The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 3 (Fall 2014)

Continental Divide

John Marsh

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.3 (Fall 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 3)

In 1630, John Winthrop and 700 or so dissenting Puritans sailed from England to America. They no doubt had a lot on their minds. Where exactly would they settle? Would religious persecution follow them to the new continent? Would they all die from disease? How would they govern themselves? And how would the natives respond to their arrival? Despite all these urgencies, when Winthrop addressed his band of pilgrims, he chose to take up another, possibly less immediate concern, but one he evidently felt more urgently than any other. Namely, in the new settlement, the new “city upon a hill,”1 how should the rich and poor live together?

The problem, as he stated at the outset of his moving sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” was that “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.”2 Why did God divide people into rich and poor, powerful and powerless? Winthrop offered a number of reasons, but two seemed to compel him the most.

First, God divided rich from poor so “that He might have the more occasion to manifest the work of His Spirit.”3 In other words, because some were rich and some poor, the rich would get to show love, mercy, and gentleness toward the poor, while the poor would have the opportunity to show faith, patience, and deference in their dealings with the rich. If everyone had what he or she needed, no one would need to practice such virtues. Second, Winthrop believed that God created rich and poor so “that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.”4 For Winthrop, inequality strengthened community. If everyone had what he or she needed, no one would need the fellowship of others.

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    1. John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ed. Nina Baym (New York: Norton, 1998), 225.
    2. Ibid., 214−15.
    3. Ibid., 215.
    4. Ibid.

    John Marsh is associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State University and the author of Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Bus Boys: Poverty, Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry and Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality.

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