Familiar Commerce and Covenantal Love
In what ways is American exceptionalism theological? On this point, the significance of John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” seems obvious.1 After all, Winthrop’s vision of Christian community, presented to posterity as an address delivered aboard a ship sailing from England to North America in 1630, concludes by describing the Puritans’ proposed settlement as a “City upon a Hill.” This lofty image, memorably evoked by Ronald Reagan and other twentieth century politicians, is rivaled only by the Statue of Liberty in its ability to represent America’s claim to be set apart from all the other nations of the world, unique in both responsibility and privilege.2 And unlike the Statue of Liberty, Winthrop’s speech is explicitly biblical and theological. “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” Winthrop told his listeners, quoting Matthew 5.14, and “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.”
Winthrop was not an ordained minister or clergyman, and he had no advanced training in theology; he was a Justice of the Peace, elected by the trustees of the Massachusetts Bay Colony before the erstwhile colonists left their homeland. He spoke, then, not as a preacher but as a lay Christian and civic leader, offering a vision of success and failure to people who were crossing a vast sea in order to—as Winthrop put it—“possess…the Good Land” that awaited them. In the process, historian Sacvan Bercovitch argues, Winthrop created a “formulaic (and unfailingly effective) image of national purpose.” But what exactly is this formula? And why has it been so effective?3
Bercovitch’s answer to this question is sophisticated and satisfying. It is also—as I will argue in the concluding section of this essay—incomplete. First, Bercovitch explains, in order to understand this formula and its success we need to appreciate the way Winthrop reconciled worldly hierarchy and spiritual unity. In the fallen world, the world Winthrop and his listeners inhabit, there are rich and poor, kings and ministers, the hard realities of commerce and the rightful desire for savings and prosperity. The opening lines of Winthrop’s address proclaim that this human inequality is divinely ordained: “God almighty, in his most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the Condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; other mean and in subjection.” No one can or should seek to ameliorate differences of rank, or riches, or power.
At the same time—as if in the same breath, Bercovitch says—Winthrop maintains that “all are one” in Christ. The disparate members of the community are “members of one body,” “knit together in love.” This simultaneous emphasis on unity and hierarchy is a sleight of hand, Bercovitch observes, and especially effective for just this reason. By affirming that God mandates hierarchy, Winthrop upholds the authority of the king who awarded the colony its royal patent and preemptively cautions the artisans, tradesmen, shopkeepers, and independent farmers who made up nearly 80% of the Massachusetts Bay Colony company not to think that the profits they sought in the wilderness would turn them all into lords. By insisting that imitating Christ requires loving one another without respect to class or station, Winthrop repurposes a traditional ideal of imitatio Christi, transforming what traditionally had been understood as a model of personal piety into a prototype of community. And by admitting no tension between the affirmation of hierarchy and the mandate of unity, Winthrop establishes a model of community well suited to what might otherwise be the conflicting needs of the colonists’ new venture.4
This model was not royalist: Winthrop says nothing about the divine right of kings and never refers by name to the monarch sitting on the English throne.5 His immediate concern is not with why kings rule but rather with how communities coalesce. Instead of trying to remind the colonists they are already united as loyal subjects or denizens of Britannia. Winthrop articulates attitudes and ideals that might enable a varied group of people to govern themselves in a new context. In this sense, Winthrop understood that where biblical writers were addressing the Israelites as a people who already self-identified as a tribe, and earlier Christian authors envisioned Christians within the European or Byzantine version of Christendom, his audience was leaving existing models behind. What his predecessors could assume, in other words, Winthrop had to create.6
Winthrop’s awareness that a shared sense of community was his aim rather than his premise helps explain why a man who believed that hierarchy was divinely ordained would also insist that those on the top of the social pyramid were no better, in the eyes of God, than those on the bottom. Worldly success may be confirmation of the community’s adherence to the covenant, but it is not a reflection of individual worth. “It appears plainly,” Winthrop says, that “no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy etc., out of any particular and singular respect to himself.” Winthrop’s Protestant ethic is communal rather than individual: instead of a Puritan version of the prosperity gospel, Winthrop offers a Puritan version of common purpose. Some are rich and some are poor, but this variation exists so “that every man might have need of other…and they might all knit more nearly together.”
Winthrop’s formula thereby declares that social distinctions are inevitable, even desirable, but also somehow insignificant. In this way, Winthrop sets the terms for America’s peculiar disinterest in class differences; his formula both enables and helps to explain the American capacity to tolerate vast and abiding inequalities while feverishly celebrating the ideal of equality and shared purpose.
