A Timeless Question

I started writing this morning about 5:30 with a tribute to sixteenth century English theologian, Richard Hooker. As I studied the puritans and the treatment of them by succeeding generations of American historians, I came upon an observation by John Winthrop after sailing on the Arabella to the New World. This was the voyage where he is said to have written his now-famous “City on a Hill” sermon (although he was not an ordained minister, it was a “lay sermon”).

While still residing in England, Winthrop struggled with England’s conversion from static feudalism to a dynamic market economy fueled by the nascent Industrial Revolution. This transformation posed serious questions to the landed gentry such as Winthrop. Reflecting on what it took for people of the wealthy class to retain their property and social status, he wrote, “no man’s estate almost will suffice to keep sail with his equals, and he who fails herein must live in scorn and contempt; hence it comes that all arts and trades are carried in that deceitful and unrighteous course, as it is almost impossible for a good and upright man to maintain his charge and live comfortably in any of them.” In short, it was becoming harder for men of Winthrop’s rank to be both virtuous and prosperous.[1]

The timeless question, as significant then as it is today, rings out to us. “Is it even possible or desirable to be both virtuous and prosperous?” Are they mutually exclusive? Quoting directly from The Nation article,

Winthrop’s real estate holdings in Suffolk forced upon him vexing questions. Should he raise rents on subsistence farmers who had long resided on his property at nominal fees? Should he prohibit scavenging? Should he enclose his lands with hedges for the purpose of raising sheep, thus driving his tenants into the swelling ranks of vagabonds or what we would call the homeless? As the great historian Christopher Hill wrote, this was a time when large landowners “had no inhibitions…about evicting whole villages to make room for sheep” in order to profit from the growing wool export trade.

The Puritan Winthrop who would go on to become governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony fled to the New World out of two fears: Fear of becoming a loser in the new market economy of England and Fear of becoming morally bankrupt in the process. Winthrop wrote “A Model of Christian Charity” filled with a yearning for a time when the poor and the rich would treat each other with “reciprocal loyalty.”

Winthrop is often mischaracterized as justifying the enormous chasm between rich and poor. A closer read reveals that he hoped God would touch the hearts of other wealthy people “so that rich and mighty should not eat up the poor.” In his “Model of Christian Charity,” he cites Deuteronomy regarding debt – “If the debtor should have nothing to pay … thee must forgive him.”

These sentiments gave direct relief to the poor from public funds in New England. One historian writes “Grudging as it often was, public, tax-supported responsibility for the poor was a fixture of New England town life.” By 1700, “Boston was spending a quarter of its budget on poor relief.” Winthrop and other Puritans were haunted by the impact of the Industrial Revolution on those living on subsistence. Ultimately, he came to the conclusion that the new free market economy would not suffice for a moral community.

We would do well today, to revisit these reflections.

[1] https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/puritans-as-a-city-on-a-hill-daniel-rodgers/

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