In this sermon (adapted here into modern English), preached in 1630 on shipboard as the Puritans crossed the sea to the new world, John Winthrop gives expression to what will become classic religious themes in American public life, especially the idea of society as a covenant, both with one another and with God.
l) For the persons, we are a company professing ourselves fellow members of Christ. In which respect only, though we were absent from each other many miles, and had our employments as far distant, yet we ought to account ourselves knit together by this bond of love, and live in exercise of it…
2) For the work we have in hand, it is by a mutual consent through a special overruling providence, and a more than ordinary approbation of the Churches of Christ, to seek out a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical. In such cases as this the care of the public must oversway all private respects, by which not only conscience, but mere civil policy doth bind us. For it is a rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.
3) The end is to improve our lives to do more service to the Lord, the comfort and increase of the body of Christ, whereof we are members, that ourselves and posterity may be the better preserved from the common corruptions of this evil world, to serve the Lord and work out our salvation under the power and purity of his holy ordinances.
4) For the means whereby this must be effected, they are twofold: a conformity with the work and end we aim at–these we see are extraordinary; therefore, we must not content ourselves with usual ordinary means. Whatsoever we did or ought to have done when we lived in England, the same must we do, and more also, where we go: That which the most in their Churches maintain as a truth in profession only, we must bring into familiar and constant practice. As in this duty of love, we must love brotherly without dissimulation. We must love one another with a pure heart fervently; we must bear one another’s burdens; we must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren. Neither must we think that the Lord will bear with such failings at our hands as he doth from those among whom we have lived.
Thus stands the cause between God and us: we are entered into Covenant with him for this work, we have taken out a Commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own Articles. We have professed to enterprise these actions upon these and these ends [and] we have hereupon besought him of favor and blessing. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath he ratified this Covenant and sealed our Commission [and] will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it. But if we shall neglect the observance of these Articles which are the ends we have propounded, and dissembling with our God, shall fall to 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 perjured people and make us know the price of the breach of such a Covenant.
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck 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 uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. 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, our community as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness, and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with.
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 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. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.
And to shut up this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord in his last farewell to Israel (Deut. 30): Beloved, there is now set before us life and good, death 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. But if our hearts shall turn away so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship…other Gods, our pleasures and profits, and serve them, it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.
Therefore, let us choose life, that we and our seed may live,
By obeying his voice, and cleaving to him,
For he is our life and our prosperity.
[From John Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” Winthrop Papers, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3rd ser., vol. 7 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1838), 31-48.]