An American general will? “The bond of brotherly affection” in New England

Andrew R. Murphy

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


No one can say for sure whether John Winthrop’s “sermon” – commonly given the title A Model of Christian Charity – was ever actually “preached” on board the Arbella, flagship of the fleet that carried nearly 700 English settlers to the shores of Massachusetts in the spring of 1630. Some scholars have suggested that the Model was not delivered at all, or was delivered on shore, perhaps weeks before the fleet sailed; or while it was anchored at Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight. But the historical evidence is simply too incomplete to allow for any definitive statement. Indeed, although the piece follows the Puritan format by text/doctrine/application, calling it a “sermon” grants the Model a status that it never really had: Winthrop was the Company’s governor, and a lawyer, not a clergyman. Further complicating efforts to pinpoint the Model’s importance to Winthrop’s shipmates is the fact that roughly half of those who made the journey with him either died in transit or returned to England soon after they arrived. In other words, even if they had heard Winthrop’s words and take them to heart, many of his shipmates were either unable to do much about them, or decided to opt out of the entire undertaking at the first opportunity. That said, Winthrop’s Model retains a singular value for scholars of early American political thought, since it seems undeniable that the social vision it sketches out – of a community characterized by a self-sacrificial ethic, where individuals willingly placed the public good over their private interests – captures something important about the views of those who organized and planned the Massachusetts Bay undertaking. Certainly, whether we grant Winthrop pride of place or not, the more public material left by such eminent divines as Richard Mather and John Cotton, not to mention Mather’s son Increase and his grandson Cotton, testifies to the powerful vision of a covenanted, godly community on the shores of North America that would continue to echo down through American history. Winthrop’s Model articulates just such a longing for unity and shared sacrifice, evoking Christian love as the “bond of perfection” tying together the New England community, whom he entreated to be “knit more nearly together in the bond of brotherly affection.”

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe General Will
Subtitle of host publicationThe Evolution of a Concept
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781107297982
ISBN (Print)9781107057012
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences(all)


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