The second reason Winthrop’s image of national purpose was unfailingly effective, according to Bercovitch, is because of the way it melds covenant and contract. Quoting Moses’s farewell speech to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 30, Winthrop warns his listeners that their community will flourish in the Promised Land if and only if they follow the commandments. “Beloved,” Winthrop intones, “there is now set before us life, and good, and 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 thy God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it” (Deut. 30.15-16, Geneva Bible, italics mine).
Here Winthrop quotes from the Geneva Bible with slight deviations that highlight key features of his vision. Rather than aligning himself with Moses and speaking in the singular first person, Winthrop counts himself among those being addressed, referring to them all together as a collective “we” (so where the Geneva Bible has “I command thee…so that thou mayest live,” Winthrop declaims that “we are commanded” so that “we may live”). Where Moses assumed community and focused instead on what this collective needed to do in order to flourish, Winthrop’s version makes community itself contingent on their adherence to the commandments: we are “we” only insofar as “we are commanded, Those aboard the ship needed more than a shared destination: Winthrop’s vision of common purpose made communal self-definition dependent on fidelity to the covenant.
Equally significant are two clauses Winthrop adds to his biblical source text. Where the Geneva Bible mentions only the commandment to “love the Lord thy God,” Winthrop notes also that we are commanded “to love one another.” And where Moses is content to list “commandments, ordinances, and laws,” Winthrop emphasizes the contractual nature of the relationship by adding “the Articles of our Covenant”.7 The Articles of the Covenant establish the terms of the colonists’ venture. If they falter, God’s wrath will “break out” against them. The Lord who “ratified this Covenant and sealed our Commission” expected a “strict performance of the Articles contained in it.” To succeed, the colonists must “uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality.” If the community upholds the terms of their agreement, they will prosper. If they abrogate the contract, they will founder. Threatening failure while promising success, Winthrop made communal identity dependent on what Bercovitch aptly describes as this “double ‘if.’”
Winthrop’s sermon thereby prepared the ground for a notion that came to fruition some seventy years later, when the identity of “Americans” was applied exclusively to white European settlers, especially those settlers commissioned by a Calvinist God. Speaking not as an ordained minister but as the “honorable” and “Esquire” John Winthrop (terms used in the headnote added by his son), the future colonial governor embodied a jurisdictional authority detached from feudal geography and customs.8 What Winthrop’s address rhetorically enables is thus something “broadly modern,” Bercovitch concludes, for it associated the promised land in North America not with a nostalgic ideal or existing facts on the ground but with the possibilities of what might be—a contingent community “written into existence by contract and consent,” as Bercovitch describes it, “through a declaration of principles and rules that bend religious tradition to legitimate a venture in colonial enterprise.”9 This new world ideal “derives from two traditions that proved inadequate as the framework for modern nationalisms: kingship and Christianity.10 Winthrop varied both those traditions to accommodate a modern venture, and in the course of variation he opened the prospect for the “America-game.”11
Novelty thereby becomes a defining feature of the America-game. In fact, Bercovitch contends, Winthrop’s sermon was the first “to invest the very concept of newness with spiritual meaning grounded in a specific, then-emergent, now dominant way of life.”12 The philosopher Stanley Cavell is similarly interested in the idea of America as something new under the sun. As Matthew Scherer notes in his essay, Cavell’s project is a continuation of the tradition inaugurated by Winthrop’s address, transposed from theology to philosophy. Like Winthrop, who
Cavell does not mention, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, his immediate inspiration, Cavell thinks America makes the question of newness inescapable. Like the theologian and philosopher before him, Cavell thinks this newness creates both problems and possibilities and is all the more important for just this reason. America is exceptional, for Cavell as for Winthrop, because of the gap between what is and what could be: neither the theologian nor the philosopher is praising America for being exceptional. Both are instead pointing out the ways—as Scherer aptly explains it—that Americans should take exception to their present shortcomings in order to amend them.
Cavell’s philosophy of American exceptionalism also diverges from Winthrop’s, however. Where Winthrop applied an old covenant to a new settlement, Cavell associates American novelty with philosophy’s capacity to think anew about everyday life and everyday language. Winthrop assumes covenantal exclusivity: the threats of failure and the potential for success apply only to those who are part of the covenantal community. Insofar as the America-game is linked to Winthrop’s vision, the difference between the chosen and everyone else is its premise. Cavell refuses that premise, however, when he reimagines American exceptionalism as a philosophical question.
