Puritanism as a Frame of Mind

Recent generations of Americans are becoming accustomed to hearing their country known as a”City on a Hill,” a phrase which generally suggests that it is, or could be, a moral exemplar. Google’s Ngram Viewer demonstrates the proliferation of the phrase following President Reagan famously used it on the eve of the election in 1980 and then closed out his two-term presidency on it in 1989. President Barack Obama deployed the phrase, as have a number of other politicians in both significant parties.
Our current national self-examination, nevertheless, indicates that the cover of the hill has become more of an ambition than an achievement. Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s lively”The Hill We Climb,” for instance, read at the inauguration of President Biden, articulated America’s ethical struggles and returned instead to a more aspirational poetry in Western political theology: Micah 4:4, ” the expectation which everybody could someday”sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”
No matter the”City on a Hill” is, the phrase wasn’t found by Kennedy or Reagan, of course. They found this scripture not only for its own sake, but to remember its historical usage in a sermon from John Winthrop. Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, supposedly delivered the sermon aboard the Arabella before the Puritan arrival in 1630. Even the sermon, and its role in American politics, has been the subject of three revisionist studies. In 2012, Hillsdale historian Richard Gamble contested America’s”redeemer myth” and cautioned against excited civil religion.
Much Ado About Winthrop
Why all the fuss about Winthrop’s sermon, particularly given the abundance of sermons in Puritan New England? If one were to analyze the literature or history curricula in secondary and college education, as an instance, the answer is obvious: Winthrop’s sermon is often cast as a foundation text to America, one of its earliest statements of identity and purpose. It’s like the Declaration of Independencebut at the beginning of the nation’s Table of Contents. Some even have presupposed a direct field of importance –with Winthrop laying a foundation on which Jefferson, Madison, and subsequent statesmen built.
This is the place where the historical”Gotcha” begins. The sermon was missing for two decades following its supposed delivery. It therefore couldn’t have influenced the Founders, or even the ancient republic. And as the writer of City on a Hill, Abram Van Engen, is fond of pointing out, it is suspicious that Winthrop’s Model influenced anybody at all–such as the Puritans! Van Engen, such as Gamble and Rodgers, demonstrates the sermon simply cannot be found where one might like to find it from the historical American canon. Even after it had been found, and finally published in 1838, no one seemed to care much about itor at least no longer than the remaining sermons made 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 implied how much Winthrop had turned into a convenient trope rather than a real historical curiosity. Reagan called him “Pilgrim.” But maybe Reagan did not have to know a Pilgrim out of a Puritan because, after all, he had been interested in summoning a potent national self-understanding of American exceptionalism.
Unlike Gamble or Rodgers, who are more enthusiastic about taking exception with that exceptionalism,” Van Engen is interested in tracing its lineage. Van Engen begins the substantial part of his argument from the historical archives that allowed Winthrop’s recovery and kept so much ancient American history from being lost forever. He recounts how archival collections came into existence, often against all odds, due to the creators that built and stocked these associations to enable particular requirements of American fate.
Willard’s founding tale of America marginalized everybody but New Englanders.After setting themselves in the 1820s, historical societies accumulated the documents now taken for granted by scholars. Protestantism is applicable here, insofar as these pioneers like Jeremy Belknap or Ebenezer Hazard felt the call of God for their labors. Not only did they believe historic scholarship a vocation, the past may be prologue when Americans learned of their ancestors’ love of liberty and deployed the case studies of history for their happiness.
New England because America
Published collections of manuscripts and early printed materials, followed by commentaries, struggled initially to pay for themselves but finally became rather common. By the 1820s, historical works accounted for at least 85% of best sellers. Americans were soon devouring materials about their past. The most crucial Americans in this story were, obviously, New Englanders–a theme that continues today. American Indians, Virginians, Dutch, Spaniards became”problems, not participants” in Western history. There were many reasons for focusing on New England, however, the most noticeable one was that only New England seemed to give America a clear source point. This meant decreasing, if not erasing, a great deal of American history. Tocqueville, as an instance, took Harvard historian Jared Sparks’s theory of roots, combined it with the Puritan hagiography he found in schools across America for his account of America’s origin. Textbooks authored by Emma Willard launched a revolution in pedagogy and sold over a million copies, every encouraging the idea of’New England as America.’
Willard’s founding tale of America marginalized everybody but New Englanders. Using a generally nice turn of phrase, Van Engen explains Willard’s job to mean that anybody else”might find America, but they did not seen it.” The pious reasons of Puritans, and progressively”Pilgrims, were raised above the allegedly avaricious motives of additional American lands. Daniel Webster and the others solidified the legend of the Pilgrims at the 1820 bicentennial of their Plymouth Rock landing. The striking part about this move to a New England founding of America, nevertheless ubiquitous at the thinking of scholars and laymen, was that, as Van Engen describes it,”Before 1820, both Pilgrims and Puritans were largely a regional affair.”
Not everybody joined the New England fan club. Many historians commended their own Calvinist forebears, however, novelists like Nathaniel Hawthorne criticized them. Critics like Methodist minister William Apess urged Americans to separate out of the past and rebuke it because these first New Englanders weren’t seeds of freedom, but weeds that choked off freedom. Such criticism was carried forwards into academic history by Vernon Louis Parrington and to popular journals by H.L. Mencken. James Savage, an antiquarian’s antiquarian, wasn’t just scrupulous in his analysis of old records, but scrupulous in his criticisms of Puritans. All, that is, except one: John Winthrop.
