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A couple posts ago I reflected on the possibilities of a progressive civil religion. Last time, on key moments in the religious life of Franklin Roosevelt. Staying with that thread, today let’s look at one of the ur-texts of American identity.

I mean “A Model of Christian Charity,” the sermon John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay colony, delivered in 1629 on board the Arbella, flagship of the great Puritan migration to New England. The text summons America to be a “shining city on a hill,” the desire of all the nations, indeed, the apex of world history. Americans have held on to Winthrop’s idea ever since as the very definition of their mission and sure destiny.

Stirs–or troubles?–the soul, does it not, gentle reader?

Except that almost every assertion in the above paragraph is wrong or misleading, sometimes profoundly so. Identifying those errors, their consequences, and the ironic truth of the matter is the purpose of As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon, published last year by Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers.

Over the course of his career Rodgers has established himself as one of the country’s leading intellectual historians. His Age of Fracture (2011), for instance, came earlier and works better than Yuval Levin’s ballyhooed The Fractured Republic in analyzing the immediate past, while Rodgers’s Contested Truths: Keywords in American Politics Since Independence is a masterful survey of the whole course of American political thought. As a City on a Hill takes up the long view again to trace the surprising career of a tract that has become canonical in American education and politics, but only recently and quite mistakenly.

To begin with some incidental misconceptions. “A Model of Christian Charity” is not a sermon but a political tract redolent with biblical references that were Puritans’ stock in trade.

Winthrop did not deliver it on board the Arbella, often depicted as a tiny ship bobbing on the waters before the great unknown continent of promise. Rather, he presented various pieces of it in intense legal argumentation before the Massachusetts Bay Company’s investors back in England, as he pushed them to lower their demands for repayment in light of the Company’s financial woes.

The speech itself, it turns out, was likely never delivered in toto, and certainly not in America. In any case Winthrop’s original manuscript is lost. All that remains from the time is a hurried copy with editorial corrections. The script lay virtually unnoticed in Winthrop’s papers, passed down generation to generation by his heirs until it landed in a New York City library.

More substantively, Rodgers shows—contra later notions—how unexceptional at the time was the Puritans’ intent to establish a model Christian community in the Western Hemisphere. The Franciscans and Jesuits had been working to the same end, on a much larger scale, long before in Mexico and present-day Paraguay. William Penn would follow up Winthrop with a model of true religious freedom in Pennsylvania fifty years later.

Nor did Winthrop’s colony seem that important, even to Puritans back in England. When they came to power in the 1640s and ‘50s, they urged New Englanders to leave their barren clime for the recently conquered Jamaica, where they could do some good for the empire. In fact, if New England was “exceptional” as some Americans today insist their country is and must be, it was in its utter marginality to the centers of power and prosperity in the Western Hemisphere. The West Indies and Brazil were the crown jewels of everyone’s empires, because of their magic formula of plantation sugar production on the backs of enslaved labor.

Nor was Winthrop at all unusual in casting Massachusetts as a divinely elect land of world-historical significance. Britons had long harbored the same notion; so did France, Russia, Ireland, Mexico, and the Netherlands. Furthermore, Rodgers shows how few (outside of New England) are the references to biblically grounded divine election of Winthrop’s sort over the course of the next three centuries of American history. The Revolutionary Founders invoked an abstract “Providence” instead, and the insurgent nationalism of the newly independent nation used rhetoric common everywhere across the 19th century.

Abraham Lincoln was exceptional in his time for labeling the United States an “almost chosen” nation, but he used that phrase only once, Rodgers discovers, probably because he (Lincoln) saw slavery to have sealed that “almost” as a fateful “falling short,” not as a promising “nearly there.” In fact, the one instance where Winthrop’s conception came close to being duplicated was in the founding of Liberia as a site where freed American blacks were to be deported, so as to bring the gospel to Africa, to demonstrate Africans’ capacity for self-rule—and to keep American slavery from being undermined by the example of freed people at home.

So when and why did “city on a hill” come to define Americans’ self-conception? In two steps, Rodgers explains.

First, Winthrop and his text, and the entire Puritan enterprise, were resurrected by Perry Miller of Harvard’s English department beginning in the 1930s as being the only collective enterprise in American history equal to the challenges of the era: the Great Depression, fascist and Stalinist tyrannies, World Wars—all of them contradicting the optimistic assumptions of traditional liberalism. The Puritans knew they lived as fallible people in a world of evil and woe, and mid-century Americans had to learn how to do so as well. Only the atheist Miller believed that his contemporaries had to do so without God or traditional faith, hardly incidental ingredients in the Puritan stew! Miller made Puritans proto-existentialists fit for Sartre’s world.

Step 2 came in the 1980s of Ronald Reagan. Now Puritans morphed from Augustinians into Manichaeans, from people who believed that even saints are sinners, into Americans who knew they were pure and under siege by “evil empires,” re-cast by George W. Bush into “evildoers”—all such nemeses being somewhere “out there.” God had chosen Americans once for all; as Reagan said in his last speech, “Americans are the keepers of the miracle.” Full stop, no conditions, guaranteed.

In sharp contrast, Rodgers shows, Winthrop’s speech was steeped in anxiety over the genuine stakes at hand in the Puritan enterprise. Winthrop realized full well that his company might fail to uphold God’s covenant with them. The “eyes of all people” were upon them not in star-struck awe but in a well-founded skepticism. ‘There is an exam in this course,’ Winthrop was telling his virtual congregation, ‘and we jolly well might flunk.’ In fact, given the greed and disorder manifest in other English colonies to date, that was the likeliest outcome.

Above all on this score the politicians, talk-show yakkers, and academic anthologizers of the past generation have all ignored the largest section of Winthrop’s speech. That it concerned economics, and it called for both moral and governmental regulation of the economy to uphold the cause of the poor, to lessen inequality, to restrain covetousness. To me the most telling lines in “Christian Charity” come several lines before the city on a hill citation, lines in which Winthrop invokes Micah 6:8 and lays out this criterion for measuring fulfillment of the prophet’s injunction: “We must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities [luxuries] for the supply of others’ necessities.”

By that test the United States is grievously failing; it might indeed become “a byword through the world,” an object for ridicule, proof positive of hypocrisy and self-delusion. Partly for that reason Rodgers thinks the speech might fade from the canon. For Christians in America that might be something of a relief but it would also be a shame. “A Model of Christian Charity” holds up a standard against its own mis-appropriations, and for our own aspirations.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • JoAnne Wagner says:

    James, Thank you for the enlightenment. America’s hubris along with a willful ignorance may lead to its downfall. I hope not, but things aren’t looking very good right now.

  • Wow, thanks for this. This gives me new respect for Winthrop. In regard to your conclusion, should Christians in America do what you have done here — point back to the title of this piece and therefore to “charity” as Winthrop defined it, repenting of our failure to live out the model that he described? Without that, the city is not shining.

  • Jeff says:

    Thank you! Now another book to add to the tbr pile…

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