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John Winthrop and Thomas Paine each hold remarkable places in early American history and strived to establish liberty in the British colonies. John Winthrop, dying nearly a century before Paine’s birth, led the Reformed Protestants to the New World, pursuing an “errand in the wilderness.” He was focused on religious liberty. In A Model of Christian Charity, a definitive moral code was laid out for how the colonists would remain faithful to God through living in tight-knit community. On the other hand, Thomas Paine, while descending from a British Quaker family, was secretly a deist. Although he was not Christian like his readers, he used the Bible when needed for his advantage in trying to galvanize them into a full revolution against the British crown. In Common Sense, Paine quotes portions of the Old Testament in order to call the citizens of the colonies to action. John Winthrop and Thomas Paine both use the Bible to argue their ideas of liberty, but Winthrop cites the Bible much more frequently than Paine.
John Winthrop and his colony came to America to practice Reformed Protestantism in freedom from oppression by the king. This group already knew each other well from practicing in England, and everyone was in agreement about what their mission was in the colony. They were to be a “city on a hill,” a community functioning solely to properly worship and love God, standing as an example to all. Winthrop’s thesis for A Model of Christian Charity is God allows some to be rich and powerful, but others poor and submissive. He begins the essay by outlining three reasons for this: firstly, that he is “delighted to show forth the glory of his wisdom in the variety and difference of the creatures”, secondly, to “have the more occasion to manifest the work of his Spirit” to balance the classes, and finally, to form community in that “every man might have need of others, and from hence they might all be knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.” In the third reason, he begins quotations from scripture. Winthrop claims that man is only made wealthy for the glory of God and common good, and should share the gifts He has given them. He quotes the Book of Ezekiel, writing, “God still reserves the property of these gifts to himself.” He also stresses the necessity of lending to one’s neighbor, citing the Book of Deuteronomy 15:7, “if he hath present means of repaying thee, thou art to look at him not as an act of mercy, but by way of Commerce, wherein thou art to walk by the rule of justice; but if his means of repaying thee be only probable or possible, then he is an object of thy mercy.” Winthrop is making a point that by way of this type of community, one is more formed in love for God in the development of virtue. Winthrop goes on with a few questions and answers à la Summa Theologica, citing the Bible throughout. He begins to focus on love and the community as the body of Christ. He writes, “Love is the bond of perfection… Christ and His Church make one body… Eph. 4:16: Christ, by whom all the body being knit together by every joint… the ligaments hereof being Christ… Christ is love, 1 John 4:8”. What he is pointing out to his people is that the love of Christ bonds them all together as many parts of one functioning body, that which is their colony; they must live in union with one another in order for their lives to “do more service to the Lord; the comfort and increase of the body of Christ.” Winthrop as a Puritan believes humanity is intrinsically depraved, and very seriously expresses that if the people do not follow this covenant outlined, they will be doomed: “if we shall neglect the observation of these articles… the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us.” Winthrop ends his essay, exhorting the people, “Therefore let us choose life.” Ultimately, he is extremely motivated to develop a colony with full fidelity to God, and his power to help him persuade his people to obey the colony’s Commission is religion mixed with an oppressive dose of fear.
Thomas Paine has a different outlook on use of scripture within his writings. He focuses more so on philosophy, rather than religion and fear, to convince the colonists to strive for liberty from the British crown. As mentioned earlier, Paine was a different kind of man from most colonists – secretly a non-Christian, a deist. But, he knew his audience would be more motivated by sprinkling in portions of scripture, so he made sure to do so. His audience was different from Winthrop’s in that multiple denominations of Christianity were within the Thirteen Colonies at this time, but he knew by quoting scripture he could unite the colonists under their common devotion to Christ. Paine begins Common Sense with a deep dive into the “origin and rise of government.” He writes it is “a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz., freedom and security.” Paine and Winthrop actually find common ground here in that they both realize human beings are imperfect. Paine recognizes that government must be necessary due to this fact, but also emphasizes that governments can too be corrupt, particularly that of the crown of England, which he sees as too complex. Paine begins referencing the Bible in the section “Of Monarchy” with some strong language. He sensationally writes of the evils of government by monarchy, “Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom. It was the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set foot for the promotion of idolatry.” He explains further that monarchy breaches the power of heaven on the people. Paine delves into the story of Samuel for example. He, albeit sensationally, retells the story of Samuel trying to reason with his people that they did not need a human king, who would steal their land and make slaves of the people – ultimately stealing their liberty. And, if they went through with a human king, God would not hear their cries, as they had rejected Him by choosing another to rule over them. This passage was wittingly used, because Paine knew it could drive fear into people that by not joining the revolution they were offending God, and also to show them that their liberties would continue to be plundered and get worse unless they rose up for the revolution. After his enhanced retelling of Old Testament stories, he begins impassionate anti-British sentiments, ranging from the colonists’ descending from English families meaning nothing, to no advantage being given unto the colonists from them, to even the distance between the lands, declaring it “is a strong and natural proof, that the authority of the one, over the other, was never the design of Heaven.” He only cites God when he wants to add strength behind his words, as he knows his readers will cleave to it – particularly in his conclusion. In concluding his essay, he writes that God placed the unforgiving feelings against Britain in the colonists’ hearts, as “the guardians of his image,” and these feelings “provoke us into justice.” Reading between the lines of the whole essay, one can figure he is not Christian through his method of applying the Bible and God within the essay. His argument was not solely based on those but rather mainly on political philosophy with God added in when he deemed it helpful – and because he knew the colonists would be more receptive to that rather than an essay with no mention of God as the driving force behind why the revolution should take place.
Overall, both John Winthrop and Thomas Paine have the same general purpose to their essays and to using the Bible in them – they want to rouse people into acting a certain way to lead to their ideals of liberty. Winthrop focuses on religious liberty by having his colony behave within a strict code of conduct according to Puritanism, and by using the Bible and faith as a source, which his audience shares a common strong devotion to as the sole source of truth. Paine focuses on political liberty from Great Britain in urging those across the colonies to spring into action against it by expressing his political theories with only having the Bible added in when he needed extra motivation for and strength behind his claims, but mostly focusing on the issue in a secular light. Both men were focused on what they thought was the highest good, and used the Bible in different fashions to convince people to agree with that highest good.
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