Given its links to Massachusetts, it may come as a surprise to many that the earliest surviving text of “Christian Charitie. A Modell hereof” (more commonly called “A Model of Christian Charity”) resides in New York. A lay sermon attributed to the Puritan John Winthrop, the once unheralded manuscript came to the New-York Historical Society from Francis Bayard Winthrop, a descendant of the author, in 1809. Nearly three decades later the Massachusetts Historical Society published it for the first time in 1838. (Click here to view the digitized original, and click here for a transcription of the text.)
The manuscript’s stature has grown exponentially since its 1809 emergence, principally through its biblical reference from Matthew 5:14 “that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill.” Closely associated with this ascent into the canon of foundational American texts is the ongoing misuse of that quote as an embryonic statement of American exceptionalism. In contrast, Winthrop was merely admonishing his fellow Puritans that failure would be apparent to all, i.e., “the eies of all people.”
This accrued significance and the manuscript’s murky origins continue to feed scholarly interest. While the body of the sermon itself is consistent with a 17th century document, nowhere does it name an author, or the circumstances of its writing. Those details are recorded on a cover page in a hand and ink that differ markedly from the rest of the manuscript. Yet this cover page forms much of our understanding of the sermon, a fact that has left many scholars puzzling over whether it is, indeed, what the cover page purports it to be. While those debates continue to evolve, we’re instead going to focus on a facet of the manuscript that has only just been noted (as far as we know).
As it happens, the observation was a by-product of historian Daniel Rodgers’ research into the the manuscript’s extraordinary legacy leading to his newly released book As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon. This appears in the line “that men shall say of succeeding plantations; the lord make it like that of New England” which immediately precedes “citty upon a hill.” “New England” is conspicuous in the original manuscript, written inelegantly and in a different hand. The ink itself is unusually heavy, and closer examination shows that it conceals another word. The upper loop of the “h” in the line below also bears evidence of an attempt to erase the underlying ink. (This isn’t especially noteworthy since, although we think of ink as being fairly permanent, there would have been many recipes in the past for removing iron gall ink.)
It turns out that the remnants spell out a barely discernible “Massachusetts.” Of course, this is absent in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s publication that forms the basis for practically all extant versions of the text. Consequently, no one seems to have ever considered this rather noticeable anomaly.
So we come to the inevitable question: why did someone replace Massachusetts with New England?
One answer may be rooted in a simple observation: Massachusetts, or more formally the Massachusetts Bay Colony, represents a smaller geographic area than “New England,” with the latter encompassing the much larger area of British colonial settlement (today roughly the northeastern United States). This relationship would suggest that the substitution was intentionally meant to broaden the geographic scope of the sermon, with the practical implication perhaps being a corresponding increase in the document’s overall relevance. This is of interest when considered in relation to the manuscript’s rise initiated by its reemergence in the early nineteenth century, and existing scholarship may help explain the historical significance of this observation.
M. J. Bowden’s 1992 article “Invented Tradition and the Academic Convention in Geographical Thought about New England” takes on whole swaths of accepted truths of New England’s history. Bowden examines the misinterpretation of evidence, as well as active construction of a past that, in many respects, never existed quite as convention holds. Crucially, he points out that that since early New England colonists originated from different parts of England, their settlements created a number of sub-cultural regions “all in some way antipathetic to Puritan Massachusetts Bay.” He continues: “By the middle of the nineteenth century this regional diversity was swept from view in an erasure of collective memory spearheaded by the literary elite of the Boston region.” Bowden posits an emerging predestination narrative for American history, and “Once Americans accepted this notion of New England’s primacy in America, other colonies/regions found it expedient to coat-tail on Massachusetts-Bay’s legend.” In effect, this “homogenization” created what he describes as “the generalized New Englander.” This identity masked the granular demographics of colonial New England while artificially broadening the Massachusetts Bay’s history, all culminating in a mythologized American narrative intimately linked to that region.
With the implication of a conscious broadening of the manuscript’s relevance geographically, the correction fits well with Bowden’s article. It also gives potential insight onto the manuscript’s rise in the American consciousness after having been virtually unheard of between shortly after its creation and its 1809 donation. In that sense, aided by substituting New England for Massachusetts, the manuscript could stand in as a quasi-founding document, and device for promoting Bowden’s theorized idealization of New England.
Admittedly this is almost certainly a much-simplified view of a far more involved story. One only has to look as far as 1702 and Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana to see New England openly emphasized over Massachusetts. In his “Life of John Winthrop” Mather reveals Winthrop as “the father of New-England” while likening him to an American Nehemiah, the biblical rebuilder of Jerusalem.
Ultimately, this is a guess at what such a correction could mean. Perhaps most glaringly, this particular anomaly lacks a perpetrator, and so far this remains one of many elusive details of the manuscript. Still, the mere recognition of this as potentially meaningful may be another incremental step toward a fuller understanding of the work and its context. If nothing else, it shows the importance of original sources, and the potential limitations of printed texts that fail to record such anomalies.
This post is by Edward O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts.