lesson.

If your state has Common Core Language Arts standards, you might even quote the standard at the bottom of the student handout (RL.8.9 “Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible.”)

For California, quote academic standard 6.7.6, “Note the origins of Christianity in the Jewish Messianic prophecies, the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as described in the New Testament…”

For Texas, quote academic standard 113.18(b)(19), “explain the significance of religious holidays and observances such as Christmas…”

If you’d like our research on your state’s academic standards regarding the Bible and Christianity, request it by using gogateways.org/contact.

Here are some examples you could use in your Language Arts lesson:

“Turn the other cheek.” – Matthew 5:39

“Give the shirt off your back.” – Matthew 5:40

“Go the extra mile.” – Matthew 5:41

“A house divided against itself…” – Matthew 12:25

The Good Samaritan – Luke 10:30-37

“Wolf in sheep’s clothing” – Matthew 7:15

“Red sky at night, shepherd’s (or sailor’s) delight.” – Matthew 16:2

“Sign of the times” – Matthew 16:3

“Salt of the earth” – Matthew 5:13

“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” – Matthew 26:41

Learning about the birth of Jesus is an important cultural lesson for all students. It is also important for them to learn of his teachings that have so impacted the world. Learning about commonly used phrases that originated with Jesus is just a fun and simple way to help students make another connection between the holiday and the culture.

For more resources, visit GoGateways.org/christmas


Eric Buehrer is the president of Gateways to Better Education

"In God We Trust" Promoted in Schools?

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Six states — Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama and Arizona — have recently approved legislation requiring or allowing public schools to display the words “In God We Trust” in prominent locations. South Carolina, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Kentucky may soon pass similar laws.

“In God We Trust” was adopted as the official motto of the United States in 1956. The fourth stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written during the War of 1812, includes, “And this be our motto: ‘In God is our Trust.’” The motto first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864 and on paper currency in 1957.

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However, if the phrase is not understood and appreciated, educators, like those at one Tennessee school (see photo), might conform to the letter of the law by simply posting a copy of a dollar bill. Students will never notice it.

Teaching Your Children and Students a Civics Lesson

It is important that educators teach their students the meaning of the motto. From an educational standpoint, every time students see the national motto they should think of its special meaning for the country.

When used as a national motto, the phrase “In God We Trust” is not a personal declaration. Every person in America does not trust in the same God and some do not believe there is a god at all. How can a nation as diverse as ours make such a specific declaration? 

The phrase reflects the civil foundation upon which America was founded in the same way that “one nation under God” does in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all Men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

America is unique in that it sees rights coming from God, not from the government. Instead of the divine right of kings, our Founders asserted the divine rights of the common man. That was truly revolutionary.

Following the lead of the Declaration, nearly every state constitution begins with thankfulness to the “Sovereign Ruler of the Universe” or “Grateful to Almighty God.” When learning civics, students should understand that the laws of their state flowed from the principle that there is a God who gave Mankind certain unalienable rights and that the state legislators were crafting laws to protect (not grant) those rights.

Giving our national motto more visibility is important. However, without parents and educators promoting its importance, schools can conform to the letter of the law and not inspire students about its value for their lives.

Discussion Questions for Students

1. Since all Americans don’t trust in God, why have a national motto stating, “In God We Trust”?

2. What does the preamble to our state’s constitution say about God (click here) and how does that relate to our national motto?

RESOURCE: For lesson plan ideas on a variety of topics, CLICK HERE.