Thinking About the Poor   /   Fall 2014   /    Thinking About The Poor

Continental Divide

John Marsh

Tenement Flats (Family Flats) (detail), c. 1934, by Millard Sheets (1907–1989); Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., Art Resource.

When it comes to poverty, we usually settle on one account of its causes and call it a day. Something about poverty seems to elicit reductive thinking.

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,”11xJohn Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ed. Nina Baym (New York, NY: Norton, 1998), 225. 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.”22xIbid., 214−15. 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.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).