There’s an old joke, perhaps most famously repeated by George Bush (the elder), that a Puritan was a person who couldn’t sleep at night, worrying that someone, somewhere might be having a good time. If the Puritan settlers of New England are primarily known in our national narratives for contributing significantly to a couple of the most idealized aspects of American identity (work ethic, pursuit of freedom), they are secondarily and still centrally known as an extremely stern and dour group, a people for whom confession and penitence made for a perfect Friday night. And not without some accuracy—this is the community, after all, that within a century of arriving in America had banished two of its most prominent but slightly unorthodox citizens (Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson) for heretical beliefs and practices and had executed numerous other citizens for witchcraft-related crimes. Within the Puritans’ first decade in America, for that matter, the community’s leadership found it necessary to destroy (literally, burning much of it to the ground) Thomas Morton’s “heathen” community of Merrymount (famous in its own era, and immortalized two centuries later in a Hawthorne short story, for its Maypole and friendly relationships with local Native Americans) and exile Morton to England.
There’s no question that the Puritans’ search for a space in which they could practice their religion freely was (at least in their first century in America) complemented by a need to define almost everyone else, including at times members of their own community and congregations, as outside of that religion and so unwelcome in their settlements. But a focus on that side of their identity can elide another equally significant, and much more appealing and inspiring, side: their strong and consistent emphasis on communal cohesiveness and support, on a community in which the leaders and the most successful make it one of their central goals that all citizens, especially those who are least prosperous, are taken care of. In part that emphasis stemmed from practical realities and concerns, from the community’s decades of exile and wandering (first to Holland and then, when that nation turned out to be little more welcoming than England had been, to America) and the near-constant reminders that they could count on almost no one other than each other for support and survival. But these concepts of community were likewise central to many of the Puritans’ fundamental understandings of both their own identities and their Christian faith, as exemplified by one of their founding American texts: John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630), better known as the Arbella sermon since he wrote and delivered it on board that ship some time before its Puritan passengers arrived in Boston to settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony (with Winthrop as the first governor).
Winthrop’s sermon is remembered largely (if not solely) for a phrase from its penultimate paragraph, “city upon a hill.” But while subsequent quotations of the moment have read it as a celebration of America’s potential and identity—as in the closing of Reagan’s Farewell Address, where he consistently misquoted it as “shining city upon a hill”—Winthrop there is arguing to his audience that if they are to be celebrated (and not condemned), they must do their best to practice what they preach and believe, “for we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.” As the sermon’s title indicates, and as virtually every one of its thirty-odd paragraphs argues, the central element of Puritan belief and practice as defined by Winthrop is “Christian charity,” a phrase which encompasses both the modern idea of charity (giving to those less fortunate) and the word’s Scriptural origins (in the Greek word agape, which can be translated as both “charity” and “love”). Lest there be any doubt of Winthrop’s emphases, he includes in the midst of the sermon a series of “Questions” that might challenge the idea that all members of a community should give to support those who need it, and answers each question with passion, arguing throughout that the only way the Puritans can embody Christian identity and practice its love is to be entirely and communally charitable. “We must,” he argues just before the “city” line, “be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities.”
There’s plenty to criticize in the Puritans, from those exiles and executions to the brutal wars with neighboring Native Americans about which I’ve already written in this space. There are also lots of reasons to make sure that we see them as one of many founding American communities, rather than our shared and singular point of origin. But there’s also lots in their identities and words, their practices and beliefs, that can impress and inspire—and I’d say Winthrop’s sermon and the visions of community, charity, and love it constructs are at the top of that list. More tomorrow, on the most ambitious series of dramatic works ever produced in America.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The full text of Winthrop’s sermon: http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/charity.html
2) Thomas Morton on the Merrymount “revels,” since there were indeed different kinds of Puritan love: http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bdorsey1/41docs/19-mor.html
3) OPEN: I’d love for you to be charitable with your ideas and connections! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
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