Scherer highlighted this contrast between Cavell’s thought and Winthrop’s project in oral remarks delivered during the “Theologies of American Exceptionalism” workshop. Carefully delineating twelve figures of exception in Winthrop’s text, ranging from Israelites to Christ, from a community figured as a City on a Hill to the commandments of mercy and love, Scherer registered reasons for frustration, even anger, about two points: the fact that nothing shakes Winthrop’s presumption of hierarchy, and that all of Winthrop’s figures of exception serve to shore up an exclusivist vision of Christian community.
The hierarchy and exclusivity of Winthrop’s vision is an important reminder that the America-game is not an innocent project. Moreover, as Cavell’s exploratory method attests, philosophy can and should be an antidote to theology’s declaration that its claims of truth and certainty reflect the will of an all-powerful and unchanging God. By spiritualizing newness, as Bercovitch says, Winthrop essentially invited subsequent thinkers like Emerson and Cavell to spiritualize their own novel moves: to depart from the tradition he represented, to replace theology with philosophy, and to associate America then not with a new covenant but a new way of thinking.
Insofar as the transition is understood this way, as a shift from authoritarian theology to liberating philosophy, American exceptionalism shifts too. Where theology might declare America a recipient of divine favor—exceptional in its capacity to uphold an ideal and exceptional also in its responsibility to present this ideal as a model for all the other nations of the world—Cavell’s version of Emersonian philosophy declares America exceptional in its indeterminacy. We do not know what it means to be new, and so must continually live up to the responsibility of thinking about what this newness entails. This is, I think, an appealing and significant way to think about American exceptionalism.
It is, however, also a way to unthink American exceptionalism, to borrow a term Noah Solomon uses in this forum to describe Noble Drew Ali’s approach to American racism.13 Unthinking exclusionary exceptionalism is a crucial project, and reason enough to call attention to the work of Stanley Cavell as well as Noble Drew Ali. But understanding the appeal of exceptionalism requires us not only to critique its exclusions or unthink its assumptions but also to revisit its canonical sources. This is why Bercovitch’s tour de force assessment of Winthrop is invaluable and also why a feature Bercovitch subsumes into his larger argument about unity and diversity needs to be separated out and considered more carefully. Christian charity is Winthrop’s stated topic and love his favored theme. Love is the key to both covenant and commerce, in Winthrop’s text as in the America-game this text envisions. Put simply, to understand America, we need to understand Winthrop’s covenantal theology of love.
“How are we to uphold a familiar Commerce?” Winthrop asks. Here he means commerce in the now nearly obsolete sense of community, but also in the now dominant sense of commercial dealings and the exchange of goods and services. Nearly half of Winthrop’s speech is devoted to addressing questions about whether Christians are ever justified in keeping money and goods for themselves, fair rates for lending money, and guidelines for forgiving debts. Editors omit these paragraphs full of fiscal specifics from almost all anthologized versions of Winthrop’s famous text,14 and modern readers might find them easy to skim past, under the assumption that lending rates are only tangentially related to the text’s stated topic of “Christian charity,” with its connotations of selfless love (from the Latin caritas) or philanthropic giving.15
In an early section of his talk, Winthrop poses this question: “What rule must we observe in lending?” The answer, he says, requires people to differentiate between those who can repay and those who can’t, and so to consider whether the money should be lent “by way of commerce,” according to the rule of justice, or by the rule of mercy, for “thou must lend” to one who cannot repay, “though there be danger of losing it.” While modern readers may think commerce has little to do with love, these sections reflect a different assumption, for they interweave language of love and money as separate threads perceived nevertheless as part of the same tapestry.
Winthrop’s text makes visible a series of connections we might otherwise overlook. For Winthrop, “familiar commerce” is synonymous with the communal requirements of the covenant. “Affections of Love” are required to sustain familiar commerce and uphold the articles of the covenant, just as love is the principle that establishes fair and just terms of lending and borrowing money, of borrowing rates and debt forgiveness and philanthropic giving. “A Model of Christian Charity” thereby makes Christian charity the key to financial success, communal cohesion, and divine approval. This combination of Christianity, commerce, and national purpose remains central to American exceptionalism.
