A Model of Christian Charity
In the spring of 1630, Christian love gave fertile seed to America's political heritage. The key moment came in a religious service for members of the Massachusetts Bay Company sailing to New England on board the Arbella. Addressing those gathered not as their minister but as their recently elected governor, John Winthrop delivered a rigorously argued and emotionally stirring vision of agape as the foundational ideal of the society these brave settlers were setting out to create.1 His remarks stand as America's first great speech. No adequate reflection on charity as a national civic virtue can ignore this now classic text.
To gain a clear understanding of Winthrop's lay sermon, it is probably best to start with the tangled matter of its title, “A Model of Christian Charity.” This title actually comes from a cover note that is written in neither Winthrop's hand nor that of whoever made the one existing contemporaneous transcription of the speech to which the cover note is attached.2 According to the transcription, the title simply appears to be “Christian Charity,” which is followed by two subheadings. The first subheading reads “A Model Hereof,” which is immediately followed by the sermon's opening sentence, after which comes the second subheading, which reads “The Reason Hereof,” after which follows the balance of the sermon. (See Appendix A for a visual picture of this.) To consider the title in this fashion is to suggest that Winthrop's concept of a community built on Christian love is captured in its essence by the very first line (the “model hereof”), a vision then justified by the rest of this very long sermon (the “reason hereof”).