Though this historiographical war was excruciating, Winthrop’s Model sermon remained unknown until it had been published in 1838. Its accompanying debut by Savage leveraged the sermon to encourage courageous American expansion. Community trumped freedom, Savage argued. Greatness of spirit trumped greatness of substance acquisition. Still, no one at the time idea of the Model as a founding document, such as the New York Historical Society who obtained it from a descendant of Winthrop now living in New York. Even Savage did not reflect on its book because one of his lifetime accomplishments. Van Engen writes,”During the first hundred years of the sermon’s lifetime as a public and printed text, A Model of Christian Charity was never connected to the meaning of America rather than situated as the source of the nation.” If scholars and politicians knew that it existed, they did not care.
The rising star of the first half of the nineteenth century, according to Van Engen, was the Mayflower Compact. It was shorter and more readily placed at one end of a direct line through other constitutional documents and, finally, to the Constitution itself. In the event the Model was contained in ancient anthologies, it had been edited; these edits showed more about the editors than about Winthrop. Even Charles Beard’s Progressive historiography couldn’t locate something to leverage from Winthrop’s warning against wealth, however far Max Weber’s faulty understanding of Calvinism had triumphed making Puritans the creators of national wealth and power.
Perry Miller’s Puritans
This attracts Van Engen to Harvard intellectual historian Perry Miller, the scholar most responsible for sustaining real interest in (and admiration for) the Puritans also in the wake of criticisms found from the nineteenth century.” In a set of chapters which make one wish Van Engen would write a biography of Miller, Van Engen writes up to Miller the guy because he does about his obligation to situating the Puritans in contemporary American consciousness. Miller lived long enough to hear President Kennedy summon Winthrop, also Kennedy’s assassination three years later likely contributed to Miller’s own untimely passing.
Through his influence in literature and history, Miller expected that Puritanism could grow to be the American frame of mind. Miller’s missionary zeal wasn’t exactly what one might assume; he wasn’t evangelizing to get Puritan piety. Miller himself was an atheist, however Reinhold Niebuhr described him as a”thinking non-believer.” “Grace” was nothing more than learning mid-twentieth century liberal pieties, also Miller hoped that schooling could enable a Puritan cast of mind that could save American community out of American individualism. Puritanism was raised by Miller over the paltry vision of the Pilgrims or the”incoherent” eyesight of Virginians, for instance.
American Puritanism, according to Miller, should evoke neither idle praise nor idle criticism for its relationship to freedom. He believed Puritans embodied a paradox that could address some of America’s moral challenges famously distinguished by Life magazine’s Henry Luce (one of several influential children of missionaries) on the eve of the World War II. Although Miller eschewed imbuing the Puritans with national moral importance before his service in the war, he changed his mind thereafter. Miller soon shared the concern of influential Americans like Billy Graham the nation lacked a sense of purpose. That sense of purpose will only come, Miller thought, through the kind of self-criticism at which Puritans excelled.
Van Engen’s study of Miller is filled with anecdotes from Miller’s students to make his purpose. Gerstner and Miller were both admirers of Jonathan Edwards, also Gerstner would tell the story of attending a lecture together with Miller. Afterwards, Gerstner commented that the speaker did not emphasize enough redemption came only after great trial and searching. Miller slammed his drink on the table and exclaimed,”That is right, Gerstner, that is ideal.” Miller, thinking in rational provisions, believed that when Americans gave up their cheap elegance or easy-believing (i.e., their complacency) could they locate their national calling. Winthrop’s Model, for Miller, may turn into a foundation document for this search.
Winthrop’s Model Today
This idea of the jeremiad not so much as a means of salvation, but an instrument of rhetoric, was advanced after by Sacvan Bercovitch, another mythical scholar of American Puritanism. Van Engen’s study of Bercovitch brings the book back into the question of the Model and why it became so significant. So much as Van Engen is worried, Bercovitch leveraged it through suspicious scholarship to progress not so much a normative vision of America, but a study of its own political tropes. Van Engen concludes with participating commentary on modern politics, such as the continued use of”City on a Hill” to maintain the moral high ground against Donald Trump.
He’s rightly curious about matters such as which Bible Winthrop used for his text, or even the provenance of Winthrop’s sermon, for instance. He doesn’t get bogged down in theological concepts like the covenant or typology, however he does pertinently and sensibly deploy theological backdrop where appropriate. He tersely makes the point that Winthrop had much better scripture for triumphalism. Simply speaking, it’s hard to see Winthrop to mean exactly what twentieth-century Americans examine him to mean. Furthermore, differences between Catholics and Protestants had stark gaps regarding the”City on a Hill” meant for the individuality of the church, with Catholics asserting a triumphant function for its church and Protestants casting the church more as a”little flock.” (Roman Catholic JFK used the latter interpretation.) Although Van Engen doesn’t state this, the debate about if the church is still a ruler or some remnant is potentially the most critical modern debate in modern American Protestantism.
Although Van Engen’s publication is often around historiography and the objective of history, topics that threaten to become rather dry, he avoids the deep weeds and tedious minutiae. Concerning the more apparent controversies of the woke variety, Van Engen acknowledges budding theories of supremacy in nineteenth century historiography, but he resists becoming a boring scold of dead people.  He’s something interesting, even brand new, to say not only about one familiar thing, but around many. His prose is engaging and filled with a number of fine turns of phrase. His argumentation is eloquent, not driven, along with the story he tells is intriguing. City on a Hill needs to motivate us to rethink what we believe we know about both historians and history.