Recent generations of Americans are becoming accustomed to hearing their nation referred to as a”City on a Hill,” a phrase which generally means that it is, or could be, even a moral exemplar. At a 1961 address to the General Court of Massachusetts, President Kennedy introduced contemporary political discourse into the word from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14). Google’s Ngram Viewer demonstrates the proliferation of this phrase after President Reagan famously used it to the eve of his election in 1980 and closed out his two-term presidency with it in 1989. President Barack Obama set up the phrase, as have many other politicians in both major parties.
Our recent national self-examination, however, suggests that the cover of the mountain has become more of a dream than an accomplishment. Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s dynamic”The Hill We Climb,” for example, read in the inauguration of President Biden, articulated America’s moral challenges and returned rather to a more aspirational verse in Western political theology: Micah 4:4, the expectation which everyone could someday”sit under his own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.”
They found this scripture not just for its own sake, but to recall its historic usage in a sermon from John Winthrop. Even the sermon, and also its role in American politics, has been the subject of three revisionist studies. In 2012, Hillsdale historian Richard Gamble questioned America’s”redeemer fantasy” and cautioned against enthusiastic civil beliefs. In 2018, Princeton historian Daniel Rodgers also challenged the creation of”historic myth” and recounted Americans’ wrestling with existential questions of fate and morality. Winthrop’s sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, gained attention not only due to its historicity, but in an effort to ask questions regarding the nation .
Why all the fuss of Winthrop’s sermon, especially given the wealth of sermons at Puritan New England? If you were to analyze the history or literature curricula in secondary and college instruction, as an example, the solution is obvious: Winthrop’s sermon is frequently cast as a foundation text to America, among its oldest statements of purpose and identity. It’s like the Declaration of Independence, but in the Start of the nation’s Table of Contents. Some have presupposed a direct field of importance –with Winthrop laying a foundation on which Jefferson, Madison, and subsequent statesmen constructed.
This is where the historic”Gotcha” starts. The sermon was missing for two decades after its assumed delivery. It therefore could not have affected the Founders, or even the early republic. And since the writer of City on a Hill, Abram Van Engen, is fond of pointing out, it is suspicious that Winthrop’s Model affected anybody at all–such as the Puritans! Van Engen, like Gamble and Rodgers, demonstrates that the sermon only cannot be found where you might expect to find it in the historic American canon. Even after it was found, and finally released in 1838, no one seemed to care much about it–or at least no more than the remaining sermons produced in New England over two decades. Even more surprising, no one cared much about the phrase”City on a Hill” till after World War II. Even Reagan’s usage suggested just how much Winthrop had become a convenient trope rather than a real historical fascination. Reagan called him a”Pilgrim.” But maybe Reagan did not have to understand a Pilgrim from a Puritan since, after all, he was interested in summoning a highly effective national self-understanding of American exceptionalism.
Contrary to Gamble or Rodgers, who are far more enthusiastic about taking exception with that exceptionalism, Van Engen is considering tracing its lineage. Van Engen begins the substantial part of his debate from the historic archives that allowed Winthrop’s recovery and retained so much early American history from being lost eternally. He recounts how archival collections were created, often against all odds, thanks to the founders who built and stocked these associations to enable particular requirements of American fate.
Willard’s founding narrative of America marginalized everyone but New Englanders.After setting themselves at the 1820s, historic societies accumulated the documents now taken for granted by scholars. Protestantism is relevant here, insofar as these pioneers like Jeremy Belknap or Ebenezer Hazard felt the call of God for their labors. Not only did they think historical scholarship a vocation, the past could be prologue when Americans heard of their ancestors’ love of liberty and set up that the case studies of history for their joy.
New England because America
Published collections of manuscripts and early printed stuff, followed by commentaries, fought at first to pay for themselves but finally became rather popular. By the 1820s, historic works accounted for more than 85% of best sellers. Americans were shortly devouring stuff about their own past. The most important Americans in this narrative were, needless to say, New Englanders–a motif that continues now. American Indians, Virginians, Dutch, Spaniards became”problems, not even participants” in Western history. There were lots of reasons for focusing on New England, but the most noticeable one was that just New England appeared to offer America a very clear origin stage. This meant decreasing, or even erasing, a great deal of history. Tocqueville, as an example, took Harvard historian Jared Sparks’s theory of origins, combined it with the Puritan hagiography he found in colleges across America for his accounts of America’s origin.
Willard’s founding narrative of America marginalized everyone but New Englanders. Employing a generally nice turn of phrase, Van Engen describes Willard’s function to imply that anybody else”may find America, but they did not found it.” The pious reasons of Puritans, and progressively”Pilgrims, were elevated above the allegedly avaricious motives of several other American settlers. Daniel Webster and many the others solidified the legend of the Pilgrims from the 1820 bicentennial of the Plymouth Rock landing. The striking part about this movement to a New England founding of America, nevertheless ubiquitous from the thinking of scholars and laymen, was , since Van Engen clarifies it,”Before 1820, both Pilgrims and Puritans were largely a regional affair.”
