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The Idea of the Covenant
Digital History ID 79

Author:   John Winthrop


A central element in Puritan social and theological life was the notion of the covenant. All social relationships--between God and man, ministers and congregations, magistrates and members of their community, and men and their families--were envisioned in terms of a covenant or contract which rested on consent and mutual responsibilities.

For example, seventeenth-century New England churches were formed by a voluntary agreement among the members, who elected their own ministers. Similarly, the governments in Plymouth Colony (before it merged with Massachusetts) and in New Haven Colony (before it merged with Connecticut) were based on covenants. In each seventeenth-century New England colony, government itself rested on consent. Governors and legislative assemblies were elected, usually annually, by the freemen of the colony. In contrast, England appointed Virginia's governor, while in Maryland, the governor was appointed by the Calvert family, which owned the colony. Even marriage itself was regarded as a covenant. Connecticut granted nearly a thousand divorces between 1670 and 1799.

In this famous essay written aboard the Arabella during his passage to New England in 1630, John Winthrop (1606-1676) proclaims that the Puritan had made a covenant with God to establish a truly Christian community, in which the wealthy were to show charity and avoid exploiting their neighbors while the poor were to work diligently. If they abided by this covenant, God would make them an example with the world--a "city upon a hill." But if they broke the covenant, the entire community would feel God's wrath.

In his stress on the importance of a stable community and reciprocal obligations between rich and poor, Winthrop was implicitly criticizing disruptive social and economic changes that were rapidly transforming English society. As a result of the enclosure of traditional common lands, which were increasingly used to raise sheep, many rural laborers were thrown off the land, producing a vast floating population. As many as half of all village residents left their community each decade. In his call for tightly-knit communities and families, Winthrop was striving to recreate a social ideal that was breaking down in England itself.


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; others mean and in subjection.

The Reason that the rich and mighty might not eat up the poor, nor the poor and despised rise up against their superiors and shake off their yoke; second, in the regenerate in exercising His graces in them, as in the great ones their love, mercy, gentleness, temperance, &c.; in the poor and inferior sort, their faith, patience, obedience, &c.....

When God gives us a special commission He wants it strictly observed in every article....

Thus stands the case between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work.... But if we neglect to observe these articles, which are the ends we have propounded, and--dissembling with our God--we shall embrace and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us and be revenged on such a perjured people, and He will make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.

Now 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 God. For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man; we must hold each other in brotherly affection; we must be willing to rid ourself of our excesses to supply others' necessities; we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own and rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and common work, our community as members of the same body.

So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.... We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, and ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies. The Lord will make our name a praise and glory, so that men shall say of succeeding plantations: "The Lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be like a City upon a Hill; the eyes of all people are on us.

Massachusetts Historical Society Collections (Boston, 1838), [31]-48.

Source: Massachusetts Historical Society Collections (Boston, 1838), pp. [31]-48.

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