For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.

—John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630)

Democracy, I do not conceive that ever God did ordain as a fit govern-ment either for church or commonwealth.

—John Cotton, Letter to Lord Say and Seal (1636)

The Puritans

In times of cultural upheaval and demise there are often two sorts of extremists. Those who abandon the established order as a thing beyond redemption and those who remain within the system, believing they can reform it. New England was settled by both kinds, by Separatists and by Puritans. Last week we looked at the Separatists, those intrepid settlers we call the Pilgrim Fathers. Today we will consider the Puritans.

Like the Pilgrims, the Puritans were English Calvinists. They accepted without question the doctrines of human depravity and God’s sovereignty in salvation and providence. They also thought in terms of covenants. First, the covenant of grace which revealed and structured God’s gracious friendship with His people. And then second, the covenants of social structures in family, church, and commonwealth. They believed that all of these covenant relationships were defined and ultimately enforced by God Himself. For the Puritans, the only alternatives to covenant life were tyranny and anarchy.

The English and American Puritans generally emphasized two ways of covenant thinking that many of their Calvinistic cousins didn’t. First, the Puritans made freer use of biblical law in their pursuit of reform, including the case laws that supplemented and applied the Decalogue. Second, the Puritans believed that the gospel would have a much greater impact on the world in the future. They even spoke of the “Latter-Day Glory” of Christ’s kingdom, a glory brought about by the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the gospel.

Moved by this theology, the Puritans were ready to remain within the established order of the English church and push for reform in terms of Scripture while the Separatists were already charting a course for the American wilderness. But within ten years, the situation in England made the Puritans rethink their position. Charles II ascended the throne, espoused the doctrine of the divine right of kings, married a Roman Catholic wife, and appointed the Arminian William Laud bishop of London. In their minds at least, there was no longer hope for any peaceable reform.

A City on a Hill

John WinthropIn 1630 four ships set sail for Massachusetts. Their passengers were the first Puritan settlers to come to New England. Among them was John Winthrop (1588-1649), the future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop wrestled with their vision and mission. They were Puritans. They had questioned the wisdom of the Separatists who had abandoned England for the New World. Now they found themselves following in their wake. How could they justify leaving?

Aboard the Arbella, Winthrop wrote up his meditations and conclusions on the whole matter. He called it, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Interestingly, there is nothing in it about democracy and equality and very little about liberty. But there is a great deal about inequality, submission, and love.

And so Winthrop begins:


God Almighty in his most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission.

Winthrop begins with the fundamental inequalities that mark the human condition. These, he says, come from the hand of God and present us with opportunities to learn humility, service, and love. God makes men unequal so that “every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.” Inequality is for the glory of our Creator and our common good.

Given these inequalities, the believer must imitate his Creator in showing both justice and mercy. The great commandment to love our neighbor, even to love our enemies, unites these virtues. Jesus’ command to love our brothers in the Lord requires even more of us. Winthrop writes about giving freely, lending generously, and even forgiving debts wholly. In a community, such as the one the Puritans proposed to build, these virtues had to come to the fore. Without this sort of practical love, the whole experiment would fail; the colony would shipwreck. But if they would continue “together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality,” delighting in each other, making each other’s conditions their own, rejoicing together, mourning together, laboring and suffering together, as members of the same body, the Lord would delight to dwell among them and bless them.

We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when he shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it likely that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill.

And there it is. A City on a Hill. The Puritans would continue their work of reform at a distance. Through faith they would work out their covenant obligations to one another in true, practical love. God would bless their efforts, and the Christian world would be amazed at what God had done in the wilderness of New England. Of course, should they fail, the whole world would mock their efforts and they would bring shame upon the name of Christ.

The Puritans and Democracy

The Puritan churches adopted congregational government from their neighbors across the Bay at Plymouth. They did not, however, extend the civil franchise to all church members. That’s because the Puritans, (just like the Pilgrims) didn’t believe in democracy. They didn’t believe that political authority arises out of the people, but that it descends covenantally from God. Edmund S. Morgan in his study of Winthrop writes:

Winthrop did believe that the people, or a properly qualified portion of them, were entitled to determine the form of government to be established over them and to select the persons who should run that government. These two operations performed, their role was played out until, under the form of government they had chosen, it was time to elect new rulers. If a ruler failed in his duty to enforce the laws of God, the people would be obliged to turn him out without waiting for election time. But so long as he did his duty, his authority was absolute, and, regardless of any errors of judgment he might make, the people were obliged to submit. Indeed, anything less than submission would be rebellion against the authority of God (94).

Rulers were bound by the law of God, and to this absolute standard the people could hold their rulers accountable. Winthrop agreed to broadening the franchise in the Bay Colony, not as a step toward democracy, but as a pragmatic way of strengthening a republican form of government the Puritans had adopted: “. . . for Winthrop was enough of a politician to know that, regardless of any divine authority a ruler might claim, people would submit to him more readily if they had a voice in choosing him, especially a Puritan people well educated by their ministers in the principle of government based on covenant” (95). In other words, those well educated in the word of God could be trusted to recognize the gifts required for governing others, but they should not all try their hand at governing. This is a far cry from, say, Greek democracy.

Equality and Mathematics

Equality is a mathematical concept. Two plus two equals four because two and two are identical with four. Two quantities are equal if they are interchangeable. But no two humans are interchangeable. No two humans are in that sense equal. God’s law holds all men equally accountable, but it makes no effort to equalize all men’s social, economic, or political conditions.


When Paul addresses the structure of the Church, he uses the figure of the human body (1 Cor. 12). All believers are members of the same body and share in its weal and woe, but each member differs from the others as much as a hand differs from a foot, or an eye from an ear. Paul recognizes the Spirit-given gifts of teaching, governing, and serving. Nowhere in his argument does he suggest that all believers are equal, either in function or dignity. The beauty and glory of the body comes precisely from the marvelous inequality and diversity of the members. But Paul stops in the middle of his discussion of Spiritual gifts to recommend and mandate love, agape, as the greatest and most necessary of Christian virtues. This is true freedom as Winthrop understood it. It was also their foundation for building a City on a Hill.

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