John Winthrop: Lawful Liberties Such as Christ Allows
It was the 4th of July in Boston. A middle-aged colonial leader stood on shore and looked out over a crowded Boston harbor. His countenance displayed a strange mingling of hope and despair. He was hopeful because of God’s recent manifest goodness, and he trusted that God would indeed prosper the cause of the colonists and establish a prosperous land where God’s Word was law. But he was also concerned. Only two days earlier he had lost a son. The harbor was filled with ships and he knew not the outcome of the hard struggles that lay ahead.
An important document had recently been drafted—a document that was vital to the prosperity of future Americans. But it was not the Declaration of Independence. Rather, it was a firm declaration of dependence upon the word of God.
On this 4th of July there were no gaudy fireworks filling the sky, no bands playing martial airs, no flags waving in the air, and no parades in the streets of Boston. The only sound that could be heard was the sound of psalms, the sound of praise rising from the ships where men, women, and children sang the songs of Zion. The scene is not 1776, but rather 1630. The ships that filled the harbor were the Puritan colonists who had come to Boston in the summer of 1630. The son who had recently died had not fallen on the battlefield, but had drowned as the boats landed. The important document recently written was the “Model of Christian Charity.” Its author, the leader overlooking Boston Harbor, was Governor John Winthrop. His struggle was not a struggle to preserve the rights of man, but a struggle to preserve the Law of God.
John Winthrop is one of the forgotten heroes of American history. His “Model of Christian Charity,” written on board the Arbella, sets forth the Puritan hopes of all that America would become as a “city set on a hill” – a model of righteousness based upon obedience to the Law of God. The civil ordinances of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were drawn directly from the Scripture, including the entire system of capital punishments given in the Old Testament and civil sanctions against blasphemy and idolatry.
The life of Winthrop is remarkable to read. Behind the image of the stern theonomic governor, we see a loving husband, a tender father, and a zealous Christian. His journal contains stirring accounts of wars, of religious controversies, and of plagues, but it also gives us a picture of the personal life of this remarkable man, and every Christian family should possess and read a copy of Winthrop’s journal. Winthrop lived to see a great deal of personal trials. He was widowed three times in life. A faithful son, already mentioned briefly, drowned just as the fleet of ships arrived in Boston. Winthrop narrates these things in his journal, always recognizing that “Jesus doeth all things well.” In his life, there were joys as well as troubles. Winthrop narrates with gratitude the time that God remarkably preserved two of his own small daughters when prompt obedience to their mother saved them from being crushed by a pile of logs. These accounts can be read in his journal.
It is sometimes hard for us to recognize that American history did not begin in 1776. The “founding fathers” of 1776 did not arise suddenly out of a historical vacuum. A century and a half transpired between the arrival of our Pilgrim and Puritan forefathers and the American Revolution. This period of 150 years between 1630 and 1780 is one of the most ignored and slighted periods of our history. As great as have been the differences between July 4 of 1776 and July 4 of 2016, just as great differences exist between the time of John Winthrop and Thomas Jefferson.
In fact, Governor Winthrop would have repudiated many of the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence. Governor Winthrop would have been shocked by the bold assertion “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Many sincerely patriotic Christians quote these words without considering their real meaning. John Winthrop and the Puritans of his day would anathematize the very idea that any truth can be “self-evident.” To Winthrop, the only source of truth was the revealed Word of God.
Governor Winthrop would also protest the 1776 definition of the purpose of government. The Declaration of Independence states “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Again, many Christians quote these words blindly. Did God really ordain government for the purpose of securing human rights? Winthrop would maintain the Biblical view of the Reformers that governments were instituted by God for the punishment of evil and for the enforcement of the law of God.
Winthrop’s definition of liberty was very different from that held by modern Americans. True liberty is found only in dependence upon the Word of God. David says in Psalm 119:45, “And I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts.” The Hebrew word for precepts here specifies the detailed Mosaic case laws of the Old Testament. Modern Christianity has repudiated these laws as the standard for truth.
In the 150 years that passed between 1630 and 1776, the Law of God was slowly and gradually abandoned. Rationalism replaced revelation. Human reason replaced divine law. We are still living with the devastating consequences of human autonomy.
Governor John Winthrop issued this warning, contrasting “natural liberty” and “lawful liberty.
I observe a great mistake in the country about liberty. The first kind of liberty, natural liberty, is common to man with beasts. By this, man as he stands in relation to man simply, hath liberty to do what he list. It is a liberty to do evil as well as good. This liberty is incompatible and inconsistent with authority, and cannot endure the least restraint. The exercise of this liberty makes men grow more evil, and in time to be worse than brute beasts . . . If you stand for your own natural corrupt liberties, and will do what is good in your own eyes, you will murmur and oppose. But if you will be satisfied to enjoy such civil and lawful liberties, such as Christ allows you, then will you cheerfully submit unto that authority which is set over you in all the administrations of it for your good, wherein if we fail at any time, we hope we shall be willing, by God’s assistance, to hearken to good advice from any of you, or in any other way of God. So shall your liberties be preserved in upholding the honor and power of authority amongst you.
These words of Winthrop uphold the Biblical view that “lawful liberty” is found only in obedience to the will of God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. It is not based upon rights, but rather upon duty. When this is understood, all questions of morality become crystal clear. Christians should not oppose abortion because babies have a “right to life.” Rather, we oppose abortion because God says, “Thou shalt not kill.” When we argue human rights, our enemies will take our own rationalistic argument and use it against us, demanding a right to worship as they please, a right to engage in immorality, and a right to speak and live as they choose. Winthrop again warns:
Beloved, there is now set before us life and good, 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 our God may bless us in the land where we go to possess it.
Winthrop’s warning still stands true. If we as Christians will ever know again true liberty, we must know it in the terms of obedience to the Word of God. We must, with Governor John Winthrop, declare our dependence upon Divine Revelation.
The Journal of John Winthrop
A Theological Interpretation of American History by C. Gregg Singer, published by Solid Ground Christian Books
The Guise of Every Graceless Heart by Terrill Elniff, distributed by the Chalcedon Foundation