This year’s Moderator, David Grimsted, continues his exploration of one of our denominational ancestors, the Puritans.
John Winthrop preached his lay sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” to the Puritans in 1630 as they sailed to create a new and godly community in America. The sermon began by describing the troubled world God had always ordained. He “hath so disposed the condition of mankind as in all times some must be rich and some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity, others mean and in subjection.”
This was true of the highly ranked and greatly unjust feudal society the Puritans were permanently escaping. It was also true of the rising capitalism and globalization of which the Puritans were a part. First published two centuries after Winthrop gave it, the sermon has oddly grown famous as proof of an imagined American moral success story, by men deeply disinclined to pay any attention to what it says.
A Sermon on Money. The sermon centered on what was becoming most important—money. Winthrop believed that its proper Christian usage would show God’s benevolent intent in the divisions that existed. He hoped the fact that some had and some needed money might become not a division but the fulcrum of unity. Those who had enough wealth needed to remember that in fact it was God’s money, not intended to create personal status, but to be used to foster mutual helpfulness, respect, and dignity.
Winthrop’s laws for Christian or decent capitalism center in giving, lending, and forgiving loans. These laws are stringent. In ordinary times and situations, justice requires that one give to those in need within the limits of family security. The higher moral law comes into play when the situations of individuals, church or community are desperate. In the harshest circumstances, Christians must help others even “beyond our ability” rather than “tempt God” personally to aid sufferers “by miraculous or extraordinary means.” It’s an interesting idea. God sends harsh burdens not to solve them Himself, but to push humans to recognize their decent duty—and togetherness.
The rules for lending are similar. One should loan to those with reasonable needs and hopes of repayment. If those hopes prove unrealistic, one should simply forget the debts and forgive the debtors.
Christian Capitalism. Winthrop was a lawyer not a minister, but his argument is wholly grounded in scriptural law, most notably “do unto others,” “love thy neighbor,” and “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” with God. Part of the literary joy of the sermons is the lawyerly craft with which Winthrop organized his scriptural laws. Some of Solomon’s worldly wisdom is used to set up the argument about laying up things for individual-families’ present and future. Then comes the refutation, first from Solomon’s urging “bread upon the waters” followed by Old Testament confirmations such as Deuteronomy’s injunction to lend to the poor, even when you don’t think you’ll get it back, and Nehemiah’s repetition and practice of this. Then we hear Matthew’s texts about those “shutting their ears to the cries of the poor.” It concludes with Christ’s talk of casting into “everlasting fire” those who failed to feed him when he was hungry.
Winthrop’s hope was that in the practice of Christian capitalism, “the care of the public must oversway all private respects” to create a place of true “cohabitation and concertship” in accord with what God truly willed. If the Puritans proved willing “to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities,” it could create a community of “familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality.” Yet if people only talked of this and neglected its application “to prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, to be revenged of such a perjured people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.”
“Make Others’ Conditions Our Own.” I suspect many Americans would hope and wish with me—or perhaps pray—that our world of troubles might drive the United States some toward Winthop’s goal:
“We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together.”
And sometimes laugh and sing together.
Of course, the Puritans fell far short of these ideals in several ways. The human propensity to pursue wholly personal “pleasures and profits” is deep and maybe God-given. Winthrop’s higher goals flourish best if embedded in social soil well fertilized with deep dedication to justice and mutual caringness. The Puritans did this better, I think, than most of their descendants.