Recent generations of Americans are becoming accustomed to hearing their country known as a”City on a Hill,” a phrase which normally suggests that it is, or could be, a moral exemplar. At a 1961 address to the General Court of Massachusetts, President Kennedy introduced contemporary political discourse into the term from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14). Google’s Ngram Viewer shows the proliferation of this phrase after President Reagan famously found it to the eve of his election in 1980 and subsequently closed out his two-term presidency using it in 1989. President Barack Obama set up the phrase, as have a number of other politicians in both significant parties.
Our current nationwide self-examination, however, indicates that the top of the hill has become more of an ambition than an achievement. Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s lively”The Hill We Climb,” for example, 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 everyone could someday”sit under his own vine and fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”
Whatever the”City on a Hill” is, the phrase was not discovered by Kennedy or Reagan, naturally. They deployed this scripture not only for its own sake, but to remember its historic use in a sermon from John Winthrop. Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, allegedly presented the sermon aboard the Arabella before the Puritan arrival in 1630. The sermon, and its role in American politics, has long ever become the topic of three revisionist studies. In 2012, Hillsdale historian Richard Gamble contested America’s”redeemer fantasy” and cautioned against excited civil religion. In 2018, Princeton historian Daniel Rodgers likewise challenged the invention of”historic myth” and recounted Americans’ wrestling with existential concerns of fate and morality. Winthrop’s sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, gained attention not simply because of its historicity, but as an occasion to ask questions about the nation .
Why all the fuss concerning Winthrop’s sermon, particularly given the wealth of sermons in Puritan New England? If you were to inspect the literature or history curricula in secondary and college instruction, by way of example, the answer is evident: Winthrop’s sermon is frequently cast as a foundation text to America, one of its earliest statements of identity and purpose. It is like the Declaration of Independencebut at the beginning of the nation’s Table of Contents. Some have presupposed a direct line of importance –with Winthrop putting a base on which Jefferson, Madison, and subsequent statesmen constructed.
This is the place where the historic”Gotcha” starts. The sermon was lost for two decades after its assumed delivery. It therefore could not have affected the Founders, or even the ancient republic. Van Engen, like Gamble and Rodgers, shows that the sermon simply cannot be found where you would expect to find it in the historic American canon. Even once it was discovered, and eventually published in 1838, nobody seemed to care about itor at least no more than the remaining sermons produced in New England over two decades. Even more astonishing, nobody cared about the phrase”City on a Hill” until after World War II. Even Reagan’s use implied how much Winthrop had become a suitable trope instead of a genuine historical curiosity. Reagan called him a”Pilgrim.” But perhaps Reagan didn’t have to understand a Pilgrim out of a Puritan since, after all, he was more interested in summoning a powerful national self-understanding of American exceptionalism.
Unlike 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 significant portion of his argument in the historic archives that allowed Winthrop’s retrieval and kept so much ancient American history from being lost eternally. He recounts how archival collections came into existence, often against all odds, thanks to the creators who built and hauled these institutions to empower particular interpretations of American fate.
Willard’s founding narrative of America marginalized everyone but New Englanders.After setting themselves in the 1820s, historic societies accumulated the records now taken for granted by scholars. Protestantism is relevant again here, insofar as these leaders like Jeremy Belknap or Ebenezer Hazard believed the call of God to their labors. Not only did they think ancient scholarship a vocation, the past might be prologue if Americans learned of their ancestors’ love of freedom and set up the case studies of history for their own happiness.
New England because America
Released collections of manuscripts and early printed materials, followed by commentaries, struggled at first to cover for themselves but eventually became quite popular. By the 1820s, historic works accounted for at least 85 percent of greatest sellers. Americans were shortly devouring materials about their past. The most significant Americans in this story were, naturally, New Englanders–a theme that continues now. There were lots of reasons for focusing on New England, however, the most obvious one was that only New England seemed to offer America a clear origin point. This meant minimizing, or even erasing, a great deal of history. Tocqueville, by way of example, took Harvard historian Jared Sparks’s notion of origins, combined it with all the Puritan hagiography he found in schools across America because of his accounts of America’s origin. Textbooks written by Emma Willard launched a revolution in pedagogy and sold over a million copies, each promoting the notion of’New England as America.’
Willard’s founding narrative of America marginalized everyone but New Englanders. Utilizing a typically fine turn of phrase, Van Engen explains Willard’s work to mean that anybody else”may find America, but they didn’t discovered it.” The pious motives of Puritans, and more”Pilgrims, were elevated above the allegedly avaricious motives of other American lands. Daniel Webster and the others solidified the legend of the Pilgrims from the 1820 bicentennial of their Plymouth Rock landing. The striking factor about this move to a New England founding of America, still ubiquitous from the thinking of scholars and laymen, was , since Van Engen explains it,”Prior to 1820, Pilgrims and Puritans were mostly a regional affair.”
