JOHN WINTHROP AND THE PURITAN COVENANT
In mid-June of the year 1630 John Winthrop, Governor of the new Massachusetts Bay Company, called together aboard his flagship, the Arbella, the first group of some twenty thousand Puritans who would be coming to New England over the next ten years. These Puritans had just arrived at their destination in Massachusetts and would soon be disembarking to begin their new mission in New England.
As Puritans it had long been their mission to purify the Church of England of its corrupt medieval ways and bring it as close as possible to strict Biblical standards in its operations ... exactly as God himself had commanded. But finally Winthrop’s group of Puritans had come to the conclusion that hope of reform was futile ... and to the decision to take their mission to America. Life under King Charles and Archbishop Laud had become impossible – even highly dangerous – for those who wished to continue the cause of Christian reform in England.
But even this retreat to America was highly dangerous. The general record of English settlements in America was horrifying ... hunger, sickness and ultimately death overtaking more than half of those who attempted the venture. Yet they were willing to face that risk, so great was their determination to succeed in this project of theirs.
It is important to note that this move to America was more than just a gamble of the English to secure for themselves a better life than the one they had in England. Most all of them came from comfortable middle class homes ... and had they been less vocal about their concern for reform of the Church of England they could have quietly lived their lives out in relative ease. No, something else was going on here ... something that had made them the reformers that they were. They truly believed in their religious cause ... so much so that their efforts at reform had brought them enormous problems with the English Church and Crown.
At least now in America they would be free to see these reforms reshape their world, both religious and social. And that, in sum, is why they came ... by the thousands.
It is hard today even to begin to imagine the thoughts that motivated these English settlers. Religious idealism is such a secondary matter (if even that) in modern America, where material rewards count so heavily and life is measured in terms of a person’s professional success. Yet as hard-driven as Americans are today in pursuit of the American materialistic dream so too the Puritans were hard-driven in pursuit of their religious dream: a life lived in close companionship with God – and ultimately, as Christ himself stressed, in close companionship with each other.
Thus before his shipmates disembarked from the Arbella Winthrop addressed them with one of the most famous sermons ever preached, a sermon entitled by Winthrop himself, A Model of Christian Charity. Sounding very much like Moses addressing the ancient Israelites just as they were about to enter the Promised Land, Winthrop challenged his fellow Puritans:
... Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission.
It was well understood by all that a ‘Covenant’ meant there were specific terms or obligations that had to be met, something like a legal contract drawn up between themselves and God. They would serve God ... and if they were faithful in that service, then God would also faithfully serve them. With God’s help they would prosper ... in a most miraculous way.
This is what they understood this whole venture was all about ... to prove not only to themselves but also to the wider world the notion that man could live most nobly, most successfully – not in pursuit of personal gain, wealth and superior social status ... but instead in pursuit of a closer relationship with the God who presided over all doings in his Creation.
as with all contracts there was the down side ... relating to failure
to keep the Covenant with God. Failure would indeed bring down on
them God’s wrath. Winthrop warned them:
... if we shall neglect the observation of these articles ... [and] embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.
Additionally, the Covenant included a second aspect to it, not just the one linking these Christian souls to Almighty God. The Covenant also required a similar bond uniting them in affection and devotion to each other. Winthrop explains:
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck [of God’ wrath], and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. ...
Then Winthrop went on to remind his fellow Puritans that this venture was something of much greater importance than merely their own success as a colony ... for God had entered into this Covenant with these Puritan settlers as a demonstration or model of how all people should live. Whether this venture succeeded or failed would by God’s own intent come to be a matter of great importance to all the world ... which would take careful note of exactly how this Covenant life in America worked out for everyone. Winthrop stated:
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, "may the Lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
He concludes, citing Moses’ admonition to Israel:
"beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil," in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it.
AND HOW DO THINGS STAND TODAY WITH THAT SAME COVENANT?
Here we are today four centuries later, indeed a highly successful society ... in terms at least of the enormous material blessing that we enjoy as Americans. Was this divine Covenant – as Winthrop and the Puritan settlers earnestly believed it would be – the source of this success? Or was it just luck? Or was it simply the cleverness of the American people that brought us to such success? This a question of huge importance ... one that needs some serious investigation. But it is a question hardly heard at all today outside of the tiny ghettos of struggling American churches.
Certainly the Covenant is largely forgotten today ... not even mentioned in the public education of our youth or in our public discourse in the media or from the podiums of the rich and powerful. Indeed, according to today’s legal interpretation, such religion was never intended to be any part of public America, church and state having been ‘separated’ by the First Amendment. But a close reading of the First Amendment reveals that the Founding Fathers intended this constitutional principle to protect religion from regulation by the state ... not for religion’s public regulation (and largely exclusion) by the state. But this is how generally Americans prefer to understand things today. Civil authority in the form of the state ... not God ... is what Americans today believe should be the governing voice in American life.
And how is that working out for us today? Were Winthrop’s reminders of the negative side of the Covenant (the curses that should fall upon the community should it turn its hearts away from God) simply idle words, spoken out of the ‘superstition’ of the times? Or indeed was this the deal ... then and now?
The best way to answer this question is to take a long, hard look at the record itself ... to observe what we can of America’s good times and bad, its rises and declines ... to see if there is any actual evidence that the Covenant was indeed all that Winthrop had declared it to be.