What this argument about the significance of Winthrop’s familiar commerce adds to Bercovitch’s thesis is, among other things, the claim that Winthrop’s formula was unfailingly effective because as theology it was also good psychology. As Winthrop puts it in a succinct defense of his reasons for focusing on love, the “way to draw men to the works of mercy is not by force of Argument from the goodness or necessity of the work.” The argumentative approach may motivate “a rational mind to some present Act of mercy,” but claims that a course of action is reasonable or useful “cannot work such a habit in a Soul” as to inspire an eager and willing response. Moreover, love is a requirement of the covenant. By merging attention to covenantal articles with the command to love, Winthrop’s lay theology makes everything dependent on relationships—on how the members of the covenantal community feel and act in relation to one another and to God. “We must delight in each other” Winthrop instructs in his most poetic passage. “We must…make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together.” This sensibility both enables and should be motivated by awareness of “our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.” There is one way, Winthrop says, quoting from the Old Testament, to avoid divine wrath and ensure divine favor: “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. “What is required is not just to “entertain each other in brotherly affection” but also to share goods and resources: “We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities.” This is what upholding a familiar commerce entails, to be “together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality.” If these conditions re fulfilled, “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 ben acquainted with.”
We do not often think of the Puritans as sentimental folk, Abram Van Engen recently observed in a study devoted to challenging that assumption.16 And yet American sentiment cannot be understood without appreciating the Puritan fixation on love and their Calvinist insistence that pious Christians cultivate sympathy and fellow-feeling. This Calvinist vision presented sympathy in both active and passive terms, as both as an obligation and something to be discerned and discovered. In Winthrop, we see how this now paradoxical notion of love as a commanded affection, a spontaneous heartfelt feeling that was required to fulfill the terms of the communal compact that was conceived also as a divine contract, came to seem an exceptional feature of American spirituality and then an unremarked aspect of America’s self-understanding as a unique and exceptional nation.
The centrality of sentiment is not so easily seen in America’s official founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Moreover, Winthrop’s address disappeared for two hundred years and was not made into an important text until the second half of the twentieth century.17 Winthrop did not establish the formula, then, in the sense that all subsequent expressions of American exceptionalism cited his text. Winthrop’s sermon is a crucial source, rather, because it so powerfully and succinctly encapsulates what it also enables us to see: one crucial reason why Protestantism can, as Winnifred Sullivan has said, shapeshift so easily in America is because this Protestant theology made love an essential feature of American commerce, American culture, American self-understanding and, in short, the American covenant.
Ronald Reagan, “We Will be a City Upon a Hill,” January 25, 1974, posted on the Federalism and the New Conservatism Website, accessed Feb. 6, 2018, http://reagan2020.us/speeches/City_Upon_A_Hill.asp. An archive of every use of the phrase “city upon a hill” is being developed for the Humanities Digital Workshop at Washington University by Abram Van Engen, last accessed Feb. 6, 2018, https://hdw.artsci.wustl.edu/projects/articles/74?_ga=2.64761839.1701842376.1517925397-850090369.1469651929↩
Sacvan Bercovitch, “The Winthrop Variation: A Model of American Identity,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 97 (1998): 75-94.↩
For these elements of Bercovitch’s argument, see especially 81, and 85-86.↩
Bercovitch, fns 13-14.↩
“A Model of Christian Charity” takes citations from both the Geneva Bible and the King James version. On this see Harry Stout, “Word and Order in Colonial New England,” in The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History, ed. Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982): 19-38, p29, cited in Brian C. Wilson, “KJV in the USA: The Impact of the King James Bible in the USA,” Comparative Religion Publications, Paper 2. http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=religion_pubs↩
Compare to the Virginian natural law founding 150 years later, as described in Winnifred Sullivan’s essay in this project, “A History of America.”↩
The phrase appears on the last page of Bercovitch’s essay, but the game motif is his focus throughout. On the America-game, see also Elizabeth Hurd’s essay in this volume.↩
Noah Solomon, “Exceptional Americanism,” in Theologies of American Exceptionalism, ed. Sullivan and Hurd, 53.↩
See, for example, Perry Miller, The Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956)↩
Winthrop’s essay exposes the contingency of this presumed distinction between finance and spirituality. Numerous recent studies expose the fallacy of this presumption. See, for example, Devin Singh, Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2018) and Kathryn Lofton, Consuming Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017). Still to be told, however, is the story of the Protestant roots of this fallacy, especially remarkable given Christianity’s long-standing anxiety about usury (memorably analyzed by Lester Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy [Utica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983]) and the evidence of Winthrop’s own text, that early modern Protestants were as likely as Catholics and Muslims and others to write about the spiritual significance of monetary dealings.↩
Abram Van Engen, Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Puritan New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).↩