Early US Literature

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Ideology of superior identity in John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity

In his sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity” aboard Arbella, John Winthrop introduces rhetorical grounds for the establishment of European colonies in the New World which would later emerge as the United States of America. For him and his Puritan assembly, this establishment was a holy, sacred mission combining the political and the religious with a self-conferred superiority of chosen people who reserve the historical right as well as the divine to the new lands. The Christian colony is presented and emphasized as one body which should be bonded with Christian love and charity. As this idea coheres the community together, it also lays out rules for strict conformity to be maintained even by coercion. The contradictions are apparent; the Puritans escaped from England because they found its religious laws coercive but they demanded conformity to their ideology. This rhetoric also established their identity as one kind of people different from the rest of the world. The identity became more pronounced in the face of threat from the outside, that is the Native Americans.

His famous metaphor of New England colony as “a city upon a hill,” suggests the superiority of the Europeans because of their identity as belonging to a particular church and race. Explicit is the idea that the Europeans have the divine right to colonize and rule others whom they consider inferior. Every humanly enterprise, colonization, trade, war, are guided by their theocracy. They had the same “special commission” that God gave to Saul to destroy Amaleck in the Old Testament. Hence, the Native people were heathens who deserved destruction and their land was the promised land reserved divinely for the chosen ones. Moreover of all the European colonies in North America, only theirs was the select, of Biblical importance on which people look for guidance. This idea is an extension of European nationalism which confers superiority on a particular nation simply by virtue of belonging.

Winthrop’s sermon has all the elements for the making of the ideology of colonialism, racism and nationalism which still informs American politics especially in America’s role as the example of democracy and freedom to the whole world.

The idea of predestination which Winthrop presents by explaining that the inequality in society is part of God’s plan where the rich learn to be charitable and the poor to be patient developed into the idea that America has the right to the riches of the world. Winthrop himself was an entrepreneur seeking wealth in the colonies and it was necessary to emphasize the importance of trade in the light of divine duty so that each person of one Christian body has the right to make wealth and then contribute it the public good as charity and to those who are less fortunate. Hard-work was a must for a fledgling society and hence, even the commonplace tasks of clearing land and building homes and barns become part of service to god. He makes his pronouncements binding by stating that the success of the colony depended on their unity and conformity. Any deviation from the injunctions he exhorts upon would spell destruction because it would be a deviance from the right path inviting damnation.

As the sermon addresses only the select few that comprised Winthrop’s group, without uttering any word he establishes that Native Americans did not merit any mention and they could be ignored as non-existent because they were enemies of their god and hence bereft of any rights. Civil rights ensued from divine rights which depended on certain group identity. Hence, religiosity, identity, and nationalism are tied together to create the ideology for a new nation.

Work Cited

Winthrop, J. “A Modell of Christian Charity.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. Lexington, MA: DC Heath and Company, 1990. 191-199. Print.

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