And thus if indeed it was just contemporary superstition and there is no real evidence in history that it played a significant role in American history, then we can get on with things (materially and professionally) and continue down the path we have been on since the 1960s when we began to let the state take the lead in American life. But if on the other hand there is strong evidence that indeed the Covenant was – and therefore still is – fully operative, we should pay close attention to Winthrop’s admonitions, and begin to fear ... or better yet, take corrective steps.
And so that is what motivates this work: an investigation into the question of America being a Covenant Nation. And we will begin our investigation at the beginning ... not just with Winthrop’s New England but with the royal colony of Virginia. These two simultaneous ventures of the 1600s were themselves very revealing on this matter!
Essay #1: America’s Economic, Moral and Spiritual Beginnings
due: Monday October24th
America was founded not on a single cultural order ... but instead, two cultural orders.
1. Explain how Virginia was founded on the feudal cultural ideal of rural, dynastic Europe.
a. How was feudal Europe organized politically and socially ... and on the basis of
what moral-religious ideal?
b. What was the goal of those who set up and led the Virginia colony?
c. How did the Virginia colony end up reflecting the ideals of European feudalism?
2. Explain how New England was founded on the Protestant cultural ideal of fast-rising
a. What was the political, social, moral and spiritual goal of Calvin’s Geneva?
b. What did the Puritans want to see develop in England?
c. Who were the Separatists ... and how did their ‘pilgrimage’ produce the first
successful English colony in New England?
d. The English Puritans soon joined these ‘Pilgrims.’ What kind of society did the
Puritans (and Pilgrims) set up in America ... and why?
e. How did this become the basis for the founding of the first modern democracy?
3. Today the Puritans are viewed very negatively (if even viewed at all). Why?
4. What slowly happened over the run of several later generations to the spiritual vision
of the original Puritan settlers ... why ... and with what political-cultural results?
5. What was the ‘Great Awakening’ all about?
a. How did it start up?
b. What was its impact on the American colonies?
c. What role did it play in getting the colonies prepared for the political events that
would unfold in the colonies in the second half of the 1700s?
Essay #2: The Foundations of the American Republic
due: Tuesday January 20th
1. How did the newly created Republic arise less out of the clever design of a group of
political architects and more out of the well-established political traditions of the
Americans prior to independence?
2. What particular divisive issues did the Framers have to overcome in order to bring
about the new Constitution?
3. What were the main features of the Constitution they finally put together?
4. What did they feel were the guarantees that this constitution might have some lasting
5. What was the significance of the Bill of Rights which was added to the Constitution
after its acceptance?
6. Why did this American Constitution fare better than a similar effort of the French to
construct a constitutional republic?
7. How did Washington and Hamilton flesh out the bare structures of the Constitution to
give the Republic its deeper character?
8. What were Jefferson’s (and Madison’s) issues that led to the development of the
Republicans in opposition to the Federalists?
9. How did Marshall add his own particular twist to the Constitution?
10. What were the issues that drew the young Republic into the “War of 1812” and how
did the War ultimately affect the Republic?
Essay #3: The Morality of Manifest Destiny and Civil War
due Monday March 23rd
1. What were the moral arguments concerning Manifest Destiny put forward at the time (early-mid 1800s) America was spreading westward across the North American continent? How is Manifest Destiny viewed today in our modern secular culture? Why the difference?
2. Why did the morality of the Civil War appear so much more complex to Lincoln (outlined very clearly in his second inaugural address) than it does to us today?
1. 1789-1797 George Washington
2. 1797-1801 John Adams
3. 1801-1809 Thomas Jefferson
4. 1809-1817 James Madison
5. 1817-1825 James Monroe
6. 1825-1829 John Quincy Adams
7. 1829-1837 Andrew Jackson
8. 1837-1841 Martin Van Buren
9. 1841 William Henry Harrison
10. 1841-1845 John Tyler
11. 1845-1849 James K. Polk
12. 1849-1850 Zachary Taylor
13. 1850-1853 Millard Fillmore
14. 1853-1857 Franklin Pierce
15. 1857-1861 James Buchanan
16. 1861-1865 Abraham Lincoln
17. 1865-1869 Andrew Johnson
18. 1869-1877 Ulysses S. Grant
19. 1877-1881 Rutherford B. Hayes
20. 1881 James A. Garfield
21. 1881-1885 Chester A. Arthur
22. 1885-1889 Grover Cleveland
23. 1889-1893 Benjamin Harrison
24. 1893-1897 Grover Cleveland
25. 1897-1901 William McKinley
26. 1901-1909 Theodore Roosevelt
27. 1909-1913 William Howard Taft
28. 1913-1921 Woodrow Wilson
29. 1921-1923 Warren G. Harding
30. 1923-1929 Calvin Coolidge
31. 1929-1933 Herbert Hoover
32. 1933-1945 Franklin D. Roosevelt
33. 1945-1953 Harry S. Truman
34. 1953-1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower
35. 1961-1963 John F. Kennedy
36. 1963-1969 Lyndon B. Johnson
37. 1969-1974 Richard M. Nixon
38. 1974-1977 Gerald R. Ford, Jr.
39. 1977-1981 James Earl Carter
40. 1981-1989 Ronald Reagan
41. 1989-1993 George H. W. Bush
42. 1993-2001 William Clinton
43. 2001-2009 George W. Bush
44. 2009-2017 Barak H. Obama
45. 2017- Donald Trump