John Winthrop, A Modell of Christian Charity (1630)

We’ll have occassion to dwell quite a bit on the less positive aspects of New England puritanism, and Foner presents the puritan model of freedom as the foil for “American freedom” which, he says, “began in revolution.” But we shouldn’t lose track of the ways in which the puritans were, through a combination of adherence to Bible doctrine and acknowledgment of necessity, humane and progressive figures. It’s important to remember that there is not some catastrophic or revolutionary transformation in the colonial populace between the Plymouth Rock landing and the War of Independence. What occured was a gradual process, punctuated by significant crises and conditioned by changes in the situation in Europe. There is a great deal of continuity from the very early colonial statements right up into the present.

Winthrop’s “Modell” is, like the “Mayflower Compact,” a shipboard manifesto for the colonists. The Modell is, of course, considerably more elaborate, and gives us a much clearer set of insights into the ideas the first New Englanders brought with them. We begin with a declaration about the naturalness of inequality. The poor and rich alike are “with us always,” but their station is, we are told, not to be taken as an indication of greater or lesser piety or worth in God’s sight. Christians have had to ignore or reinterpret quite a few biblical commendations of the poor and low in estate in order to embrace wealth and success as evidence of a good moral condition. Winthrop isn’t going there. The diversity of conditions exists in order to provide diverse means of showing God’s goodness and greatness. Wealth is a divine gift, and that assumption conditions the long section of the “Modell” relating to borrowing and lending.

Winthrop’s advice is fairly simple, and it is presented in terms that would be hard to misunderstand. If your neighbor needs to borrow from you, lend. Lend, even if the neighbor may not be able to repay, as long as there is real need. There will be times where the need is such that you should lend, or give outright, even to the point where that duty interferes with the duty to support your own family. If you are owed, but the debtor has no prospect of repaying, then forgive the debt. In times of general crisis, be even more generous.

Notice the references to the Jubilee, the time when debts are routinely forgiven and slates cleared. Notice also the lack of reference to interest-taking, or usury, which will be an important issue in most later discussions of currency, banking, and trade.

In order to understand well what the puritans believed, we need to remember their attachment to rationalism (as imagination was often Satan’s province), their understanding of property in terms of stewardship of God’s gifts, and the fact that the charity being urged has more to do with Christian fellowship than condescention (which would be incompatible with Winthrop’s understanding of differences in social standing.) We should also remember that this was a specifically internal document, aimed at a body of fairly homogenous believers. We are still far from the establishment of values like church-state separation and religious tolerance.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.