Not everyone connected the New England fan club. Many historians commended their own Calvinist forebears, however, novelists such as Nathaniel Hawthorne criticized them. Critics such as Methodist minister William Apess encouraged Americans to separate out of the past and rebuke it because these first New Englanders weren’t seeds of liberty, but weeds who choked off freedom. Such criticism was carried forwards into academic intellectual history by Vernon Louis Parrington and to more popular journals by H.L. Mencken. James Savage, an antiquarian’s antiquarian, was not just scrupulous in his study of older files, but meticulous in his criticisms of Puritans.
Though this historiographical war was raging, Winthrop’s Model sermon remained unknown until it was printed in 1838. Its accompanying debut by Savage leveraged the sermon to promote courageous American growth. Community trumped liberty, Savage claimed. Greatness of soul trumped greatness of material acquisition. However, nobody at the time notion of this Model as a founding document, including the New York Historical Society who obtained it from a descendant of Winthrop now living in New York. Even Savage didn’t reflect on its own novel as one of his lifetime achievements. Van Engen writes,”During the first hundred years of this sermon’s lifetime as a printed and public text, ” A Model of Christian Charity was never related to the significance of America and never situated as the origin of the nation.” If scholars and politicians knew it existed, they didn’t care.
It was shorter and more readily put at one end of a direct line via other constitutional papers and, eventually, into the Constitution itself. If the Model was contained in ancient anthologies, it was edited; these 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 understanding of Calvinism had succeeded in making Puritans the creators of national riches and power.
Perry Miller’s Puritans
This attracts Van Engen into Harvard intellectual historian Perry Miller, the scholar most accountable for sustaining genuine curiosity about (and respect for) the Puritans even in the aftermath of criticisms found in the nineteenth century. In a series of chapters which make one wish Van Engen would compose a biography of Miller, Van Engen writes up to Miller the man as he does about his obligation to situating the Puritans in contemporary American understanding. Miller lived long enough to listen to President Kennedy summon Winthrop, also Kennedy’s assassination three years later probably contributed to Miller’s own untimely death.
During his influence in history and literature, Miller expected that Puritanism could grow to be the American frame of mind. Miller’s missionary zeal was not what one might suppose; he was not evangelizing to get Puritan piety. “Grace” was nothing more than learning mid-twentieth century liberal pieties, also Miller hoped that schooling could allow a Puritan cast of thoughts that would save American community out of American individualism. Puritanism was elevated by Miller over the paltry vision of the Pilgrims and also the”incoherent” eyesight of Virginians, for example.
American Puritanism, according to Miller, should evoke neither idle compliments nor idle criticism because of its relationship to liberty. He believed that Puritans embodied a paradox that could fix some of America’s ethical struggles famously characterized by Life magazine Henry Luce (one of many influential kids of missionaries) on the eve of World War II. And though Miller eschewed imbuing the Puritans with national moral importance before his support in the war, then he also changed his mind thereafter. Miller shortly shared the issue of powerful Americans such as Billy Graham that the state lacked a feeling of purpose. That feeling of purpose could only encounter, Miller believed, through the sort of self-criticism where Puritans excelled.
Van Engen’s study of Miller is full of anecdotes by Miller’s pupils to make his point. Gerstner and Miller were both admirers of Jonathan Edwards, also Gerstner would tell the story of attending a lecture together with Miller. Later, Gerstner commented that the speaker didn’t emphasize enough how redemption came only after good trial and hunting. Miller, believing in moral or rational terms, believed that when Americans gave up their cheap elegance or easy-believing (i.e., their complacency) would they find their national calling. Winthrop’s Model, for Miller, can grow to be a foundation document for this particular search.
Winthrop’s Model Today
This notion of this jeremiad much as a way of salvation, but an instrument of rhetoric, was advanced after by Sacvan Bercovitch, another legendary scholar of American Puritanism. Van Engen’s study of Bercovitch brings the book back into the question of this Model and why it became so significant. So far as Van Engen is concerned, Bercovitch leveraged it via suspicious scholarship to progress much a normative vision of America, however, a report on its political tropes. Van Engen finishes with engaging commentary on contemporary politics, including the repeated use of”City on a Hill” to maintain the ethical high ground against Donald Trump.
He’s rightly interested in things like which Bible Winthrop employed for his text, and also the provenance of Winthrop’s sermon, for example. He doesn’t get bogged down in theological concepts like the covenant or typology, but he will pertinently and prudently deploy theological backdrop where appropriate. He tersely makes the point that Winthrop had better scripture for triumphalism. In short, it’s tough to see Winthrop to mean what twentieth-century Americans read him to mean. Although Van Engen doesn’t say this, the disagreement about if the church is still a ruler or a remnant is arguably the most crucial contemporary debate in contemporary American Protestantism.
And though Van Engen’s book is frequently around historiography and the aim of history, issues which threaten to become very ironic, he averts the deep weeds and tedious minutiae. Concerning the more obvious controversies of this woke variety, Van Engen admits budding theories of supremacy in eighteenth century historiography, however, he resists getting a boring scold of dead people. He has something interesting, even brand new, to mention not simply about one recognizable matter, but around many. His prose is engaging and filled with a number of fine turns of phrase. His argumentation is eloquent, not driven, and the story he tells is fascinating. City on a Hill must motivate us to rethink what we think we understand about both historians and history.