Not everyone joined the New England fan club. Many historians praised their Calvinist forebears, but novelists like Nathaniel Hawthorne criticized them. Critics like Methodist minister William Apess encouraged Americans to break from the past and rebuke it precisely because these very first New Englanders were not seeds of liberty, but weeds who choked off freedom. Such criticism has been carried forward into academic history by Vernon Louis Parrington and into popular journals by H.L. Mencken. James Savage, an antiquarian’s antiquarian, was not just scrupulous in his research of older files, but scrupulous in his criticisms of Puritans. All, that is, except one: John Winthrop.
Though this historiographical war has been raging, Winthrop’s Model sermon remained unknown until it was published in 1838. Its accompanying introduction by Savage leveraged the sermon to promote courageous American growth. Community trumped liberty, Savage asserted. Greatness of spirit trumped greatness of material acquisition. Still, no one in the time thought of this Model as a founding document, such as the New York Historical Society who acquired it from a descendant of Winthrop now living in New York. Even Savage did not reflect on its own publication as a portion of his life accomplishments. Van Engen writes,”During the first hundred decades of this sermon’s lifetime as a public and printed text, A Model of Christian Charity wasn’t related to the significance of America and never situated as the origin of the nation.” If politicians and scholars knew it existed, they did not care.
It was shorter and more readily put at one end of a direct line via other constitutional papers and, finally, into the Constitution itself. If the Model was contained in early anthologies, it was edited; those edits showed more about the editors compared to about Winthrop. Even Charles Beard’s Progressive historiography could not find something to leverage in Winthrop’s warning against riches, however much Max Weber’s faulty reading of Calvinism had triumphed creating Puritans the founders of national riches and power.
Perry Miller’s Puritans
This attracts Van Engen into Harvard intellectual historian Perry Miller, the scholar most responsible for sustaining real fascination with (and respect for) that the Puritans much in the wake of criticisms found in the nineteenth century. In a collection of chapters which make one wish Van Engen would compose a biography of Miller, Van Engen writes up to Miller the guy as he does on his responsibility to situating that the Puritans in contemporary American understanding. Miller lived long enough to listen to President Kennedy summon Winthrop, and Kennedy’s assassination three decades later probably led to Miller’s own untimely departure.
Through his influence in history and literature, Miller estimated that Puritanism could turn into the American frame of mind. Miller’s missionary zeal was not what one might suppose; he was not evangelizing for Puritan piety. “Grace” was nothing more than learning mid-twentieth century liberal pieties, and Miller hoped that schooling could enable a Puritan throw of mind that could save American community from American individualism. Puritanism was elevated by Miller above the paltry eyesight of the Pilgrims and also the”incoherent” eyesight of Virginians, for example.
American Puritanism, based on Miller, should elicit neither idle compliments nor idle criticism for its relationship to liberty. He considered that Puritans embodied a paradox that could fix some of America’s ethical struggles famously characterized by Life magazine Henry Luce (among several influential children of missionaries) on the eve of World War II. And though Miller eschewed imbuing that the Puritans with national moral significance ahead of his service in the war, he also changed his mind thereafter. Miller shortly shared the issue of influential Americans like Billy Graham that the country lacked a feeling of purpose. That feeling of purpose would just come, Miller thought, through the sort of self-criticism where Puritans excelled.
Van Engen’s study of Miller is filled with anecdotes from Miller’s pupils to make his purpose. Here I will add yet another from a fellow scholar of Puritanism, church historian John Gerstner. Later, Gerstner commented that the speaker did not emphasize enough redemption came only after good trial and hunting. Miller slammed his drink on the table and exclaimed,”That is correct, Gerstner, that’s ideal.” Miller, thinking in ethical or logical terms, considered that only when Americans gave up their economical elegance or easy-believing (i.e., their complacency) could they find their national calling. Winthrop’s Model, for Miller, might become a foundation document for this search.
Winthrop’s Model Now
This idea of this jeremiad much as a way of redemption, but a tool of rhetoric, has been advanced later by Sacvan Bercovitch, another mythical scholar of American Puritanism. Van Engen’s study of Bercovitch brings the book back into the question of this Model and the reason why it became so significant. So much as Van Engen is concerned, Bercovitch leveraged it via suspicious scholarship to advance much a normative vision of America, however a report on its political tropes.
He is rightly interested about matters like which Bible Winthrop employed for his text, and also the provenance of Winthrop’s sermon, for example. He does not get bogged down in theological concepts like the covenant or typology, however he does pertinently and prudently deploy theological backdrop where appropriate. He tersely makes the point that Winthrop had much better scripture for triumphalism. Simply speaking, it’s tough to see Winthrop to imply what twentieth-century Americans examine him to imply. Furthermore, differences between Catholics and Protestants had stark differences concerning what”City on a Hill” intended for the identity of this church, together with Catholics asserting a more triumphant function for its church and Protestants casting the church more as a”little flock.” Although Van Engen doesn’t say so, this debate about if the church is a ruler or even a remnant is arguably the most significant contemporary debate in contemporary American Protestantism.
And though Van Engen’s novel is frequently about historiography and the goal of history, subjects that threaten to become rather dry, he avoids the heavy weeds and dull minutiae. Concerning the obvious controversies of this woke variety, Van Engen admits budding theories of supremacy in eighteenth century historiography, but he resists getting a dull scold of dead individuals. He’s something interesting, even brand new, to mention not only about one familiar thing, but about many. His argumentation is eloquent, not driven, along with the story he tells is fascinating. City on a Hill must inspire us to rethink what we think we understand about both history and historians.