Changing Hierarchies in Early America

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Changing Hierarchies in Early America

In “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop proposes to change the existing social and economic hierarchy. The old world social hierarchy divided the classes based on wealth and property. The highest class consisted of the king and royal family, then followed by the bishops. Next on the hierarchy were the nobles, gentlemen, and the wealthy. And at the bottom of the hierarchy of course, were the poor. Because of this extreme division, there was no middle ground between the wealthy and poor. That is, the old world hierarchy allowed the rich to hold power over the poor. The poor would live and work on the land in exchange for protection from the wealthy. In other words, the poor had to work as servants or hired hands for the rich, and they had little or no property. Winthrop thought that if the old world social hierarchy was carried overseas, then it would divide people in America and prevent society from thriving. After all, they would be coming to a new land with an unfamiliar environment. Also, there would be unfamiliar people and diseases. In short, if everyone did not work together, then chances for survival was unlikely. But Winthrop knew he could not attack the social hierarchy directly. That is, he knew that if he tried to change the rules of society, people would object. Therefore, Winthrop takes a series of small steps that when viewed individually do not seem like he’s trying to end the hierarchy. But when he puts his ideas together, it becomes apparent how far he has altered and broken down the old world social and economic hierarchy.

Winthrop’s first action to undermine the old world social hierarchy is to begin by affirming it. By doing this, he sets his audience at ease, and slowly moves to his point. Winthrop begins “A Model of Christian Charity” first with agreeing with the social hierarchy that already exists. He says that each person should be happy where they are in society, because it was divine providence that has placed them. He says it is God’s will that there be social classes because God loves variety and diversity. Yet, God is watching to make sure that “the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor, nor the poor and despised rise up against their superiors and shake off their yoke” (198). Winthrop is introducing the concept of interdependence. He says that the success of the rich depend on how they treat, or mistreat, the poor. Likewise, the poor must respectfully perform their duties to take care of the rich. In short, interdependence affirmed that the rich and poor needed each other in order to survive. This shift of ideas allows the strictly divided levels on the social hierarchy to become less rigid. It would seem Winthrop is compressing, or even squishing, the clearly divided lines on the social hierarchy. In other words, Winthrop is saying “you can keep the social classes, but do not let the differences divide and separate you.”

Next, Winthrop insists that in addition to the interdependence, the social classes must aid each other in times of need. According to Winthrop “there are two rules whereby we are to walk one towards another: justice and mercy” (148). In fact, Winthrop claims that God wants people to show mercy to each other. He goes on to explain that mercy is “giving, lending and forgiving” (149) and the law or creed described by the “holy” gospel. Then Winthrop sets up a scenario to explain at times there may be cause for a rich man to show mercy to the poor and expect nothing in return. Similarly, the poor must not rise up and attempt to destroy the rich. If society practices mercy and forgiveness, then people can work together -- despite their position on the social hierarchy. Then, if people are coexisting, the separated levels become irrelevant and the social hierarchy ultimately collapses.

In his final move, Winthrop claims that God wants his people to not only show mercy to each other, but also to express love. He...
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