Recent generations of Americans are becoming accustomed to hearing the country referred to as a”City on a Hill,” a term which usually means that it is, or could be, a moral exemplar. In 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 demonstrates the proliferation of this phrase after President Reagan famously used it to the eve of his election in 1980 and subsequently closed out his two-term presidency using it in 1989. President Barack Obama deployed the term, as have many other politicians in both major parties.
Our recent nationwide self-examination, nevertheless, suggests that the cover of the mountain has become more of an ambition than an achievement. Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s dynamic”The Hill We all” for instance, read in the inauguration of President Biden, articulated America’s ethical struggles and returned instead to a more aspirational verse in American political theology: Micah 4:4, the hope which everyone could someday”sit under their vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.”
Whatever the”City on a Hill” isalso, the term was not discovered by Kennedy or Reagan, obviously. They discovered this scripture not only for its own sake, but to recall its historic usage in a sermon by John Winthrop. Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, allegedly given the sermon aboard the Arabella before the Puritan arrival in 1630. The sermon, and its role in American politics, has become the topic of three revisionist research studies. In 2012, Hillsdale historian Richard Gamble questioned America’s”redeemer myth” and warned against excited civil religion. Winthrop’s sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, gained attention not simply due to its historicity, but in an effort to ask questions about the nation itself.
Why all the fuss about Winthrop’s sermon, particularly given the wealth of sermons at Puritan New England? If one were to inspect the history or literature curricula in secondary and college instruction, as an instance, the answer is evident: Winthrop’s sermon is frequently cast as a founding text to America, one of its oldest statements of purpose and identity. It is like the Declaration of Independencebut in the beginning of the nation’s Table of Contents. Some even have presupposed a direct line of importance –with Winthrop putting a base on which Jefferson, Madison, and following statesmen built.
This is where the historic”Gotcha” starts. The sermon was missing for two decades after its supposed delivery. It therefore could not have affected the Founders, or perhaps the ancient republic. Van Engen, like Gamble and Rodgers, demonstrates that the sermon simply cannot be found where one might expect to find it from the historic American canon. Even after it had been discovered, and eventually published in 1838, nobody seemed to care much about it–or at least no longer than the rest of the sermons produced in New England over two decades. Even more astonishing, nobody cared much about the term”City on a Hill” until after World War II. Even Reagan’s usage suggested how much Winthrop had turned into a convenient trope instead of a real historical fascination. Reagan called him a”Pilgrim.” But maybe Reagan did not have to know a Pilgrim out of a Puritan because, after all, he had been more interested in summoning a highly effective national self-understanding of American exceptionalism.
Contrary to 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 portion of his debate from the historic archives that allowed Winthrop’s retrieval and kept so much ancient American history by being lost eternally. He cautioned how archival collections were created, often against all odds, due to the creators who built and hauled these institutions to enable particular interpretations of American destiny.
Willard’s heritage tale of America marginalized everyone but New Englanders.After setting themselves at the 1820s, historic societies gathered up the documents currently taken for granted by scholars. Protestantism is relevant again insofar as these leaders like Jeremy Belknap or Ebenezer Hazard felt the call of God to their labors. Not only did they believe ancient scholarship a vocation, the past …