John Winthrop on Christian Charity
Despite coming from a privileged background, John Winthrop, similar to a number of learned Englishmen of his time, became increasingly dissatisfied with the corrupt and tyrannical Stuart monarchy. While voyaging to New England on board the Arabela, he wrote a treatise on charity that he seemingly preached as a sermon. In his treatise, Winthrop sought to put into practice spiritual values to unique challenges and situations the colonists would confront in establishing a new political and social order.
Several ideas, which have become essential to American philanthropy, were first enunciated in Winthrop’s essay. These included endeavors to reconcile the issues of political and social equity with economic inequity, concerns regarding the connection between individual good and that of the community, and the idea of the community as a contractual agreement between its members. Other prominent themes are the duty that the wealthy have towards the less fortunate and the notion of mission as the foundation for creating institutional goals and aspirations.
In the event that the above were not achieved, Winthrop’s treatise predicted a community in eternal danger, natural and manmade threats from outside, as well as aberrant and fractious groups from within the community. The United States has been plagued with what Winthrop foresaw as the consequence of lack of equality in the society and, therefore, cannot be regarded as “special” among nations in the manner envisaged in the Puritan experiment. However, it is imperative to note that Winthrop did not concern himself with private institutions.
Similar to many Puritans, he was against the notion of powerful institutions due to their connection with the corruption of the Stuart monarchy. He viewed charity as having an interpersonal, and not institutional, emphasis. This underscores the fact that humans have a special place or mission in the world.